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Here’s What Really Happened In Charlottesville

Who came ready for violence? Was it on “many sides”? The answers are clearer on the ground.

Originally posted on
Updated on

Yes, you can blame the Nazis.

The race-fueled chaos that wracked Charlottesville, Virginia, finally came to rest on Sunday night. And the hundreds of people who spent the weekend fighting in streets — and the millions who watched them — began what has become a new American ritual: arguing about what really happened, and what a spasm of localized political violence means.

Was this an assault by racist extremists on innocent, rightly outraged Americans? Was it a clash between “many sides,” as President Trump notoriously said? Was the scale of the white supremacist threat blown out of proportion? Was the violence of the black-hooded “antifa” understated?

The answers are clearer on the ground than they are in the filter bubbles driven by fierce partisan argument on social media and cable news. They are complicated but not ambiguous. Here are a few:

* The right-wing protesters were relatively homogenous — in ideology and appearance — and largely ready for violence. They ranged from old-line racists like the Ku Klux Klan to the ones who wear polo shirts instead of hoods who try to brand themselves “alt-right.” There was no ambiguity about their cause — they demand the nation become whiter, and they are emboldened by a White House administration they believe makes that promise when the president yells “America first.”

* The counterprotesters, in contrast, represented a far broader spectrum of the American center and left. There were self-identified “anti-fascists”; Black Lives Matter activists from around the country; religious leaders, including around 100 Christian ministers wearing their clerical collars; furious Charlottesville residents; and garden-variety liberals from as far away as Seattle. A handful of the “anti-fascists” wore Black Bloc garb — black shirt, black pants, black balaclava — to conceal their identities from police, though most did not.

* The right-wingers were more prepared for violence. Most white supremacist and Nazi groups arrived armed like a paramilitary force — carrying shields, protective gear, rods, and yes, lots of guns, utilizing Virginia’s loose firearm laws. They used militarized defensive maneuvers, shouting commands at one another to “move forward” or “retreat,” and would form a line of shields or a phalanx — it’s like they watched 300 a few times — to gain ground or shepherd someone through projectiles. It seemed that they had practiced for this. Virginia’s governor said that the right’s weaponry was better than that of the state police. The opposition was largely winging it, preferring to establish bases in other parks with water, coffee, food, first aid, and comfort. Conflict would start much the same as it has at other alt-right rallies: two people, one from each side, screaming, goading each other into throwing the first punch.

By Sunday, even among the most radical voices on the left, there was incredulity at attempts — from various swaths of the mainstream to pro-Trump media, and of course, the president himself — to compare them to their enemies. This is Trump’s “many sides.”

“No one on our side is calling for vast swaths of the public to be put to death,” said Lacy McAuley, an anarchist activist based in DC who led counterdemonstrators in a march through the streets.

That is all to say that the neo-Nazis came to fight. And then their car attack escalated their rolling American streetfight with antifa to a far deadlier level than previously seen.

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White nationalist organizer Jason Kessler set the stage for the bloody day when he announced months ago that he would “Unite the Right” against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park in downtown Charlottesville.

On Friday night, white supremacists gathered for an eerie torchlit march through the University of Virginia. They fought with counterdemonstrators and menacingly encircled student activists who held the line at the statue of Thomas Jefferson — the image of the darker circle of students surrounded by the light from burning tiki torches becoming an image that traveled widely on social media. The torch-bearers were chanting the Nazi slogan “blood and soil” and the KKK mantra “You will not replace us.” Richard Spencer led a similar march in Lee Park on May 15 to protest the removal of the statue of Lee.

Kessler scheduled the Saturday rally to start at noon. By the time BuzzFeed News arrived at 10:30 a.m., violent conflict was already in full swing.

Through the day, the right-wing extremists brawled with the leftists who had really come to fight, all in a park formerly named for a Confederate general. The day got bloodier and more dangerous until 1:45 p.m., when a young man identified by police as James Alex Fields, 20, drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of anti-racist counterdemonstrators, and peeled away in reverse. He allegedly injured 19 people and killed one, Heather Heyer, in the act of terrorism.

