One Year Later: Lessons from Charlottesville
By Phil Wilayto
Aug. 13, 2018
This Aug. 12 marked the one-year anniversary of the murderous “alt right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.. The mainstream media have been bursting with commentary, but almost all of it misses the most important lesson from that infamous event: that it was a tremendous victory.
On Aug. 12, 2017, some 500 to 600 armed fascists assembled in the normally quiet, majority-white university town of Charlottesville (population 48,000) to hold a Unite the Right rally. It was the largest gathering of armed fascists in the United States in living memory.
The stated reason for the rally was to oppose the city council’s decision to take down the statues of Confederate generals Robert W. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson that stand in two downtown city parks. But the larger purpose was to make a show of force and unity among white-supremacist and openly fascist organizations, to intimidate opponents and declare that, in this new age of presidentially supported public displays of racism, openly armed fascist rallies were now the new normal.
That attempt failed, miserably.
The eyes of millions were opened by the martyrdom of Heather Heyer, the young activist murdered when a white supremacist drove a car into a crowd of anti-racists. Another 30 people suffered injuries in that attack. De’Andre Harris, a young Black protester, was severely beaten by white supremacists, an attack caught on video and seen by millions. These and other acts of violence helped convince the public that the fascists are truly dangerous.
And throughout that long day, thousands of protesters were in the streets. There were clergy members, students, Left organizations and adherents of the loose movement known as Antifa. Some were there to nonviolently bear witness against racism. Some were prepared to physically confront the fascists. All were taking a stand in a very difficult environment. Together, they overwhelmed the reactionaries.
The ‘alt-right’ in disarray
A year later, the national fascist movement is greatly weakened. It’s divided by infighting. It lacks an agreed-upon leader, let alone a program.
Jason Kessler, the local University of Virginia graduate who had called for the Unite the Right rally, had to abandon his plans for an anniversary performance. This weekend in Charlottesville there were hundreds of anti-racists on the streets, and virtually no fascists. (The reactionary role of the police this year is another story entirely.)
Instead, Kessler tried to hold an Aug. 12 rally 100 miles up the road, across from the White House. That attempt also failed. By 4 p.m., The Washington Post was reporting that “a small group of about two-dozen white supremacists — protected by police officers” were “vastly outnumbered by thousands of counter-protesters.”
And the reason should be clear: One year earlier, thousands of people, most of them young, most of them outside the mainstream of electoral politics, took to the streets and, at great risk to themselves, boldly confronted the fascists and prevented them from gaining control of the streets.
The question we should be asking ourselves is, what would have happened if they hadn’t done this - if there had been no physical opposition to the “alt-right” rally?
Let’s go back to the event itself.
Aug. 12, 2017
This writer has helped organize a half-dozen protests against the Ku Klux Klan in Virginia, Wisconsin and Illinois. In each case, the fascists were confined behind police barriers, for their own safety. That was the purpose of the protests: to make sure these violent racists couldn’t rally in public without massive police protection - to demonstrate that the days when they could freely walk the streets in their robes and hoods, and pass out membership applications, was over.
Charlottesville was different. This time the fascists marched into downtown to Emancipation Park, formerly called Lee Park, and forced their way through lines of counter-protesters. Their organizations included the KKK, Traditionalist Worker Party, Vanguard America, League of the South, various militias and neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate formations.
They were armed with clubs, tear gas, pepper spray, handguns and semi-automatic rifles. They wore helmets, leather gloves and heavy boots. They carried shields emblazoned with the logos of their organizations. Some of them were so well-outfitted that Brian Moran, Virginia’s Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, mistook them for members of the State Police.
True, some of these guys - and they were almost entirely men - looked like they had spent their young lives sitting in front of computer screens and had just stepped out into the light of day. But others were older military veterans. Michael Tubbs, leader of the Florida chapter of the white-separatist League of the South, who is prominently seen in many videos from Aug. 12 - including calmly walking by the mob beating Black counter-protester De’Andre Harris - is a former Special Forces demolitions soldier who did four years in prison for conspiring to blow up Black- and Jewish-owned businesses.
But despite this massive physical threat, there were no cops present when these vermin marched into Emancipation Park. This writer, in Charlottesville with other members of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, went into the park, took videos and interviewed a State Police officer who admitted that “no one” was assigned to the park’s southeast entrance where confrontations went on for hours.
There were plenty of police in town that day: city, county, state and the National Guard. But they all stood down, not interfering when fights broke out. Why?
The critical role of the police
Four months after the events, an independent report led by former U.S. Attorney Timothy Heaphy stated that several police officers heard the city’s police chief, Al Thomas, say in the police command center, “Let them fight for a little. It will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly.”
But who ordered the State Police and Virginia National Guard to stand down? Those organizations come under the authority of the governor, who at that time was Terry McAuliffe, former chair of the Democratic National Committee and a major fundraiser for Hillary and Bill Clinton now being mentioned as a possible presidential contender in 2020.
It’s hard to come up with another explanation for the state’s failure to contain the fascists other than the one that Thomas stated: let things get out of control so the fascist rally could be shut down without facing a free speech lawsuit. (To its later expressed regret, the Virginia ACLU had already gone to court to defend Kessler’s right to hold the “alt-right” rally at Emancipation Park.)
