On August 12, 2017, the largest fascist-led rally in the United States in many decades was held in Charlottesville, Virginia. What happened shocked the country out of its complacency about how right-wing politics were unfolding under then-President Donald Trump, and foretold the years of far right violence to come. Charlottesville’s effects still reverberate today, both on those who were present and in local and national politics. And there is a direct line from that rally to the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
The Violence Begins
The evening before the “Unite the Right” rally, attendees of a torchlit march chanted “Jews will not replace us” and attacked peaceful student counter-protesters. The next day, street-fighting was capped off when a neo-Nazi drove a car into an anti-fascist march, murdering Heather Heyer and injuring almost 30 others. Three days later, Trump made his infamous statement that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Steve Grey is a militant anti-fascist who drove from the northeast to provide support for local counter-protesters and community members in what he knew would be “a very dangerous situation.” Arriving the night before with other activists, they heard that the fascists were on the move and went to intercept them. But Grey and his fellow anti-fascists didn’t know what they were getting into. They stumbled upon terrified local students holding a small counterprotest on the University of Virginia (UVA) campus who were being attacked by the torch-wielding mob. The out-of-town anti-fascists tried to protect them. Grey said he was surprised that he only “got a little hurt considering how many people attacked us,” including being punched by a dozen people and burned with torches. One of the students, Devin Willis, later recounted how (what he assumed to be) lighter fluid was thrown on him. “I thought I had made a very terrible mistake and that I might die that night,” he said.
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The acts of the night before fueled the anger of the counter-protesters during the street fighting the next day, which lasted until the actual rally was supposed to start. The police, who until then had been completely absent, dispersed both sides. The car attack happened in a different location later on.
Today, those who were in the crowd during the attack continue to suffer from trauma, and some have life-changing injuries. Natalie Romero’s skull fracture changed the shape of her forehead and she has difficulty holding things. In addition to panic attacks, Thomas Baker now needs a hip replacement. Marissa Blair and Marcus Martin were married after the attack, but their injuries followed them. He could no longer play sports, and she could not concentrate enough to read a book. They grew apart and eventually divorced — something Blair directly attributed to the events. Others, who were not physically hurt, still suffer from anxiety, flashbacks and survivors’ guilt.
The fallout also impacted local politics. Immediately afterward, there was pressure for accountability from the UVA administration, which did not stop the torchlit march. Jalane Schmidt, a scholar-activist at UVA, said that in the city itself there has been “much more consciousness of the institutional nature of white supremacy.” After Unite the Right, local activists “finally got some traction” in addressing racial disparities around affordable housing, social services and policing, and were able to influence the planning commission’s passage of a new comprehensive plan.
What happened at Charlottesville was a harbinger of more far right violence to come. Heyer was not the first person murdered by the “alt-right,” but her death portended many more, including by vehicular attacks, in subsequent years. Footage of anti-fascists and neo-Nazis fighting in the streets became commonplace, and there were many car attacks and deaths during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations a few years later. In just the two weeks after George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020, 19 deaths were connected to the demonstrations. And in less than two months after, cars were driven into demonstrations 68 times. Right-wing memes encouraging car attacks became common, and some states even passed “hit-and-kill” laws, which give drivers varying levels of immunity if they hit protesters.
White supremacist massacres, all based on a similar template, proliferated. These included attacks at a Pittsburgh synagogue (11 dead); a Walmart in El Paso which targeted Latinos (23 dead); and a supermarket in a Black neighborhood in Buffalo (10 dead). Of the numerous shootings which killed fewer people, the most infamous was Kyle Rittenhouse’s murder of two at a Kenosha, Wisconsin, demonstration. Even the multiple deaths on January 6 are often overlooked in the larger context of the attempted coup.
Of course, the far right was also affected by Charlottesville. In 2015 and 2016, the openly white supremacist wing of the “alt-right” was able to flex real political muscle by acting in concert with the more “moderate” parts — those which stopped just short of openly racist politics, such as the Proud Boys. But the widespread disgust at what happened at Unite the Right caused the breakup of this alliance. Hannah Gais, senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the rally “stymied the abilities of alt-right leaders to actuate political change,” putting it “on a path of irreversible decline.”
Gais also noted two subsequent trends on the right. The more radical elements, such as the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division, embraced terrorism. They held that legal political action by white supremacists was inevitably a strategy of failure, and violence had to be used to take “the system” down.
The second trend Gais pointed out was that, although most in the Republican Party separated themselves from the open white supremacists, “The mainstream right … has increasingly embraced conspiracy theories, such as the ‘Great Replacement,’ that extremists used in their chants that weekend.” (The baseless “Great Replacement” idea holds that there is an intentional plan to alter the demographics of white-majority countries so that whites become a minority. In the more extreme version, “the Jews” are held responsible for masterminding it; in the more mainstream form, individual Jews are often named, especially George Soros.) Gais noted that that “rhetoric won that day, even if its organizers did not.”
Joe Biden has also repeatedly referred to Charlottesville, notably in the video announcing his presidential run, where he called it a “defining moment for this nation” and attacked Trump’s “very fine people” comment. Biden’s official statement on the fourth anniversary of Charlottesville introduced a new hate crime law. But Biden’s Charlottesville mentions haven’t always gone down well with everyone. He called Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, later in the same day that his election video came out, but she did not endorse him. (Bro did later join him at the hate crime bill signing.) Grey is philosophical about this, saying that while Biden is no friend of anti-fascists, at least his video did not denounce “both sides.”
From Charlottesville to January 6
Gais said that the events of Charlottesville and January 6 are “inextricably linked to one another.” The shared participants are the most obvious, of course. They include Baked Alaska (Anthime Gionet), a scheduled speaker at the 2017 rally, and Nick Fuentes, leader of the white supremacist Groypers. Moreover, the organizer of the Unite the Right, Jason Kessler, was a member of the Proud Boys — the same group whose coordinated actions on January 6 led to the arrests of over 40 members.
Ideologically, the two events were the major public actions of the moderate and extreme sides of the alliance formed in 2015 after Trump announced his electoral bid. Both the open white supremacists ranting about Jewish conspiracies, and red-hatted Trumpists ranting about the stolen election, rely on the same underlying far right ideas. Both seek to destroy the democratic system and replace it with a hierarchical state, whether that would be led by a fascist dictator or populist strongman.
While in reality they are the most privileged members of a society, in their imagination they are its victims, persecuted by “elites” (whom they define as Jews, globalists or “the swamp”) and undermined by subversive radicals (anti-fascists and Black Lives Matter). They believe in a utopian future (whether a white ethno-state or an America made great again) — but they believe that time is running out, and they must act now or their country (or race) will be lost.
Tactically, there is obviously no shortage of examples of the kind of violence seen at Unite the Right in the country’s history. But militant movements don’t arise out of thin air, and they almost always need to have some previous actions to motivate themselves and get everything into alignment. Charlottesville stood out because, for the first time since the turn of the century, this kind of violence was seen so brazenly at a large, far right public demonstration. What Gais called “a disavowal of traditional politics and the democratic process, combined with decentralized violence” was the door that Charlottesville opened at the beginning of Trump’s administration. January 6 was what walked through at the end.