Hard to see from afar, but intensely visible on the ground, were the different shades of right-wing extremist. They included new racist and personalities like social media personality Baked Alaska, Spencer, and Identity Evropa, a white supremacist group that argues for pure European heritage, alongside more old-school hate groups like the Traditionalist Workers’ Party, affiliated with the KKK, and the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi organization that held its ornate banner, which clearly evokes a Swastika, aloft throughout the day. Fields was marching with Vanguard America, a small white nationalist organization, wearing the group’s uniform and carrying its shield.

A few of the counterprotesters — namely members of a group called Redneck Revolt — were armed with shotguns, assault rifles, and pistols.

But there were many more guns on the right, many carried by a group called the Three Percenters, a heavily armed “patriot” militia group that’s acted as security at other alt-right rallies in Portland and elsewhere. The group’s views align more with libertarianism — fundamentalist interpretations of the Constitution and an emphasis on personal liberty — than with the alt-right.

Those groups, evidently aware of the real danger, appeared to keep members of each side separate from the other in certain areas. Three Percenters stood on one side of Emancipation Park, Redneck Revolters a few blocks away at a different park.

Three Percenters said in an official statement after the rally that they disowned the racist groups at Unite the Right and issued a stand-down order during the rally. But they also served as a kind of armed guard for their leaders: After police forced the white nationalists out of Emancipation Park, Three Percenters formed a protective barrier around alt-right blogger Mike Enoch and Spencer. Enoch appeared to have been pepper-sprayed.

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The area of most intense conflict was on the steps into Emancipation Park. Each side squared off against the other in a schoolyard turf war. At around 11:00, counterdemonstrators deployed a large sign made from plywood spray painted with “alt-right scum your time has come” and a decapitated Pepe the Frog. It doubled as a barrier and quickly became a prize, with each side fighting to gain control of it. Eventually it fell, right-wingers stomped on it, and people continued fighting.

Each side also threw dozens of water bottles at the other. It was the preferred projectile of the day, along with rocks, tomatoes, broken flagpoles, and balloons filled with paint, one of which splattered a police car.

Right-wing extremists carried a variety of different flags — the libertarian “Don’t Tread on Me” with the familiar sliced-up snake, flags with symbols of the racist neo-pagan cause Odinism, Confederate flags, Blue Lives Matter flags, Kekistan flags, and others. Counterdemonstrators made a game of stealing the banners, though right-wingers would beat them with the shorn flagpoles.

The weapon of choice — for the police, right-wing fighters, and antifa alike — was pepper spray. Police used the most, blasting it from large canisters at protesters. None of the fights that broke out lasted very long because one side or the other would use pepper spray to rescue their combatants.

Around noon, both state and local police declared Unite the Right and the demonstrations in the surrounding streets an unlawful assembly. They evicted everyone from Emancipation Park by a police line. Right-wing extremists and white nationalists fought the police, which is highly unusual. (At previous rallies in Berkeley and Portland, the alt-right has complied with police direction and sought permits for their gatherings, which has helped them maintain the stance that they are acting in self-defense when things get violent. The permits, in particular, ensure that their left-wing antagonists, often antifa in Black Bloc formation, end up on the wrong side of a police riot shield.)

In Charlottesville, though, white nationalists, including Spencer, leaned against police’s riot shields in a desperate attempt to keep their place. Police pushed them along the entire length of the park and down the stone steps into a waiting, screaming crowd.

While police were removing people from the park, counterdemonstrators had a chance to storm one side of it as right-wingers retreated. There were mixed messages among right-wingers, some of whom said to fall back and some of whom wanted to hold their ground despite police warnings.

One young white man carrying the black and white flag of Odinism started brawling with counterprotesters even as his own comrades retreated.

“Let’s get this race war started! Shoot me!” he yelled.

Instead, a counterdemonstrator stole his flag and tried to escape over a police fence. The man with the Odinist flag followed the protester, grabbed his backpack, and smashed his head into the metal barricade.

After police vacated the park by force, both sets of protesters splintered. BuzzFeed News followed a group of white nationalists and Black Lives Matter activists who engaged in a brutal brawl involving metal poles in a parking garage adjacent to the Charlottesville police station. One of the victims, De’Andre Harris, said he was yelling curses at white nationalists and was wearing a white scarf with curses about the Klan scrawled on it. They chased him, caught him, and beat him with wooden poles and punches.

