by Reed Fawell III
This is the first of five posts on the events surrounding the white nationalist protests against efforts to remove the Lee and Jackson statues that occurred in the spring and summer of 2017 in Charlottesville, Va.
America’s national and local media constantly make references to the August 11/12, 2017, white nationalist protest rally in Charlottesville. Typically, these allusions render an over-simplified judgment without facts, nuance, context or perspective. Consequently, the rhetoric inflames public opinion, exacerbates the harm done by the rally, forecloses the possibility of reconciliation, and makes it more difficult to prevent a recurrence in the future.
The media’s short-hand references to “Charlottesville” display a woeful ignorance of the demonstrations and political events in the city during 2016 and 2017 that preceded and influenced the events of August 11/12. Absent that string of events, the outcome of the August 11/12 Unite the Right rally surely would have been very different. Indeed, the event and the violence it engendered might never have taken place.
Fortunately, there is an antidote to our national amnesia — the Final Report, Independent Review of the 2017 Protest Event in Charlottesville written by Timothy J. Heaphy with the Hunton & Williams law firm. Drawing on meticulous research of that report, I hope to shed light on those earlier incidents, discern their underlying causes, and explain how they shaped the events of August 11/12.
Here we will start with a chronology of events leading up to the July 8 and Aug 11/12 protests, taken almost exclusively from the Independent Review. To avoid personalizing the narrative, I have deleted the names of participants.
From March 2016 to June June 2017:
Events Leading up to July 8 and August 12 Disturbances in Charlottesville
In March of 2016, Charlottesville’s Vice Mayor and a University of Virginia professor and chairman of the local NAACP called an “unscheduled rally in Charlottesville.” There the Vice Mayor “expressed distaste for the Lee Statue” and the UVA professor argued that the statute evoked “all the horror and legacy for black people. It romanticizes for people who do not know. They look at that statute, they think it was a gallant person who saved us, but he was a terrorist.” The vice mayor then urged Charlottesville to remove the city’s two statues of Lee and Jackson.
This rally in downtown Charlottesville ignited at virulent controversy. The debate over the future of the statues became “a significant factor in the radicalization” of a local leader who would become a key figure in the later Unite the Right rallies in Charlottesville,” a man who “described himself as an advocate for ‘white civil rights’,” one who “believed that whites were unfairly asked to “apologize for history” and to ‘deny their cultural heritage’.” He was also reportedly angered by the Vice Mayor’s urging the boycott of a UVa lecturer’s restaurant for criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement on his Facebook page. Later, too, based on research turned up by that white nationalist leader, the vice mayor resigned his job at Albemarle high school for having posted “racially offensive and inflammatory statements” on Twitter before he’d moved to Charlottesville in 2011.
Thus, in March of 2016, there began a long series of escalating rhetoric and actions by opposing factions within the Charlottesville community that, over the ensuing 18 months, would cascade into the tragic events of August 11/12, 2017.
For example, on May 28, 2016, the Charlottesville City Council, responding to local pressures, created a Blue Ribbon panel whose designated objective was to provide the Council with options on how to tell “the full story of Charlottesville’s history of race and changing the city’s narrative through its public spaces.” That fall, on Nov. 10, the panel delivered its draft report. It recommended that the Lee and Jackson statues remain in place while adding context to the monuments, telling a fuller story about what they represented. The “draft” report changed in December, however, when the same panel offered one of two options for the Council to consider: that context be added if the statues be left in place, or that they could be removed. On Feb 6, 2017, the City Council by 3-2 vote ordered the removal of the Lee statue.
The council’s vote sparked a lawsuit in March 2017 claiming that removing the statue would be illegal, and that the city was required by law “to protect and preserve” the statues. The Court affirmed the plaintiffs’ request to stay the City Council’s order. That litigation on the merits of the case continues unresolved today, although the court did affirm the city’s right to change the names of Lee and Jackson Park.
Meanwhile, on Jan. 31, 2016, Charlottesville’s mayor called “an unscheduled” rally to protest the inauguration of President Trump. “Hundreds gathered in Charlottesville’s downtown mall” where the mayor proclaimed the city “The Capital of Resistance to Trump’s agenda.” A Charlottesville police officer later noted that in his view: “The mayor’s event was tantamount to war. The mayor’s rhetoric was ‘the recipe for undermining the legitimacy of the institutions of government’.”