So that was the situation last Aug. 12 in Charlottesville: an armed, fascist, white-supremacist army was, for a time, able to march through the streets of a liberal, Democratic city, with no government opposition.
What would have happened if there had been no resistance?
If that had been the end of the story, what would have happened next? Would those organizations have just patted themselves on the back and gone home?
Of course not. They would have gone on to the next town, and the next, and the next, with bigger and bigger rallies and marches. They would have tried to intimidate all opponents. They would have been taken more seriously, making it easier to recruit from the vast numbers of anxious, angry whites who have never gotten over seeing a Black family living in the White House, and who also feel deeply betrayed by the neoliberal politics of the Democratic Party.
A social base for fascism
A recent survey by Public Policy Polling found that 3 percent of white people in the country agree with “the white supremacy movement.” There are more than 328 million people in the United States, of whom about 62 percent are non-Hispanic whites. That’s 203 million. Say half are adults between the ages of 21 and 65. That’s a little more than 100 million.
Three percent of that is 3 million people - who say they agree with “the white supremacy movement.”
If just one in 100 of those were willing to pick up a gun and come out together on the streets, that would be 30,000 armed fascists - with the sympathy of 30 million.
What’s the potential for a full-blown fascist movement? Can what happened in Germany in the 1930s emerge here in the United States?
Can it happen here?
Fascism isn’t just another word for the right wing. Historically, it’s meant a violent, mass movement of the lower middle class of the dominant race that feels economically threatened by a failing economy and is susceptible to demagogic appeals to blame a vulnerable scapegoat.
Fascist groups have been around in the U.S. for a very long time without always developing into a mass movement, but that can happen quickly when the property-owning classes feel threatened by a growing, militant workers upsurge, as in the 1930s in Germany, Italy and Spain.
Right now, the U.S. economy seems to be thriving, with record stock prices, low unemployment and ever-so-slightly rising wages. Meanwhile, the unions are small, weak, and tied to the docility of the Democratic Party. Yes, there are some hopeful signs: this year’s wave of teachers strikes; the Fight for $15 movement; May Day strikes in immigrant communities; the women’s and pro-immigrant marches. They all point to a gradual but steady rise in popular resistance.
But we’re not in the kind of situation where the propertied ruling class fears the workers have become too aggressive, that their own very class control is at stake, that workers’ organizations must be decisively crushed, and that they need an extra-legal force to do it in ways they don’t feel the regular police can act.
Not an economic crisis, but great social divisions
At the same time, there is a tremendous social divide. Trump, an overtly racist, misogynist, anti-worker billionaire, has a steady approval rating of around 40 percent, even after all he’s done as president. This isn’t because he himself is so popular, but because half the country can’t stand the milktoast, neoliberal politicians the establishment Democrats keep trying to force on them. And they are told that these are the only two options.
Some of this resentment is class-based, and some is just racist - the growing uneasiness of many whites used to thinking of themselves as the “regular” people, but who are now reminded on a daily basis that the world is changing. Their world is changing. And that scares them.
At the same time, all workers are feeling great economic anxiety. According to the Federal Reserve, median household income in 2016 was $59,039. Doesn’t sound too bad. But at the same time, average household debt, from credit cards, auto loans, student loans and mortgages, was $137,063. The dream of a job for life that pays enough to buy a house, a car and put the kids through college is largely dead, as are most job-related pensions and health insurance plans. That’s not a sustainable situation, for either households or societies.
So there’s a culturally alienated and economically anxious section of the white working class that objectively is a social base for fascism. While the ruling class may not yet need a muscular force ready to crush working-class rebellions, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of candidates interested in auditioning for the role.
If the hundreds of fascists who gathered a year ago in Charlottesville had been able to rally and march unopposed, they would have been emboldened to keep marching. As it was, they were humiliated, and, as a movement, largely disrupted, as was shown by their total failures a year later in Charlottesville and D.C.
The lessons we need to draw on this one-year anniversary include these:
- we can’t afford to ignore these fascist, white-supremacist organizations;
- we can’t count on the forces of the state to contain them;
- there will be times when we have to come out into the streets prepared to confront these reactionaries ourselves.
Needed: A political alternative
At the same time, we need to recognize that there is a political vacuum in this country. Working people are offered just two political options, both of which are controlled by Big Money: nationalist/populism on the right and neoliberalism on the left. And both are firmly committed to imperialist wars.
What’s missing is a mass left-populist movement, and electoral strategy, that is pro-worker, anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-war.
But that’s a topic for another discussion. What is helpful right now is to recognize the critical role the antifascist activists played in Charlottesville a year ago and are playing today in that city and elsewhere.
Yes, most of those in the streets are whites. And that is partly because many young whites who hate racism have little real contact with the Black community and so are drawn to opposing overt expressions of racism. But by and large these are also workers, either by birth or circumstance. So they represent an important division in the white working class. They need to grow politically and find deeper ways to confront racism, but a year ago they played a critical role in blocking fascism.
That resistance was back in Charlottesville this weekend, and also in D.C. It’s anti-racist, and it’s willing to fight.
And for those reasons, there is hope.
Phil Wilayto is editor of The Virginia Defender newspaper. He can be reached at: DefendersFJE@hotmail.com. He and other members of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality were on the streets of Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. Since then, they have helped organize three protests in Richmond against pro-Confederate rallies in Richmond. Defenders were also in Charlottesville and Washington, D.C. on Aug. 12, 2018.