“Shoot! Fire the first shot of the race war, baby!”
The man smiles as he shouts. He wears a blue button-down, blue baseball helmet, and carries a Vanguard America-Texas flag. A small gas-mask hangs from his neck as he stands behind the metal cordon inside Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, VA. Other young white men surround him, holding various shields and plastic face masks with similar symbols representing alt-right and white nationalist groups. They stand behind him, their faces contorted into a singular steely gaze of hatred, looking out at those on the other side of the fence. It’s misplaced. It’s scary. This is the scene as about 500 white supremacists gather around the Lee Monument under a guise of solidarity for Unite the Right.
Originally printed in RVA #30 FALL 2017, you can check out the issue HERE or pick it up around Richmond now.
I see a young black woman standing on the side of the park, holding a cloth over her face. Her name is Reneigh Jenkins, an organizer with Refuse Fascism, a group that believes President Trump is a fascist. Her voice is hoarse from tear gas and cracks several times while she speaks.
“Are you okay?” I ask her. She puts her hand on my arm and guides me to the sidelines of the park, warning me of flying rocks and projectiles that angry young white men are flinging into the crowd. They cruise overhead, along with colored gas canisters. Some of the young white men swing bats and poles while others brandish pepper spray. “What happened?”
“I never thought in 2017, as a 25-year-old, that I would have to experience anything like this,” she says. “[Trump] is the reason why they feel so emboldened to run these streets and hit people over the head with bats. We’re here peacefully to say that racism is wrong and that it’s not acceptable. I know this country was founded on slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, but this is not acceptable.”
She walks away with her friends, all equally shocked by what they’re witnessing. They melt into the crowd of counter-protesters, almost 2000 of them, shouting and holding signs high above their heads; thinking, hoping, and praying these messages will somehow make a difference for these angry young men. These men who have become dangerously radicalized. These men who, convinced of their victimhood, have adopted white supremacy as a badge of pride and the mark of patriotism.
“Jews will not replace us!” they shout. “Blood and soil!”
Darting through the crowd, I notice a large skirmish across the perimeter fences the police set up to keep white supremacists and counter-protesters from physically confronting one another. Those fences have failed. Police line the fence and stand in formation as if preparing for a military operation, while armored vehicles and the Virginia National Guard awaited orders from the sidelines. As I draw closer, I suddenly realized I can’t breathe well. Tear gas burns and stings my airways as if I were swallowing thumbtacks of fire. People run from the area. I see that same young man holding the Vanguard America-Texas flag ram it into the forehead of a counter-protester. Blood runs down his face like water. More tear gas. More screaming.
As I struggle to breathe, a man pushes a water bottle into my hands and urges, “Put water on your shirt! You have to breathe through wet cloth!” I do as he says. When I turn back around to return the water, he’s gone. A medic treats the head wound on the young man. Police stand motionless.
Charlottesville is a small Southern city in Central Virginia, situated at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Historic Downtown Mall, stretching about a half mile, is its entire metropolitan area. The University of Virginia is nestled just to the west of the mall, giving Charlottesville some economic stimulation. The remainder of the city is really a town, in all its suburban, quiet glory. It’s the perfect place to raise your children, or to settle down once you’ve retired.
It’s also a place that’s steeped in history. People living outside of Charlottesville’s city center haven’t quite caught up, in that they still hold fast to old-fashioned, Southern perceptions. It’s an odd collision of old and new, conservative and liberal, intolerant and forgiving. Not exactly the place you’d go looking for a domestic terror attack… but they got one.
Of the several white nationalist rallies which occurred this past summer, Unite the Right on August 12 was the most violent. One of the white supremacists in attendance that day committed a domestic terror attack when he got in his car, sped down 4th Street, and drove into a group of counter-protesters, injuring 20 people and killing one woman, Heather Heyer.
Around Charlottesville, people scrambled to call friends and loved ones, hoping everyone was safe.
