Today we bring you a conversation with Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and a community organizer with Black Lives Matter in Charlottesville, Virginia. Schmidt discusses the state of the “alt-right” a year after the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and how the progressive left is challenging, and must continue to challenge, recent and upcoming “alt-right” incursions in public spaces.
Sarah Jaffe: This past weekend, we saw another right-wing gathering of Proud Boys and their other white supremacist friends in Portland, Oregon. I would love to get your thoughts on what happened, and what has changed in the year since the largest of the rallies in Charlottesville.
Jalane Schmidt: I was very concerned in the last week in the lead-up to the Portland rally, that there would be a lot more violence than there ended up being. We saw what happened there in Portland on June 30. It was many injuries, and there were still people injured on August 4, for sure, but I was afraid there might be lethal injuries.
Some of these Proud Boys came from as far away as Vancouver, and they picked up some folks in Seattle, I guess, and then came on down to Portland for a rally that is led by — supposedly — this Senate candidate from Washington State. He clearly doesn’t seem to be campaigning there, but rather he seems to be playing to a national white nationalist constituency there, trying to grow that movement.
I think it is important to have there be a vocal, visible group of dissenters from this. I think it is important to not allow the far right to commandeer public spaces uncontested. I think that is important.
One of the things that we saw in Portland, that we also saw in Charlottesville and elsewhere is the forces of the state, particularly the police, protecting the white nationalists and sort of cracking down on the counterprotesters.
I saw a really bad incident in Portland…. I just saw this on my Twitter feed … that the police had fired flash bangs or whatever and hit a counterprotester in the head. Thank goodness he was wearing a helmet, because it perforated the helmet even, and he was left with a bloody head. Had he not been wearing the helmet, he might be dead.
That is just one instance of many where it seems like there is — prioritizing — let’s put it that way. It seems that the state prioritizes the free speech rights of these far-right provocateurs at a higher level than those of us who try to counterprotest. That is what we saw here in Charlottesville.
In the past year, looking back at Charlottesville, you have seen people who were counterprotesting last summer who have been on trial, in some cases, for having been assaulted.
The most famous case, of course, was DeAndre Harris, the young Black man who was assaulted by six white supremacists in the parking garage on Market Street. Of the six of his assailants, only four … have been identified and charged. There are still two outstanding [who] have not been identified yet. Even with that, were it not for the efforts of the civilians tweeting out or putting on social media the photographs of these guys, they never would have been identified because it was clear that the police and the FBI were not expending any resources for this investigation. Indeed, the leads that the FBI were given were given by … just regular civilians who saw these pictures and said, “Oh, yeah. I know that guy. I went to high school with him,” or “Yeah, I know that guy. I used to work with him.” Were it not for those sorts of civilian efforts to root out these very dangerous individuals, then they would not have been brought to justice.
Then, one of them basically weaponized the known white supremacy of the criminal legal system in order to bring charges against DeAndre Harris, accusing him of starting the violence, as it was, when he was under attack; which was patently false. But, of course, DeAndre had to spend a lot of time and mental anguish and energy getting a legal defense together in order to contest the charges; which, he was ultimately found not guilty of. He was acquitted of. But this is just an example of how the “alt-right,” how they weaponize the criminal legal system against anti-racist demonstrators.
This is not unlike when women file with the police to have restraining orders taken out against their male partners who have been violent to them, and then in some of these cases, these men then will turn on their female accuser and try to counter file charges in an effort to, for instance, get their kids taken away or to just harass them, and this sort of thing. It is the same kind of strategy of the most powerful and most violent and most threatening elements making use of this criminal legal system against the most vulnerable.
I want to ask you to talk a little bit more about the importance of counterprotest in public. The point of these white supremacist marches … especially when they show up armed like they did in Portland and in Charlottesville … is not just to make white supremacy mainstream or keep it mainstream, but to force everybody out of the public space, to commandeer the public space.
I think it is both/and. I think, yes, they are trying to push decent citizens out of the public square, anyone who opposes white supremacy, out of the public square, and also, to normalize their movement.
