Charlottesville and the Sad State of Racist Extremism in the United States
A disastrously violent weekend in Charlottesville, a leafy university town in the Commonwealth of Virginia, has brought into focus the precarious issue of extreme American nationalism and intolerance. What started off as a political demonstration to protest the removal of a monument from the University of Virginia campus ended in a dangerous melee that left an activist and two police officers dead plus more than a dozen people injured. The activist killed has been identified as Heather Heyer; she was part of a group who gathered to protest the “Unite the Right” rally, which descended into chaos as the people of Charlottesville objected to the hateful and racist propaganda promoted by Neo-Nazi groups supporting the march. Heyer was run over by a car driven by a man who has been taken into custody, and described by his own mother as a Neo-Nazi sympathizer.
Prior the march, the Governor of Virginia activated police forces and the National Guard because intelligence gathered by analysts indicated that the march was an excuse for extremist groups to gather and display their racist and anti-immigrant hatred, which runs afoul of human rights laws in the U.S. According to various news reports, the Unite the Right rally was coordinated among members of the “alt-right” movement, a political faction that silently grew from radical opposition to the Obama administration. The most violent moments unfolded on August 11 and August 12. Many of the people who marched during the Unite the Right rally arrived ready for battle; they wore helmets, carried shields, batons, and gas masks. Some were members of militia groups; these individuals wore tactical uniforms and carried assault weapons, but no shots were fired. When Nazi salutes and hate-filled racist chants started, members of anti-fascism (antifa) groups confronted the extremists, and the fighting started almost immediately.
Some American antifa groups are known to partake in violence and engage in hand-to-hand combat, which is what happened in Charlottesville. Riot control police officers moved in quickly to disperse the crowd as tear gas canisters flew all around the campus blocks, parks and city streets. The right-wing extremists attempted to regroup in tactical formation, but by then the Mayor and Governor had ordered a curfew and urged the protesters to leave Virginia. U.S. President Donald Trump clumsily condemned the violence in Charlottesville, attributing it to “many sides” even as the rest of the country condemned the actions of the Neo-Nazi groups instigating hate. This incident is a painful reminder that many of these “alt-right” supporters, who mostly voted for Trump, have been trying to infiltrate the Republican Party over the last few years. By failing to directly condemn the Unite the Right rally organizers, Trump is enabling radicals to latch onto the Republican Party.
Like the Ferguson Riots and the Dallas shootings of police officers in 2016, the violence in Charlottesville suggests that American extremists continue to seek political recognition for the purpose of spreading their messages of intolerance, hate and racism.