By comparison, the Ku Klux Klan rally in Charlottesville earlier in the summer was almost laughable. Around 50 old white men with antiquated racist ideas and costumes walked into Justice Park waving Confederate flags to protest the removal of the Stonewall Jackson monument. They made racial slurs about Jews and shouted that the white race is under attack in front of several African American police officers protecting them from about 1000 counter-protesters. They were an obsolete caricature of what they once represented. Klan members no longer hold clout or inspire fear; they’ve become old, tired bigots in clown hats.
The torch wielders, the re-invented skinheads, the young, modern Nazis and neo-Confederates are now the dangerous ones–born-again white nationalists who have inherited a false sense of displacement, who cling to outmoded hate and fling it like children playing with fireworks.
The road to the radical, alt-right violence as witnessed in Charlottesville begins with the poor white working class of America, a demographic of American life that many educated, progressive Americans won’t ever encounter and rarely think about. They occupy small town dive bars and rural landscapes, and are often swept under the rug as an unsavory part of American reality–people who never seem to matter until election time.
They are the people who have been defeated by the system, people who were raised in good Christian families who were taught to love God and Country unconditionally, people who are undereducated and have no idea they have as great a right to condemn the system as anyone else. They are victims of the same politics we all are, yet they have accepted their position in life as fate. A fate which, with the advent of the internet, younger generations have taken into their own hands, opening a chasm from white nationalism may emerge.
Later, in the home of Jason Lappa, a local Charlottesville photographer, my reporting team and I sit and wait as Lappa paces through the house, receiving call after call. Two of his friends have joined us in our reporting hideout, escaping the heat and madness of what Charlottesville has become. We munch on chips with our faces glued to Twitter, watching as more pictures and videos of the attack surface. Damani Harrison, a black Charlottesville resident, sits on the couch in disbelief.
“Did you see it happen?” I ask.
“No,” he replies. “I was there right after it happened. It was crazy.” He leaned back in the cool house, watching Facebook friend requests pile up as a result of using Facebook Live during the event. “Did you see what Trump said about it?”
“No,” I say. We sit and listen together. Harrison chuckles from his seat as Trump states that “both sides” were responsible for the violence. “We didn’t kill anyone.”
The night before August 12, hundreds of torch-wielding white supremacists marched through the UVA grounds to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, encircling the statue as their tiki torches lit the dark lawn, resembling Nazi rallies of the past.
“The torches are to commemorate the fallen dead of our European brothers and sisters–like Robert E. Lee, like Thomas Jefferson, like George Washington–who are under attack by these leftist cultural Marxists, who hate white people, who hate white people’s history, and want to blame them for things that happen in the past that every race on Earth did,” said Jason Kessler, a Unite the Right organizer, alt-right blogger, and conservative internet personality. “Right now we are in a civil rights struggle to save white people from ethnic cleansing, which is happening across the Western world.”
Kessler posted a video of himself at this event on his blog, “Real News with Jason Kessler,” in which he continues a narrative of white genocide, one seemingly endorsed by President Trump, and theorizes that white people are being “torn down and replaced” through current immigration policies. Rhetoric like his has spread across the far reaches of the internet through message forums like 4chan and Stormfront. It spreads to conservative news sites like Breitbart, pushing a seductive yet inaccurate account of the white struggle, what it means, and how it can be helped.
This internet recruitment effort has gained so much momentum, it outpaces that of the Islamic State (IS). A study conducted by George Washington University shows that expansion within white nationalist movements on Twitter has grown over 600 percent since 2012, grossly outperforming similar growth within IS groups on all social media platforms. According to a Pew Research study, there has only been a one percent increase in overall internet access between 2012 and 2016, meaning the change has occurred within the marketing and branding of white supremacy, not due to increased internet accessibility.
According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the unemployment rate for Americans under 25 is over twice the overall rate, coming in at a whopping 10.5 percent. Meanwhile, according to a study by the Urban Institute, over one-fourth of college graduates are overqualified for their jobs; as economic weakness from the 2008 recession lingers, finding a job at all continues to be a struggle. Middle-class college students who come from a line of middle class, hard-working family members are now unable to find jobs that fit the career for which they went to school.
