It’s been one year since the “Unite the Right” protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. Over the past few days, The Atlantic has been looking into what’s changed since the violent rally last August, and what hasn’t:
Adam Serwer wrote a powerful essay on the proliferation of white-supremacist messages.
Adam Harris reported on how the University of Virginia—the backdrop of the Charlottesville rally—has grappled with racism, from its founding to today.
Elaina Plott considered how Republicans are coming to terms with a white-supremacist movement that attempts to lay claim to the “right.”
Elaine Godfrey and Madeline Carlisle attended what ended up being a relatively small protest, with a much larger counterdemonstration, in Washington, D.C., a city that Vann Newkirk noted has its own racially fraught history.
In today’s issue, Karen Yuan talks to an ACLU director, a Charlottesville community organizer, and a Masthead member based in Charlottesville about the lingering effects of last year’s Unite the Right rally.
Charlottesville’s Impact, One Year Later
By Karen Yuan
Is the “alt-right” growing or dying?
To Angela Nagle, the author of the book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, the Unite the Right rally was a culmination of forces she’d observed over eight years of monitoring “the dark recesses of the internet.” But the rally served more to splinter those forces, she wrote in The Atlantic in December, than to bolster them. “Unite the Right was devastating for the movement,” she wrote. “The euphoria of the first, tiki-torch-lit night was followed by arrests and humiliation.” The rally’s organizers have been embroiled in lawsuits filed by victims of the weekend’s violence, prominent leaders such as Richard Spencer have lost funding and other movement members are mired in legal issues related to harassment.
Viewed in that light, Unite the Right impaired the white-nationalist movement by inviting a countrywide, bipartisan backlash against the so-called “alt-right” and its bald-faced display of racism. The second Unite the Right rally, held yesterday, seemed to prove that last year’s momentum has died out. Its few dozen attendees, overwhelmed by police and counterprotesters, disbanded before the march even formally began. As Nagle wrote in December, “The alt-right overplayed its hand, fracturing before it coalesced and consolidated its gains.”
But in her December story, Nagle also sounded a warning: “The forces behind the movement, not least the rapid demographic transformation of the Western world, are not going away.” And even if the leaders of the Unite the Right rally are weakened, the ideology underpinning that event has, in many ways, flourished.
“The movement took a hit after Charlottesville last year,” Heidi Beirich, who monitors extremism for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me. “But the movement as a whole is a different matter.” Beirich pointed to a number of indicators—alt-right rallies beyond Charlottesville, politicians running on extremist platforms, and White House policies such as the Muslim travel ban—suggesting that energy remains in the white-nationalist movement. “Though the players a year ago in Charlottesville have taken serious hits, the alt-right is not to be discounted,” she said.
A clear display of the strength of the ideology underpinning the alt-right, Adam Serwer writes, is the spread of white-nationalist talking points into broader media and political platforms. Warnings from pundits such as Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham about the existential threat of “demographic change,” Adam argues, “echo the white-nationalist claim that America is at risk because the nation is growing more diverse.” And figures like Carlson and Ingraham can influence the millions of conservative constituents who watch their programs. “As an ideological vanguard, the alt-right fulfilled its own purpose in pulling the Republican Party in its direction,” Adam writes.
Has the ACLU changed its position on free speech since Charlottesville?
In 2017, when Charlottesville officials denied the white supremacist Jason Kessler a permit for his Unite the Right march, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city on his behalf. After the violence that erupted during the rally, the ACLU received national backlash over its representation of Kessler. Some called on the organization to change its policies; a board member of the ACLU of Virginia resigned, tweeting, “What’s legal and what’s right are sometimes different. I won’t be a fig leaf for Nazis.” So did the national organization change its policies in the year since?
According to the ACLU, which has a long history of defending free-speech rights even for highly controversial speakers, no policy changes have been made since Charlottesville. However, the ACLU’s executive director, Anthony Romero, did say the organization would give more scrutiny to armed protestors and white-supremacist groups. “If a protest group insists, ‘No, we want to be able to carry loaded firearms,’ well, we don’t have to represent them,” Romero told The Wall Street Journal. “They can find someone else.”
Claire Gastañaga, the executive director of the ACLU’s Virginia division, said the chapter is doubling down on existing guidelines. She cited years-old criteria the chapter applies to decisions on case representation, including factors such as the case’s potential statewide impact and its chances of concrete results. “We applied that criteria on whether to represent Mr. Kessler last year, and we would apply the same criteria for making decisions today,” Gastañaga said. (The chapter has participated in free-speech advocacy programs, but hasn’t filed any free-speech cases in the past year.) “To say that change is needed is to say we weren’t in the right place before.”
How has the Charlottesville community been recovering from the violence?
“We went through an uncomfortable period of time when there was a lot of anger in the community,” Thomas, a Masthead member who lives in Charlottesville, told me. In the first few months after the rally, he said, protests were everywhere. Tensions were high. Five months after the rally, Nikuyah Walker ran for city council and became the first African American woman elected mayor of Charlottesville.
Nonprofits such as the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation have led efforts to alleviate the anger. The organization set up a fund immediately after last summer’s event, which initially supported the survivors of the rally’s violence by covering costs such as medical bills and physical therapy.
The rally also reopened deep, historical wounds within Charlottesville, leading the foundation to direct funds toward broader community initiatives that reckon with long-term challenges such as racial equity. “Part of what we realized we needed to do was to address the structures of inequality here,” Brennan Gould, the president of the foundation, told me. It funded a trip taken by about 100 community members, many of them high-school students, to carry soil from the site of a century-old lynching in Charlottesville to the lynching memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. It is also supporting black-owned businesses, and working to boost the number of local educators of color. “Last summer brought to consciousness a real conversation about how the community hasn’t worked for everyone,” Gould said.
“There are some big systemic issues in Charlottesville that probably won’t be resolved soon,” Thomas said. “But the really good thing out of all of this is the community effort to talk about that stuff and expose it … Anger got turned into resolve.” Yesterday, on the anniversary of the rally, Thomas found the town as peaceful as it had ever been. He thinks Charlottesville is doing better.
Today’s Question: Do you think the white-nationalist movement has been strengthened or weakened since Charlottesville?
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