These events brought a candidate for the GOP Governors race primary into the fray. He held two rallies in Charlottesville during February of 2017. During the first, held in Lee Park, a large crowd of counter-protesters interrupted the GOP candidate when he appeared alongside supporters waving a Confederate Battle Flag. The second rally attracted the local white nationalist leader who told the crowd that “every generation has a fight, and our fight is over this.” Later, in April, this local leader met another leading white nationalist leader at a rally in Washington, D.C., that protested Trump’s missile strike against Syria. The two leaders agreed to join forces for a May 13 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville to protest the removal of Lee’s statue.
On Saturday, May 13th, some 100 supporters, wearing white polo shirts and Khaki pants, marched through downtown Charlottesville twice, held rallies at Lee and Jackson Parks, and showed up at related events. At 11:00 a.m., for example, several white nationalists entered Lee Park where the annual Festival of Cultures was in full swing, thus drawing attention to themselves in their white shirts and khakis.
An hour later, nearly all of the 100 rally goers, carrying a variety of flags and signs, began their march from McGuffey Park down Jefferson Street in downtown Charlottesville, going past Lee Park with its Festival of Cultures in full swing, before the protesting marchers arrived at Jackson Park. Here, the group assembled before Stonewall Jackson’s statue at 12:30 a.m. and their leaders addressed the group.
One leader “prophesied a moral and psychological war of genocide against whites and pledged to fight that war on the battlefield of symbolism… (and described) Lee and Jackson as Gods.” He also alleged “that Charlottesville’s leadership sought to replace them with some ‘monument to slavery or the holocaust … or some statue to Lady Gaga’.”
Another leader, surrounded by Confederate flags, said the event was “more than about just Confederate monuments, (it was also about the) destruction of images of white people and white heroes to attack and demoralize our people, and make us think that we do not have a future.” He argued that the leaders of Charlottesville wanted to “replace us with some mixed, muddy people that will just be easy consumers and won’t stand up for themselves.”
Meanwhile, the crowd of white nationalist supporters that had gathered before the Jackson stature chanted slogans like “You will not replace us.”
One speaker argued there is “no reason why we can’t celebrate the history that brought us to the glorious future that we are emboldened in now.” He called the gathering one of “just white people that love our heritage, our culture, our European identity.” Another said he’d come from out of town “to take part in this great celebration of our heritage and to say no to the city of Charlottesville,” saying that the city “would not be permitted to tear down our statue and would not replace us.”
Another speaker reaffirmed that “those gathered here are not white supremacists … (This event is) a peaceful demonstration…(about) who we are and what are about … nobody here is committing violence.”
The Jackson Park event lasted about one hour, from 12:30 to 1:30 pm. There had been no forewarning of the unexpected assembly, so the city police arrived late. Also taken by surprise, the counter-protesters were slow to arrive on the scene. Other visitors appeared at random. For example, a young male Jew in his early twenties, hearing the commotion at Jackson Park from a nearby synagogue, walked over alone to “see what was up.” Apparently, he was the first non-participate to arrive. Later he told his father, the synagogue’s Rabbi, that, “he was surrounded by large group of aggressive white males who accosted him for wearing a yarmulke and made abrasive comments about his Jewish heritage.”
The first counter-protester known to have arrived, appeared around 1:30, and began “chanting Black Lives Matter” as the rally was breaking up. White nationalists had encircled the lone man, calling him “anti-white,” when more counter-protesters showed up. A physical altercation ensued, a counter protester fell to the ground, and the white demonstrators left. No arrests were made.
At 3:30 p.m. several white nationalists, including one of their leaders, reentered the Festival of Cultures going on at Lee Park, and engaged the “Germany” table in a discussion regarding Hitler.
The second white nationalist rally reassembled at 9 p.m. at McGuffy Park. From there they marched down Jefferson Avenue in the dark lit aglow with tiki porches, to arrive at Lee Park that had earlier that day been the site of the Festival of Cultures. On arrival, some 100 demonstrators lined up in ranks five deep in front of Lee’s statue, chanting, “blood and soil,” “you will not replace us,” “Russia is our friend,” and “we will not be overcome.”