Part of what they are doing is they really like to go to places with iconic vistas; whether it is the General Robert E. Lee statue or to Mount Vernon, Washington’s estate up in Northern Virginia — that is where Identity Evropa went a few months ago — or other places. They like to have clean, unobstructed sight lines between themselves and whatever iconic place where they are: university auditoriums, for instance, the Oval Office, because that is very good for their recruitment. This makes for very good propaganda videos.
For instance, … May 13, 2017, was the first “alt-right” torch rally here in Charlottesville. Some 150 white supremacists gathered uncontested. They caught us flat-footed, by surprise. Then, of course, August 11, around the Jefferson statue at the University of Virginia. Again, largely uncontested. Then, October 7, 2017, they had a third torch rally here in Charlottesville, also catching us by surprise. That is what they like for their propaganda videos. That is what they like to circulate online. And Richard Spencer even said that last August 11 on the steps of the rotunda at the University of Virginia, “Look! We just took over!”
So, they want spaces cleared of the rest of us, especially those of us who are people of color. But, they are also trying to grow their movement. It is a strategy. That is why it is important to, yes, show up in greater numbers — there is safety in numbers — to say, “No, we won’t allow you to scare us away and we won’t allow you to take over public spaces and to normalize with your appearances there, your movement.”
It is interesting to me to talk about normalizing your appearance when you look at … they show up in costume and sort of homemade armor in a lot of places. Some of the photos that have come out of Portland, you see people that look like Star Wars characters.
They do have this internal debate among the “alt-right” themselves. Some of them really object to that. They say, “This makes us look like LARP-ers, live-action-role players. This isn’t good for trying to grow the movement. We want to rather look normal and have Fred Perry polo shirts and khaki pants and sharp haircuts.” They are having a little optics debate themselves.
Looking forward to the anniversary of what everybody just refers to as “Charlottesville” now, they are planning a rally now in Washington, DC, that, speaking of the state and public services being used to coddle them, there was a brief discussion of the metro having special cars to get the white nationalists to….
And that is what they want, “Hey, all-white cars on the train!” That is what they want anyway. [Laughs] I mean, that is what they are pushing for. So, yes, that was outrageous that that was even an idea that was considered. For heaven’s sakes. Yes, fortunately, that discussion was quashed, but only because the union of the metro transit authority workers stood up to that.
That is the only reason we even heard about it, was the union said, “No, we are not doing that.”
Right. It just shows the importance then of having a broad-based coalition of folks fighting against white supremacy — working people, students — everybody has a role to play in this.
Again, looking at the anniversary here, they certainly said they want to come back to Charlottesville on the anniversary. What are people preparing for on August 11?
Well, the students at the University of Virginia, the activists, are planning to have a vigil at the Jefferson Davis statue on the night of August 11…. They have asked for faculty to come and to join them and to show support of them and to wear our academic robes as we do so as a visual symbol of our academic role. We plan to be there for that.
I am not aware, at the moment, of plans…. They are certainly not going to be coming in any great numbers, the “alt-right,” to Charlottesville this time. Well, color me shocked if that were to occur. This time last year, I was very worried. All indications were, it was going to be a big melee of hundreds of these people coming in. That doesn’t seem to be the case now.
Our local white supremacist organizer here, he hardly has any allies anymore. He has been abandoned by even the most hard-boiled of the “alt-right” that marched with him, such as Christopher Cantwell, the “Crying Nazi.” They have abandoned him. Maybe there will be a flash mob. I don’t know. It is hard to plan.
But, the activists are having a series of public events on Tuesday and Wednesday night: tomorrow and the next day. A public facing, public forum. One on why we protest, just kind of explaining, as I have now, why it is important to show up in public when these white supremacists gather. Then, the next night, Wednesday night, the panel will be some activist attorneys talking about how First Amendment arguments get weaponized against progressives and people of color and how, again, it seems that the state prioritizes the free speech rights of the white supremacists more than those of us who oppose them.
We are going to see the rally in DC, whether or not they get their own metro cars. What are you expecting to see there? As you were saying, they want to get this right in front of the White House.
