Months before the Nazis came to their city, Lisa Woolfork and other locals in Charlottesville, Virginia, were warning officials of the impending Unite the Right rally. Now, a year after the deadly march, its organizer is planning a disjointed anniversary event—but Charlottesville activists say they won’t let it happen again.
“I know there are many people who wish they had done something,” Woolfork, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Charlottesville, told The Daily Beast. “I know them personally: neighbors and friends and colleagues who wish they had done more. If [Unite the Right organizer Jason] Kessler does hold his rally again, this will be an opportunity to do that.”
Aug. 12 is the one-year anniversary of Unite the Right, and of the death of Heather Heyer, a local woman who was murdered when a man who had marched with a neo-Nazi group drove a car into a group of counterprotesters. As the anniversary approaches, Kessler is determined to host a redux rally, despite a lack of RSVPs; Newsweek recently reported that many prominent Unite the Right attendees plan on skipping the sequel.
If the rally fizzles out, Charlottesville can thank a coalition of activists who have spent more than a year fending off the Nazis, and sometimes clashing with city officials in the process.
Kessler has applied for a permit for a new rally, been denied, and is currently suing Charlottesville for the right to hold the rally. It’s the second time the city and its activists have been down this road.
As soon as organizers announced the original Unite the Right, locals tried to warn city officials of its violent potential. The city had recently weathered a series of white supremacist rallies, including a July 8 Ku Klux Klan event. But Unite the Right, which was billed as a coming-together of ascendant neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate, alt-right, and white supremacist groups, promised to be even larger.
“We knew August 12 was the worst of the two,” Emily Gorcenski, a Charlottesville activist, said. Before the rally, she and other activists flagged multiple threats that Unite the Right attendees had made on social media, and presented those findings to city council in a bid to have the rally’s permit revoked. Instead of revoking the permit, Charlottesville tried to relocate the rally, but lost a court case over the proposed move.
“City council failed to use the threats in the court case regarding the permit, effectively ignoring community warnings,” Gorcenski said.
“The city’s response to these racist rallies was to tell residents to ignore them,” said Mark Heisey, an organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice Charlottesville. “To ignore the KKK when they came on July 8, and to ignore the Nazis when they came on August 12. That’s just simply not an option. Nazism, white supremacy, they have to be resisted and confronted. We need to make life uncomfortable for people who advocate genocide.”
Last year, the city approved a permit for Unite the Right, and two permits for counterprotesters. But instead of remaining in the permitted areas, the alt-right protests spilled over into scuffles on the street where neo-Nazis rammed counterprotesters with shields; into a parking garage, where white supremacists beat a man with pipes; and they culminated in the deadly attack in which James Fields Jr. drove a car into a crowd of protesters at high speed. Fields had previously been photographed marching with the neo-Nazi group American Vanguard.
“It’s a very difficult situation to be in to look on this in the past and see that we had been warning people, warning the administration, warning the city that this was a danger and a menace and should be rejected on the grounds of public safety,” Woolfork said. “And they chose not to listen.”
After the Unite the Right rally, the activist community focused on healing and justice for the rally’s victims.
“There are activists who are also psychiatrists and therapists, there are activists who are accountants or lawyers,” Heisey said. “It’s been primarily activist community members who have stepped up” building networks of support.
Gorcenski and other activists poured through hours of protest footage and troves of alt-right forum posts to identify the rally’s participants.
“We’ve watched lots of protest/conflict footage from other actions in the past, and it was clear that unmasking their actions would be important to achieving long-term legal, nonviolent effective resistance,” she said.
Slowly, the community began putting names to the faces that had terrorized their town. Online sleuths identified four of the six white supremacists filmed beating counterprotester DeAndre Harris with pipes in a parking garage. Two lawsuits against Unite the Right’s key players cite extensive evidence of violence pieced together from film footage and social media.
With their names in print and their associates in court, a number of white supremacists have told Newsweek or independently announced they’re staying away from Kessler’s anniversary rally.
“Our people need to stay out of Charlottesville,” Michael Hill, president of the neo-Confederate group League of the South, said during an appearance on the Stormfront Action podcast earlier this month. “That’s the lesson we learned, is there’s nothing for us to gain in going into places where we put ourselves at the mercy of a court system that is obviously clearly hostile to us and our intentions.”
Hill and other Unite the Right participants have claimed courts are unfairly prosecuting them for their role in the violent rally. The claim is dubious, to say the least. Although multiple documented incidents of white supremacist violence have gone unprosecuted, counterprotesters like DeAndre Harris have been hauled into court, accused of attacking white supremacists. Harris was acquitted, after a judge ruled that he had acted in defense of a friend whom a white supremacist was attempting to stab.
Hill, who bemoaned in the podcast that protests in other cities are “lost to us for the time being because of Negro voting rights and civil rights,” also neglected to mention that the League of the South agreed to a deal effectively banning them from Charlottesville. As part of a lawsuit over its involvement in Unite the Right, the League of the South signed an agreement in March barring them from armed demonstrations in the city. (Banned weapons include the shields and flagpoles the group uses as makeshift battering rams and spears.) The Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia, the New York Light Foot Militia, and the III% People’s Militia of Maryland signed similar agreements earlier this week.
The denial is an improvement over last year, when the city approved Kessler’s permit, activists said. But some would still rather see the city explicitly ban white supremacist rallies, not simply those that had been violent in the past.
“I think they’re trying to be as even-keeled as possible out of fear of litigation,” Woolfork said. “They seem to have gotten the message that white supremacist ideology is dangerous, but they are not willing to take, I believe, the truly moral step to say Kessler’s rally is a white supremacist Nazi rally, and therefore is inimical to our values and that we can ban that.”
Heisey also called on his neighbors to take a more explicit stance against white supremacy. He expressed frustration with local businesses that put up memorials for Heather Heyer “but then anonymously distribute flyers telling us we’re being too loud when we marched through downtown shouting ‘Black Lives Matter’ after DeAndre Harris was acquitted in his own beating.
“We have been constantly not only coming up against fascist organizers like Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, we’ve also been constantly coming up against the city in our organizing,” Heisey said.
Still, if the city succeeds against Kessler’s legal challenge (which is likely), he will be without a Charlottesville permit for the next Unite the Right. Last week he announced a Unite the Right “backup plan” on a livestream with Jean-Francois Gariepy, a far-right YouTuber accused of attempting to lure and impregnate a developmentally disabled teenager.
“I do have a backup plan, for people who have been asking, and that is going to be in front of the White House,” Kessler said. “So, if Charlottesville denies our permit for any reason, it’s not safe, we’re going to get in vans and we’re going to go to Lafayette Park in front of the White House.”
But if the rally takes place in Charlottesville, it will meet a community of activists who have been fighting it off for more than a year.
“It seems to me that if Kessler’s rally does happen, then a robust community defense where members of the community will stand up against this kind of dangerous, murderous, violent ideology will show up as well,” Woolfork said.
“This is one of the reasons I believe this movement is on the ropes: because we did not ignore the Nazis. We did not ignore the fascists. We did not ignore the white supremacists and let them proceed to go about their business undisturbed without any censure. These ideas are harmful, and they lead to horrible consequences in the real world.”