The August 12 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, looks like it will be the largest organized racist demonstration in recent memory. But that’s not the only reason it is important. First, while there have been dozens of far-right rallies since Trump’s election, this will be the first major, national rally run by the alt-right’s openly white nationalist wing. Second, after months of arguments, this is also an opportunity for a large swath of progressives to come together in opposition to the far right.
Charlottesville has seen multiple white nationalist rallies this year. The first, a May 2017 daytime event, was followed by a nighttime torchlight photo-op. Led by alt-right poster boy Richard Spencer, attendees chanted Nazi slogans like “blood and soil.” The second, in July, was a KKK rally. This time, counter-protesters were out in force; one outlet put the numbers at 30 KKK supporters versus 1,000 protesters. But the police arrested 23 counter-protesters, and some counter-protesters were charged with a felony for merely wearing a mask.
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The white nationalist rallies are ostensibly being held to oppose the removal of a statue of former Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee. The city council agreed to the removal in April, but it is being fought in the courts. Now white nationalists are making a show of force at rallies based on this increasingly strained pretext.
Since Trump took power in February, there have been numerous far right marches, which have congealed into a street protest movement. I have dubbed it “Independent Trumpism” because, while it fanatically supports Trump and his anti-immigrant and Islamophobic politics, the organizing happens outside of the Republican Party apparatus itself.
These started as supposed “free speech” rallies — in reality, ultra-nationalist gatherings to show they could hold the streets after antifascists forced the cancellation of a Milo Yiannopoulos talk at the University of California, Berkeley, in February 2017.
The marches then branched out to both oppose the removal of Confederate statutes, and support Islamophobic rallies like June’s “March Against Sharia.” Mostly they have been organized by “alt-lite” activists, who stop just short of embracing a homogenous white country, with everyone from Trumpist Republicans to militias to open fascists in attendance. And while Richard Spencer did not go to any of them, fascist groups like Identity Evropa and Vanguard America did — although they were not key organizers and tended to have a low-key presence.
This week’s “Unite the Right” event will be different. While attempting to pull from the same broad pool of Trumpists, this time the rally will be led by a star-studded cast of fascist and other white nationalist leaders and groups. Those supporting it claim over a thousand people will come.
Richard Spencer will headline the event; he attended college in Charlottesville and given the repeated rallies, it looks like he hopes to turn the town into an organizing base. Another famous alt-right figure, Mike Enoch of The Right Stuff, will also speak.
The organizer of “Unite the Right,” Jason Kessler, is a white nationalist who wrote for the Daily Caller. Embracing the racist creed that white people are an oppressed group, he’s said that “the number one thing” he wants from the rally is “to destigmatize Pro-White advocacy.”
Kessler originally sought the attendance of a wider swath of Trumpist activists, going so far as to denounce the earlier KKK rally. But as the event approaches, it has become more clearly an open white nationalist — and even neo-Nazi — event. Four groups in the Nationalist Front, a national umbrella organization of racist groups, are attending. Matthew Heimbach of the fascist Traditionalist Worker Party and Michael Hill of the neo-Confederate League of the South will both speak. The National Socialist Movement, the largest US neo-Nazi party, recently announced it will attend. (Their presence is the welcome sign for hardened, open neo-Nazis — who’ve generally shied away from being visible at past alt-right events — to come in force.) And last, the fascist alt-right group Vanguard America, which recently joined the Nationalist Front, will be there.
They will be joined by alt-right figures who stop just short of claiming the mantle of racial purity for themselves, but will happily collaborate with those who do. These include Augustus Invictus, a Florida lawyer who has defended the neo-Nazi skinhead gang American Front and ran as a Libertarian Party candidate for Senate, and Baked Alaska, a former Buzzfeed editor who now promotes white nationalism. Members of the alt-right fight gang the Proud Boys are also expected.
While this is a mess of fascists and their friends, some are still attempting to portray the “Unite the Right” as a neutral event. The fascist Traditionalist Worker Party says “the event’s not about race” and that they welcome “non-White allies.”
The left is organizing in response to the rally, although not nearly on the same national scale. This will be a mistake, however, if a thousand Nazis take the streets and proceed to make Charlottesville a new base. If there is one thing that I learned from witnessing the Nazi and Klan boom in the 1980s and ’90s, it was that Nazis hate opposition. If you give a Nazi organizer an inch, they will be thrilled by the lack of resistance and proceed to take a mile. Floyd Cochran, an Aryan Nations organizer during this period, revealed that if his group encountered resistance in towns they targeted for recruitment, they moved on.
Regional groups have been organizing against “Unite the Right.” These include chapters of Showing Up for Racial Justice, Black Lives Matter and Redneck Revolt, as well as socialist, anarchist and antifascist groups. A coalition of religious progressives, Congregate Charlottesville, has called for “1,000 clergy and faith leaders to join” the counter-protest, and Cornel West has said he will attend.
Following the demonstrations in Berkeley at the beginning of the year, a number of progressives issued vocal criticisms of the use of confrontational strategies against the far right. These attacks by moderates on antifascist radicals helped lower attendance at counter-demonstrations. Simultaneously, the far right was able to create an unusual Trumpist Republican-Nazi-militia street coalition. This has helped propel far right organizing to new heights.
While arguments on the Left over how to deal with the Far Right go back many decades, the strategy of sitting by and doing no more than documenting its rise because opposing it “will give them attention” has never been a successful approach. Neither has counting on law enforcement to arrest those who break the law.
In practice, since February, few groups outside of antifascist circles have done national-level, longer-term, nuts-and-bolts organizing on the ground against the organized far-right groups. For example, there has been no new wave of regional anti-far-right groups like those which existed in the 1980s and ’90s. These groups did not engage in militant direct action but did build grassroots opposition to Nazi and Klan groups. But, outside of Redneck Revolt, there is not even a sustained effort to create online counter-propaganda. (Although one of the few initiatives by moderate groups has been to limit the far right’s use of social media and online fundraising platforms.) There have been localized demonstrations — in Portland in June after the murder of two men by an Islamophobic racist, and later in the month against a national day of Islamophobic rallies — but these haven’t gelled into any coherent organization or strategy.
The Charlottesville rally has the potential to unite differing radical and progressive activists who oppose white nationalist organizing, and this opportunity should not be squandered. A broad-based, progressive coalition of groups with different analyses and approaches is needed to counter this new, reinvigorated far right. If these groups can’t cooperate, they should at least be able to leave each other alone to pursue their own strategies. But that should not mean staying home and ignoring public far right activism. When far right organizers try to take over our cities, the one thing that progressives can’t do is to respond with silence. In the face of an aggressive racist movement, silence is consent.