Because the events in Charlottesville were so calamitous and the fallout both extraordinary and ongoing I am going to write several blogs on it over the next few weeks. This is partly because the ripples from Charlottesville, whether in terms of online censorship, street violence, protests, Donald Trump, the Mainstream Media, and right and left wing responses to it, are still happening. It is also because I wanted some time to see how the dust settles…
PART 1: CHARLOTTESVILLE
Since the chaotic and shocking scenes at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12th, the world, and the US in particular, has been in a state of virtual hysteria over both the rally, and the brutal violence on display. Violence which culminated in the death of a female protestor, 32 year Heather Hyers, who was mowed down by a car driven at speed into a crowd of people opposed to the far right rally, killing one and injuring 19 others.
To recap briefly, the Unite the Right rally had been organised to protest the removal of Confederate statues, specifically the statue of General Robert E Lee, that stands in Emancipation Park (previously Lee Park) in Charlottesville. There had already been two earlier peaceful protests against the statues removal, one by the Alt-Right in May when Richard Spencer, the founder of the Alt-Right and its charismatic spokesman, addressed a crowd of some 200 supporters, the other was in July, when some 50 or so members of the Ku Klux Klan demonstrated while several hundred protested against their presence. At neither event had there been any trouble or violence to speak of.
In June, a local rightwing activist, Jason Kessler, applied to the city for a permit to hold a rally and was granted permission to hold the event in Emancipation Park on August 12th. From that point on, as disquiet about the removing of statues grew so did the support among nationalist groups for the Unite the Right event, so much so, that by late July it was becoming obvious that this was going to be both a major spectacle, and, potentially, a major publicity coup for the Alt-Right, far right, and nationalist right, as well.
It was at this point, with just days to go before the rally, that Charlottesville’s city council decided to withdrew the permit for Emancipation Park issued to Kessler and offer him a permit for a rally in McIntire Park instead; a venue several miles away from Emancipation Park and the controversial General Lee statue. Kessler refused to be moved and legal action was taken to reinstate the original permit. Then, just 24 hours before the rally date, a federal judge sided with Kessler and the original permit was upheld for the rally to be legally held at Emancipation Park.
That night, Friday August 11th, saw hundreds of Alt-Right and nationalist attendees stage an unofficial torchlit parade through the grounds of the University of Virginia. Chanting slogans like ‘You Will Not Replace Us’ and ‘Blood and Soil’, the slogan of Walter Darre’s Blut und Boden division in Nazi Germany which obsessed on the relationship between ‘pure’ German peasants blood and the land in maintaining pure German ethnicity for future generations, the march caused disquiet and upset many who witnessed it.
The next morning, the day of the rally itself, pictures and footage of the march appeared online ensuring that the world’s media, together with thousands of for and against protesters would make the effort to attend. But it is the attendance of numerous uniformed and menacing far right members together with hundreds of supporters that really shocked the mainstream media more used to seeing 'big' far right gatherings attract less than hundred attendees on a good day - this was something new that they could not ignore and many were genuinely shocked by what they saw and the overt and open signs of Nazism on display.
Nor could the left ignore this resurgent right, or it would transpire, could the city council, the Mayor and the local police, who, seemingly furious at having their ruling to move the rally overturned, appeared determined to stop the rally altogether by any means necessary.
By all reasonable accounts the various nationalist and Alt-right groups began heading to Emancipation Park at around 9.30 - 10.00 on the Saturday morning. They found that the police had fenced off the park in such a way as to only allow access at an entrance on East Market Street, one of the main streets in Charlottesville, and one also chosen by those opposed to the rally to congregate in. Unusually, or in fact unknown in situations like this, there was very little police presence and absolutely no attempt by the forces of law and order to keep the two opposing groups apart, making violent clashes and confrontations virtually inevitable.
What followed was shambolic, predictable and totally avoidable. The protesters, including numerous supporters of Black Lives Matter and Antifa, were inevitably hyped up by the reports of the previous nights torchlit parade and by the presence of so many neo-nazis types in one place. Also protesting against the right were many non-violent, but extremely vocal local people determined to stop what they saw as a direct assault on their values and city by a resurgent Nazism. On the other side was an assorted mixture of the Alt-Right, the old right, the new old right, nationalists, militias, Christians, Trump supporters, and the assorted right curious.
