“Unite The Right” Rally Reflects A Growing Threat Of Extremism In America
Unite the Right is expected to be the largest white supremacist rally in recent history, reflecting a dangerous surge of extremist ideology in American society.
Residents and city officials in Charlottesville, Virginia are preparing for what may be the largest public gathering of white supremacists in at least a decade.
The so-called “Unite the Right” rally, which is scheduled to take place from 12–5pm on August 12, will bring together a variety of far-right and alt-right extremists, ranging from anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant hate groups to neo-Nazis, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, and members of the Ku Klux Klan, anti-government militias, and newer groups like the Proud Boys, American Guard and the Fraternal Order of Alt Knights.
While the alt-right has tried to rebrand white supremacy by distancing themselves from explicitly racist groups like the KKK, they seem to be diverging from their usual strategy by openly aligning with neo-Nazis and other known hate groups at Saturday’s rally.
The event’s organizer, Jason Kessler, is a white supremacist and newly sworn-in member of the alt-right Proud Boys who believes that the proportional increase of minorities in America is equivalent to “white genocide.” In a recent interview, Kessler said “the number one thing” he wants from Saturday’s rally is “to destigmatize Pro-White advocacy.”
Charlottesville is a college town of about 50,000 residents, but it became a hotspot for far-right activism this summer after it announced plans to remove a Confederate monument.
City officials are anticipating Saturday’s event to draw crowds of anywhere from 2,000 to 6,000 people, including counter-protesters, in and around the area of Emancipation Park, formerly known as Lee Park. If crowd size estimates hold up, it will be the largest public white supremacist rally in over a decade, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The location of the event became a subject of controversy this week when the city council announced that they would approve a permit for the gathering to be held at McIntire Park, a much larger park with more facilities and the capacity to hold larger crowds. City officials say moving the event from Emancipation Park to McIntire Park will allow them to provide better security for rally attendees and counter-protesters.
“The size and nature of the demonstration have evolved considerably since the time of Mr. Kessler’s application [on May 30],” City Manager Maurice Jones said in a statement Monday. “Based on information provided to me by law enforcement officials, the City has decided to approve Mr. Kessler’s application for a permit to hold a demonstration on the day and at the times requested, provided that he use McIntire Park, rather than Emancipation Park, for the demonstration.”
Kessler, however, is refusing to comply. He insists that the event “is absolutely not changing venues” and is encouraging rally attendees to show up at Emancipation Park, which is located in the heart of downtown Charlottesville and is home to the Confederate monument slated for removal.
“The genesis of the entire event is this Robert E. Lee statue that the city is trying to move, which is symbolic of a lot of other issues that deal with the tearing down of white people’s history and our demographic replacement,” Kessler said, according to the Washington Post.
Saturday’s rally will be the third official gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville this year. In May, self-identified white nationalist and alt-right leader Richard Spencer led a group of (tiki) torch-bearing protesters in a demonstration against the planned removal of the Robert E. Lee statue at Emancipation Park. In July, about 50 members of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan gathered at a nearby park to express their anger over what they called “the ongoing cultural genocide… of white Americans.”
Charlottesville Police Captain Victor Mitchell acknowledged Thursday that the city is preparing for “multiple possibilities” and have plans in place “to protect citizens in both parks.”
Still, local residents say they’re worried about violence and property destruction stemming from Saturday’s rally. Some of the right-wing groups slated to attend have enlisted protection from motorcycle gangs like the Warlocks, and similar events have broken out in violence throughout the summer.
“People are scared,” Brittany Caine-Conley, a member of Sojourners United Church of Christ in Charlottesville, told the Washington Post. “They are becoming more aware of the magnitude of this event and more aware of the violence that is done by the alt-right. And so people are anxious and afraid.”
Saturday’s rally exemplifies several alarming trends in right-wing extremism that emerged in the aftermath of Trump’s presidential campaign and subsequent election. While far-right extremism is nothing new in America, Trump’s incendiary rhetoric has emboldened a new breed of hate groups to step out from the shadows and into the mainstream.
White nationalists celebrated Trump’s election as a victory for their racist ideology. Some even think Trump is “nudging” them to commit acts of violence, or at the very least will tolerate it when they do.
It’s not hard to see how they would come to that conclusion. The Trump team has worked closely with prominent members of the alt-right, inviting many of them to attend White House briefings and coordinating their social media strategy with others. Several top administration officials have strong ties to the alt-right movement, including Steve Bannon, who ran the website Breitbart before joining the Trump administration as chief strategist. Under his leadership, Breitbart — which Bannon called “the platform for the alt-right” — moved towards increasingly extremist content, much of which reflected the white nationalist language of the alt-right movement. Bannon’s elevation to the White House was a signal to many that the Trump administration endorsed the extremist views pushed by Breitbart.
