The white nationalist leaders who helped organize a protest in Charlottesville, Virginia two days ago that turned bloody gave a press conference in Virginia in which they refused to condemn the man suspected of driving his car into a crowd of protesters and dismissed President Trump’s statement disavowing white supremacists earlier that day.
White nationalists have been struggling to distance themselves from the outbreak of violence Saturday, which lead to national media coverage and angry condemnations not just from the local mayor and governor but from world leaders like Germany's Prime Minister Angela Merkel. The violent images from the protest, organized to oppose the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, have badly damaged the white nationalists' movement attempt to rebrand itself as the more respectable and sophisticated "alt-right."
Richard Spencer and Nathan Damigo, two leading figures of the white nationalist alt-right movement who had participated in Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally , spoke to reporters at Spencer’s office and apartment in Alexandria. The press conference was also supposed to include white nationalist social media personalities Baked Alaska and James Allsup, but Spencer said Baked Alaska couldn’t make it because his eye had been injured in the melee and Allsup was with him. Spencer had initially tried to hold the conference at two different hotels in Washington, before having to resort to the Alexandria location after the hotels cancelled on him.
Spencer associates functioning as security checked journalists in at the door and led them upstairs to where Spencer and Damigo stood in front of a bookshelf and a screen where they showed slides and photos of the protest area in Charlottesville.
Spencer blamed the authorities for what happened in Charlottesville, saying the city’s mayor and governor of Virginia have “blood on their hands” for not policing the situation properly. The alt-right, he said, is “nonviolent;” he waxed nostalgic while speaking about the hundreds of white nationalists marching through Charlottesville with torches on Friday night, calling the event “really beautiful.” Some fighting between them and counter-protesters reportedly took place during the Friday event; Saturday’s rally attracted militia members with guns, and descended into all-out street violence.
But one person who didn’t come in for unequivocal criticism was Charlottesville suspect James Alex Fields, who has been charged with second-degree murder in the death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old woman who had come to protest the Unite the Right event. Fields was photographed earlier in the day at the rally with Vanguard America, a self-identified white supremacist and fascist group that attended the rally. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called the incident an act of terrorism. Videos of the incident show a vehicle authorities have said was driven by Fields accelerating into a crowd of protesters, injuring more than a dozen and killing Heyer.
“I am not going to condemn this young man at this point,” Spencer said. When he first saw the video, he said, he saw it as a “malicious act of violence”; but he’s now less sure that it was a purposeful act and won’t come down on one side or another until an investigation is complete.
The press conference came just a few hours after Trump, whose initial reaction to Charlottesville had been muted and blamed “many sides” for the violence without singling out white supremacist groups, gave a grudging statement at the White House explicitly naming them after two days of criticism for not having done so. Photos from Charlottesville show Confederate and Nazi symbols among some of the demonstrators.
“Racism is evil,” Trump said. “And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
Spencer dismissed Trump’s statement as “kumbaya nonsense” and said he didn’t view it as a repudiation of his movement, which he defended as “non-violent.”
“He sounded like a Sunday school teacher,” he said. “I just don’t take it seriously.”
Speaking to me afterwards, Damigo agreed that he didn’t take Trump’s words as an unequivocal denouncement of their movement.
“I don’t know exactly what he meant by that statement,” Damigo said. “People in his position, they’re not stupid, they make these very ambiguous statements with words that are very loaded and hard to interpret.”
But Damigo is “very disappointed that he would present himself in a way, appearing to jump to conclusions as to what happened, because simply, we don’t know the facts yet. They’re going to be coming out. An investigation hasn’t even been done yet. But he already knows the intent of what happened?”
Spencer has been critical of Trump over time, though “We were connected with Donald Trump on a kind of psychic level,” he said of the alt-right. Trump is the “first true authentic nationalist in my lifetime.”
Asked who in the White House he views as a fellow traveler of the alt-right, Spencer named top policy advisor Stephen Miller and chief strategist Steve Bannon, though he didn’t say they themselves were alt-right.
“They at least are connected with identitarian ideas in a way that the rest of them are not,” Spencer said.
When I spoke to Spencer after the events of Saturday, he seemed keen to distance himself from what had happened, saying he hadn’t organized the event (despite the fact that his name was on the flyer) and that his events would be more tightly controlled going forward.
Spencer repeated the same sentiments on Monday. But he seemed less than cowed, promising to return to Charlottesville.
“There’s no way in hell I’m not going back to Charlottesville,” he said.