With no attempt by the police and authorities to keep the two sides apart, and with the protesters outnumbering the right who were generally making there way to Emancipation Park in small groups, it meant that the shouting of abuse very rapidly escalated into physical confrontations and the throwing of missiles by protesters at the rally attendees. However, that said, once the Unite the Right supporters had managed to battle their way into the park, which was surrounded by metal fences erected by the police, they were relatively safe in their enclosure. Unite the Right attendees also maintained a ‘shield wall’ at the single open entrance to the park to ensure that only pro Unite the Right supporters were admitted.
With the first speeches due to start at about 12 o’clock, a sort of shambolic order had been established and was being maintained despite the increasingly violent atmosphere and attempts by the protesters to disrupt proceedings by throwing missiles into the park and the people in the park throwing missiles back at the protesters.
Then, at about 11.30, some thirty minutes before the first speaker was due to address the crowd the police on duty were pulled on the grounds that the event was unsafe. Shortly after that at about 11.40 several canisters of Tear gas were thrown into the park area by the protesters - tear gas is not something that can be legally bought and is usually held by the authorities ,so it is unclear as to how several canisters of it were in the hands of the protesters?
Regardless, a few minutes later the governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, declared an official “State of Emergency” in Charlottesville, meaning that even a gathering of a small group of people was illegal. To enforce this ruling, heavily armoured riot police formed a wall and began driving out all of those gathered in the park out onto East Market Street where large numbers of protesters, including those aligned to Antifa and BLM, were gathered. The the police had made no attempt to disperse the protesters first to avoid a confrontation and instead pushed the right wing attendees straight into the arms of their sworn enemy.
Inevitably with hundreds of attendees of the Unite the Right rally suddenly forced onto a crowded street filed with hostile people shouting at them and, in many cases physically attacking them, it made an already volatile situation incredibly dangerous for everyone.
Lots of people on the Unite the Right side would have been unfamiliar with Charlottesville and unsure of where they were to go (many walked several miles to the McIntire Park only to be told that that gathering was also illegal) and worried for their safety. As a result many found themselves being attacked as they tried to disperse.
Many have described having to fight their way out, and looking at footage of the event it is obvious that the authorities at best had, by their actions, made a bad but totally legal situation, much worse. Either that or they had cynically orchestrated and allowed a near riot to develop in order to be able to declare a ‘State of Emergency’ and prevent the rally from happening at all.
The resulting chaos and sporadic street fights that followed in turn began attracting local toughs and thugs or saw in the virtual anarchy an opportunity to have some fun at the expense of the ‘nazis’ in their midst. As Unite the Right supporters tried to get to their cars or became separated from their colleagues in side streets so they were attacked by Antifa, BLM activists and gangs of teenagers armed with baseball bats and other weapons.
This, it seems, is what possibly happened to James Alex Fields, the man who drove his car into the crowds of protesters celebrating the collapse of the Unite the Right rally killing Heather Hyer. Footage taken of his car up to the moment he drove into the protesters and again as he reversed away afterwards at speed, shows the car being chased by some 10 to 15 youths armed with clubs which some of them were hitting the car with.
Possibly Fields panicked, fearing for his life, possibly he got angry at his car being hit and drove at the crowd in a rage, or perhaps it was just some terrible accident? Whatever the reason, and that will be for a jury to decide, it was unlikely a planned or premeditated action, and had the two sides been kept apart and order maintained, would likely never have happened.
Indeed, many, including the Texan Republican, Louie Gohmert, have called for a full Justice Department investigation into governor McAuliffe and Charlottesville’s Mayor Signer, who he believes were behind the violence and indeed may have facilitated it. Whatever the outcome of an investigation, or of Field’s trial, it is also obvious that what could have been a media triumph for the Alt-Right and nationalist movements, was in the end a public relations disaster, the ramifications of which, for good or bad, will be felt for the far right, Donald Trump's administration, the left, and American society, for a long time to come.
© Nigel Wingrove 2017
WHOSE SPEECH! OUR SPEECH! Part 2 - Weaponised Satire
WHOSE SPEECH! OUR SPEECH! Part 3 - The Great Shuttening
WHOSE SPEECH! OUR SPEECH! Part 4 - Tomorrow is Another Day
WHOSE SPEECH! OUR SPEECH! Part 4 - Tomorrow is Another Day