Finishing his UVA degree in 2009, at the height of the recession, Kessler comes from this group of children who grew up in a comfortable lifestyle, only to discover they cannot find jobs to sustain that lifestyle after graduation. As Kessler and other underemployed, disillusioned white college grads watch the middle class disappear, well-spoken white internet personalities directly address their problems: it’s because of race, they say. The non-whites are taking everything from you. For these young white men, it’s an easy answer. And too many of them are settling for it.
As the hours tick on during the Unite the Right rally, I come face to face with a group of white supremacists marching down the street outside Emancipation Park, shields barred as if ready for combat. They stare straight ahead, occasionally shouting back at the hundreds of counter-protesters lining their pathway. One man is particularly enthusiastic, as he jumps and shouts, “Fuck you!”
He wears a blue baseball helmet. It’s the same young man with the flagpole, but now his face is covered with tear gas neutralizer. The gas didn’t seem to slow him down. He whips his Vanguard flag into the faces of the crowd, then retreats into the group. He couldn’t be older than 25.
In the last week of September, FBI Chief Christopher Wray told Congress that the FBI has about 1,000 open investigations into potential domestic terrorists, largely people and groups connected to white nationalism and extremist white supremacy. This number is exactly on par with open investigations into IS. The liberal narrative around those recruited by IS is that they are scorned by circumstance, left with no prospects, and joining what is essentially the largest gang in the Middle East sounds better than the alternative. Obviously, this comparison is hyperbolic when juxtaposed to a bunch of privileged American white boys, but the process engaged in by these groups is the same: take someone who hates their life, fill them with rage, put them in a group of people just like them, and give them someone to blame it on.
And I wasn’t surprised to see it.
Being in the middle of things at Unite The Right was shocking, but knowing that it happened wasn’t. This exit from the shadows doesn’t mean radicalized neo-Nazis weren’t there in droves before August 12, 2017. They might not have been as vocal or as certain of their beliefs before being validated by a demagogic president, but they were there. Confederate statues are the Archduke Ferdinand of the United States–a small excuse triggering a much larger battle.
“So what are your thoughts on the Qur’an?”
We stand on the East End of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It’s September 16. My team and I have arrived expecting tension and skirmishes between opposing political groups. Instead, we have found… a conversation. A young black man wearing an ‘American Guard North Carolina’ t-shirt faces a white woman in her clergy uniform. She holds her phone as she streams their conversation to a Facebook live feed, an outsider looking in.
“I read it 20 years ago, I’m not claiming to remember everything,” she replies as three other young men stand in a circle with the two debaters, occasionally weighing in on the conversation.
“I’m not Christian, but I can surmise that the Old Testament was violent. Can you surmise that the Qur’an is violent?”
“As violent as the Bible.”
Their conversation goes on so long, people begin to tire of it, leaving the small circle entirely. On this late summer afternoon, the Washington Monument stands proudly as supporters of “Trump, patriotism, and America” gather in small numbers, decked out in red white and blue. They sit together as guests like Florida gubernatorial candidate Bruce Nathan speak to a passionate crowd. Various counter-protesters hover at the outskirts of the gathering, including this member of the clergy, occasionally venturing into the crowd to make their presence known.
These protesters are not thrown out, pushed away, or attacked. A group of Black Lives Matter protesters walking through are even invited on stage for a couple of minutes to deliver their platform. Despite certain stereotypes, these Trump supporters stand by their claim to support and protect free speech, and ensure that anyone who walked through their gathering has a chance to speak their mind. Unassociated with any white supremacist groups, their death grip on traditionalist American values like liberty and patriotism has actually translated itself into something we didn’t quite expect: tolerance.
No one screams, no one is injured, no one dies. The conversation continues.
And summer turns to fall.
Photos by Jason Lappa