As president, Trump has repeatedly ignored — and at times even dismissed — the threat of white supremacist violence in his words and actions. Just days after taking office in January, Trump announced plans to remove white supremacists and other right-wing extremists from the Countering Violence Extremism Program, which was launched as a broad effort to address all forms of homegrown extremism. The policy change under the Trump administration would shift the program’s focus to “radical Islam,” officials said at the time.
“Donald Trump is setting us free,” the editor of the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer wrote in response to the announcement. “It’s fair to say that if the Trump team is not listening to us directly (I assume they are), they are thinking along very similar lines. This is absolutely a signal of favor to us.”
In a similar move, the Trump administration announced in late June that they were eliminating funding for one of the only groups in the country devoted to combatting neo-Nazi and far-right extremism. This was yet another sign that the Trump administration would turn a blind eye to the actions of a growing extremist movement.
Unite the Right, Divide the Nation
Perhaps most troubling are the group dynamics at work here, which are indicative of an identity movement’s spiral towards violent extremism. Though the groups that will coalesce in Charlottesville represent a spectrum of far-right viewpoints, they all share a common goal: Redefining the boundaries of the American identity — i.e., what it means to be a “real” American, and who gets to be included in that group.
This process involves several steps, the first of which is framing the identity of the “in-group” (those deemed to be “real” Americans) as inseparable from the derogation of an “out-group” (those who aren’t included in an increasingly narrow construction of American identity). The groups that make up the Unite the Right rally have differing perspectives on exactly where to draw the line separating the in-group from the out-group. The definition of the out-group is flexible and may include Muslims, immigrants, Jews, African Americans, liberals, feminists, and more. This so-called “fluidity of groups” often accompanies the transition to extremism.
The next step involves creating an “us vs. them” scenario in which the grievances of the in-group are blamed on members of the out-group. The clearest example of this is blaming joblessness and other economic woes on immigrants, as Trump so often does. Other examples include the perception that an out-group is benefiting unfairly (e.g., from government programs), cheating (e.g., through “voter fraud”), or threatening the legitimacy of their worldview (e.g., through liberal ideals such as gender and racial equality). Eventually, the out-group comes to be seen as an existential threat to the future of the in-group. This is reflected in the slogans for the Unite the Right rally: “They won’t replace us” and “We will not be replaced.”
These types of group comparisons have been shown to increase prejudice and discrimination, and have been used to justify atrocities ranging from torture to genocide. Over time, these actions become socially reinforced and normalized by the benefits of being a member of the in-group, which creates a sense of community and collective identity. This, in turn, can convince even the most hardcore extremists that they are not alone, and that their views are not actually extreme at all.
Several groups have announced plans for counter-demonstrations on Saturday. According to Charlottesville’s The Daily Progress, local chapters of Showing Up for Racial Justice and Black Lives Matter will be assembling and are calling for others to join them in counter-protest. The multi-demoninational clergy group Congregate Charlottesville issued a call for 1,000 clergy, especially white clergy, to attend counter-demonstrations.
Rally attendees are also planning for counter-protesters and many seem to be looking for confrontation. Michael Hill, head of the neo-Confederate League of the South, is telling people to gear-up for confrontations with counter-protesters, while Timothy “Treadstone” Gionet, aka “Baked Alaska,” is hoping for a confrontation with anti-fascist protesters.
Based on their Twitter posts, other rally attendees also appear to be planning for violence and confrontation Saturday.
Other posts, like this one retweeted by rally organizer Jason Kessler, seem to endorse the idea of using threats and intimidation against local government.
Even before the official start of the rally, Unite the Right attendees have reportedly already started trouble in Charlottesville. On Friday night, hundreds of torch-bearing white supremacists gathered in what was deemed an unlawful assembly in and around the University of Virginia’s Rotunda.
As fights broke out, some of the attendees reportedly used their torches as weapons, leading to at least one arrest and several injuries. In a statement, UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan condemned what she called an “unprovoked assault” on community members, including university personnel:
“…I am deeply saddened and disturbed by the hateful behavior displayed by torch-bearing protestors that marched on our Grounds this evening. I strongly condemn the unprovoked assault on members of our community, including University personnel who were attempting to maintain order.”
If this is any indication, Saturday’s rally will likely bring more trouble to a community that wants nothing to do with the hate espoused by the attendees and organizers of Unite the Right.
Residents say they know the national spotlight is on them, and they plan to use it to show their solidarity in the face of hate.
Stay tuned for updates as the rally begins on Saturday.