A week before this weekend’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, I got a call from a fellow journalist who was heading to Virginia and wanted to know if I was planning on bringing a helmet, a gasmask, or both. There had been much hype surrounding the rally, and both white nationalists and members of Antifa had engaged in a fiery tit-for-tat online about who was going to kick whose ass the hardest. “Virginia’s an open carry state,” my friend said. “Are you going to bring a flack jacket?”
I scoffed and told him that the talk of violence was wildly overblown. There was no way the cops were going to let the two groups come within a city block of each other. I advised him to pick a side to cover during the actual rally, since the police likely wouldn’t even allow journalists to pass between the two camps.
For the last six years I have spent an inordinate amount of time among the American radical right, reporting for my book. Among the first things I learned is that a white nationalist rally is much like the weigh-in of a professional boxing match. There is a lot of finger-pointing and why-I-oughta’s, but all from a safe distance, affording nationalists and counter-protesters the luxury of saving face while remaining blissfully unmolested. It is a song and dance that both far-right groups and Antifa understand, and have come to rely on.
Cases in point: At my first white nationalist rally, put on by the National Socialist Movement in Trenton, New Jersey, in 2011, there was plenty of talk of riots, counter-protester-bashing, and glorious battle. At another NSM rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a couple of years later, the nationalists stretched and did martial arts in the parking lot before heading to the city courthouse. It was all bluster. At both rallies the cops had arranged for the nationalists to park at a pre-ordained location so they could be marched safely to the rally site, give their speeches, and be marched off again. In Trenton the NSM were even bused in by police so they could maintain order. Furthermore, in both instances city centers were so tightly cordoned off that the NSM’s speakers weren’t loud enough to carry their message of racial superiority anywhere near earshot of bystanders and counter-protesters.
In April of this year, it was feared that a rally in Pikeville, Kentucky, hosted by the Nationalist Front, an umbrella white nationalist group that includes many of the most prominent groups from Charlottesville, would turn into a blood bath. Stores and businesses in downtown Pikeville closed for the day. Antifa was out in force, as were white nationalists. It transpired the way it usually did. The members of the Nationalist Front were escorted by police to a cordoned-off area from which they shouted at members of Antifa who were also cordoned off and shouting back. Mean stares, slurs, and threats of “You’re lucky these cops are here or I’d…” abounded. Then everyone went home.
There have been notable exceptions. In June of 2016 both nationalists and Antifa members ended up in the hospital when the two sides fought in Sacramento, California. But for the most part, white nationalists, Antifa, and law enforcement know their parts and play them well.
On Saturday morning in Charlottesville, things were already amiss. I was on the upper level of a downtown parking structure talking to Matthew Heimbach, the leader of the Traditionalist Workers Party, a fascist white nationalist group and one of the key players in Saturday’s rally. He told me that there had been no co-ordination with law enforcement in advance of the rally. “Nobody told us to use this parking garage,” he said. “We’ve asked the cops to provide us with a way into the rally site, but they haven’t responded at all.”
A few minutes later, a phalanx of 150 or so nationalists filed out of the parking garage, into East Market Street next to the Charlottesville Police Station. They were met by no one. There wasn’t a police officer in sight. I walked at the front of the line, interviewing the leaders as they marched. We approached Emancipation Park, and to my surprise I saw Antifa ahead. There were no barricades and no police, and as the nationalists marched into the waiting arms of their enemies, mayhem ensued. Pepper spray, paint, frozen water bottles, sticks, and clubs flew. The cops had blown their cue and the choreography of the white nationalist rally was thrown into chaos.
An order of sorts was re-established when a contingent of police officers corralled the nationalists into the park, but their control was tenuous, and multiple skirmishes occurred. Then, quite suddenly, the cops were gone, and all hell broke loose again. The barricades that had been erected in the park fell, and fights both large and small broke out. There were puddles of blood on the sidewalk, and terrified onlookers were shouting for police. I ran down a side street and saw cops in riot gear bravely guarding an empty plaza, seemingly completely uninterested in the pandemonium a block away.
Later, riot police emptied the park, but only after multiple people had been injured. Further up the street, outside the Charlottesville Police Department, officers looked on in profound disinterest as a band of nationalists beat a black kid by the entrance to the parking garage, while a handful of counter-protesters beat an elderly nationalist in the street. A policeman armed with a Taser and the look of someone who had just had a good nap ruined eventually broke up the latter fight. As people who had been pepper-sprayed, beaten, or Tased cried for help and begged the police to stop the violence, the officer grumpily motioned to the crowd to move on to anywhere but in front of police HQ.
By the end of the day 14 people had been injured in the fighting in Charlottesville. Additionally, one woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and 19 others injured when white nationalist James Alex Fields drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.
Heyer’s death and the injuries of the 19 were the result of a heinous act of cowardice and hate. The 14 injured were the result of Charlottesville authorities dropping the ball.
It was no secret that hundreds of armed and angry nationalists were about to rally in the city. They had been given a permit to be there. Antifa had also made it abundantly clear that it had no intention of letting the nationalists rally unchallenged. Every year nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members march in American streets, and every time they do counter-protesters are there to meet them. There are dozens of cities and towns that Charlottesville authorities could have looked to if they needed tips on how to deal with the threat of racist extremists marching in their streets.
Yet they chose to do nothing until it was too late. The radicals may have brought violence to Charlottesville, but the police chose to let it loose.