Yes, I kind of wondered about that. Are they protesting against Trump? I don’t quite understand why they selected that space. But, yes … I presume they will be met with a fair number of counter demonstrators that will greatly outnumber them. That is what it looks like it will be.
In Charlottesville, in the last year, what do you think has changed and what still needs to change?
There have been much broader discussions among a broader range of the public about what white supremacy actually is and much more discussion about how it is not just Nazis marching in your streets or Confederate monuments in your parks, but rather there is a whole system of interlocking policies that are supportive of white supremacy.
We have been having a lot of discussions publicly about, for instance, affordable housing and how folks are being gentrified out, particularly residents of color being gentrified out of the city. We have been having conversations about policing, because what happened with the summer of hate here in Charlottesville was that it laid bare the problems that we with policing. On the one hand, with the Klan rally on July 8, the police attacked us with tear gas, the counterdemonstrators that is. In the case of August 11, of course, they stood down and allowed the white supremacists to attack us.
So, what was brought up in the aftermath is that actually there has been a problem with police for a long time. The stop and frisk rates here … 80 percent of the stop and frisks are against people of color even though we are only about 20 percent of the population. Then, for instance, we have pushed for a civilian police review board, which we got. This is something that came out of everything that happened. Also, a greater push for public housing.
How can people keep up with you and with the other activists with Black Lives Matter and other groups in Charlottesville? What can people do to support and to combat white supremacy when it shows up in the streets like this?
You can follow us on Twitter at @SolidCVille. That is the activist media collective: Solidarity Cville. Follow Black Lives Matter on Facebook, Black Lives Matter Charlottesville, that is. Follow SURJ: Showing Up for Racial Justice on Facebook, as well. And the Democratic Socialists of America chapter here is also very active, as is UVS, that is the University of Virginia Students…. Yes, we are all pretty active on social media.
For instance, there is a city council meeting tonight and our city council meetings here in Charlottesville are epic, let me tell you. [Laughs] We are civic nerds here and especially in the last two years, as we have had this public debate about what to do with Confederate monuments, and then the growth of the “alt-right” and the “alt-right” rallies and the aftermath…. Our city council chambers are full at every meeting. Tonight, we will be discussing how the police are basically shutting down the city. There will be no city services, no parks, no recreation centers will be open. Our downtown area will be highly regimented with many law enforcement agencies. Streets are blocked off and this sort of thing. So, it feels like the residents of Charlottesville, that we are being made to bear the brunt of the failure of policing last year. We are very upset about that. We will be talking to the city council about that tonight.
I really feel that Charlottesville has an advanced case of what is coming to the rest of the country. We have seen it in Portland. We saw it a bit in Berkeley. Then, I guess now Seattle is the next stop of the clown show on August 18. So, this seems to be a pattern that these folks, these white supremacists, like to cloak themselves in the mantle of “We are just having a First Amendment rally” or “This is a patriot prayer meeting” all these sorts of things in order to mobilize and to recruit, propagandize, that sort of thing.
They have their hero in the White House and we have a Justice Department headed by a mendacious open racist in Jeff Sessions and we have a president that is trying to shut down an independent inquiry into all of the collusion that occurred with Russia. And, on that note, I should say that these are not separate issues: the whole Russia investigation and this uprising in the “alt-right.” Whenever they come here to Charlottesville and gather, these white supremacists, one of their favorite chants is “Russia is our friend!” They are very enamored of Putin. Of course, they are very enamored of Trump. The connection here is that Putin is also an ethno-nationalist who has silenced critics and this sort of thing.
I would encourage Americans to pay attention, protest. Like I said, Charlottesville has an advanced case of this. This is very extreme. But, these folks, these white supremacists who gather in public spaces, they are basically vigilante enforcers of the Trump regime. That is another reason people need to get accustomed to showing up and protesting. People need to get off the fence, get out of their Facebook threads and actually come out to the streets and get accustomed to being in a space of dissident and protest. Your country needs you. A lot of people of color, we are suffering more than others under this onslaught. It is time to get at this.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.