Earlier in a parking garage in #Charlottesville - white supremacists beat this black kid w/poles. [Photo for by… https://t.co/nbjPn5jMgh

Kessler, Redneck Rebellion, Vanguard America, Spencer, and Identity Evropa declined to speak to BuzzFeed News.

When Fields allegedly drove his car into a crowd after the crowds were forced from the park, people at the intersection of 4th and Market were hysterical, calling out for friends and asking people they knew if others in their circles were safe, though each person seemed to have less information than the last. Emergency responders had difficulty making their way to the site of the attack because of the crowd’s sheer size. After, there were isolated reports that white nationalists were driving around town taunting people, but things remained largely quiet.

The day after the rally, Kessler attempted to hold a press conference but was run off by protesters. Later, on Periscope, he disputed the characterization of the rally as affiliated with the KKK or neo-Nazis, saying it was “only about the statue” and blaming the day’s carnage on police inaction. Many right-wingers at the rally have charged police and Charlottesville city government with the crimes of the day.

He did not reject the description of it as a white nationalist rally, and he did say that the KKK and neo-Nazi groups who were slated to speak had “good points to make.” He exaggerated the extent of the antagonism right-wingers faced by saying that antifa were armed with rifles and that right-wingers had been pinned in the park by thrown bricks. Police in fact evicted right-wingers from Emancipation Park, and the only left-wingers armed with guns appeared to be blocks away.

At the heart of the arguments since Saturday has been the question: Was this a symmetrical battle between two parallel sides?

2. The hard left seemed as hate-filled as alt-right. I saw club-wielding "antifa" beating white nationalists being led out of the park 2/2

Each side did engage in intense violence and attempted to seriously injure the other. But when the battle lines were formed, the right came better equipped and ready to use force to defend their belief that white people are better than nonwhite people. And on the white supremacist side is Fields, whose alleged act was named terrorism by people from the far left to members of the Trump cabinet (but not the president himself). He is charged with one count of second degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and one count of hit and run.

After posting the tweets above, Sheryl Gay Stolberg later apologized and modified her statement, clarifying that she was talking about physical violence rather than hate.

Rethinking this. Should have said violent, not hate-filled. They were standing up to hate. https://t.co/3O9QpC0NQ3

On the ground, leftists were incredulous at the parallel between the Nazis and their range of enemies.

“One side wants to eject all black people from America, the other wants fair hiring,” said Emily Gorcenski, a Charlottesville activist. “It makes me sick to hear people say both sides are equally bad, especially when we tried so hard to make it nonviolent.”

Despite the deep enmity on the ground in Charlottesville, the violence came after some backchannel efforts a week ago to prevent it failed. Gorcenski met with C.J. Ross and Daniel Highberger, members of the Virginia Three Percenters, in Fishburn Park in Roanoke, Virginia, last Saturday, Gorcenski and Ross both confirmed.

Ross had been in conflict with right-wingers online; he did not want the event to have white nationalist overtones and did not want the Three Percenters to participate if it did. Kessler personally disinvited him. He went in plainclothes.

Ross was looking for Gorcenski at the time of the car attack. She said she was mere feet from the Dodge Challenger. He said he was around the corner. In the mayhem following the attack, Ross said he tried to make way for emergency responders. As paramedics went to work, he said he got into conversation with Black Lives Matter activists and found he liked and agreed with them.

“I had a great conversation with them. I’d never met anyone in a BLM group before. These particular people said they were all about freedom and liberty as well,” he said. “Something awful happened, and, for me at least, it turned into a small positive thing, which, I think, is what we all want.”

Other perspectives on this story

Outside Your Bubble is a BuzzFeed News effort to bring you a diversity of thought and opinion from around the internet. If you don't see your viewpoint represented, contact the curator at bubble@buzzfeed.com. Click here for more on Outside Your Bubble.

CORRECTION

James Fields allegedly drove a Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counterdemonstrators. An earlier version of this article misidentified his car.


Blake Montgomery is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Blake Montgomery at blake.montgomery@buzzfeed.com.

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