During this assembly, a leader claimed the gathering “illustrated how matters proceed and people … conduct themselves when elements of the political Left do not appear to disrupt and attack peaceful demonstrators.” He also explained that the torch-lit assembly standing in ranks symbolized how WWII “is not accurately depicted in the history books.” And that the white polo shirts and khaki pants had been chosen “as a deliberate contrast to the black worn by Antifa.”
Again, the counter-protesters were slow to arrive that night. A lone counter protester appeared at 9:20 p.m. to demand that the demonstrators “get out of my town.” Like the young Jew earlier in Jackson Park, he was surrounded by the torch lit marchers. An altercation ensued. Police arrived on the scene, broke up the disturbance, and the demonstrators departed. No arrests were made.
While the counter-protesters were caught by surprise and slow to react on the ground to these first white nationalists rallies on May 13, “Charlottesville political figures and social activists immediately denounced the event(s),” presumably via social media.
The city Mayor said the white nationalist event was “either profoundly ignorant or designed to instill fear in our minority populations in a way that harkens back to the days of the KKK.”
The city’s delegate to the state General Assembly tweeted to “condemn the outrageous protests … by apparent white supremacists.”
A clergy collective condemned the “acts of hate and bigotry that threaten to intimidate and undermine the peace and well-being of our neighbors.”
The national media also was quick to get involved. TIME ran a story, noting that Charlottesville’s mayor received “anti-Semitic tweets.”
The white nationalist marches and rallies on May 13, 2017 no doubt sent a shock wave through Charlottesville. And these rallies also made apparent that a large network of citizens had organized and was in place to respond, despite their initial surprise, to the appearance of marchers and protesters. For example, the following morning, on Sunday, May 14, a UVa law professor “circulated an e-mail to like minded activists, including the mayor and (the city’s head of human rights department), asking if plans were underway for a response to the ‘protest in Lee Park, (adding) if not, ‘God help us all’.”
This e-mail triggered an “outpouring of responses.”
One reply, from a local minister, proposed a gathering that Sunday evening to show “solidarity with all those who have been silenced by the evil of white supremacy.”
A parishioner replied that planning was already underway for a 9:00 p.m. rally that evening — one that would “Take Back Lee Park … We will also be sending the message that they will not come here to intimidate us unchallenged. That their statues WILL COME DOWN. And we will be standing here together in love and protect one another … tell everyone you know to meet us in Lee with candles, flowers and balloons … but don’t put this out in public…”
Whatever the effort for secrecy by the counter-protesters, it is clear that City officials knew about the rally by mid afternoon. And, like all recent political rallies in Charlottesville, no permit was sought or requested.
The counter-protester rally on May 14 began at 9 p.m., sponsored by local anti-racist and other activists groups. Five city police officers, plus a sergeant in charge, were also there. Soon “Anti-racist demonstrators covered the Lee statue with a drape that read: ‘Black Lives Matter – Fuck White Supremacy’.” The counter-protest speakers focused on “two messages: embracing diversity and inclusion. And rejecting the imagery and tactics used by (the local leader of the earlier marchers).”
Here, at this Sunday night counter rally, for example, the Chair of the city’s Blue Ribbon Panel that had earlier made recommendations on the statues to the City Council told a local reporter that the rally was designed to tell the white nationalists that: “We will not let you come in and take over, and we are going to do it in the proper way. It might take six months to take care of the situation, but we are not going to give up the fight.”
The Independent Report goes on to say: “The tenor of the event changed around 10:00 p.m. when the city police announced that the park was schedule to close, and (the local white nationalist leader) arrived with a bullhorn.” He said he’d witnessed on a live stream a black person at the rally “being bullied and called a Nazi which prompted him to go to Lee Park.” Then, seeing the drape over Lee’s statue for the first time, believing it “vandalism,” the local white nationalist leader tore the drape down from the statue. A scuffle ensued. Three people were arrested: one for spitting on the local white nationalist leader, the white nationalist leaders himself for refusing to stop using the bullhorn, and a third man from Richmond, for disorderly conduct and carrying a concealed weapon. And, despite efforts of the white nationalist leader on May 14, 2017, the drape still covers and hides the Lee statue to this day, testament to the controversies that still simmer in Charlottesville.
The Independent Report also draws several important conclusions from the events over the weekend of May 13th and 14th, namely: “The May 13th event at Lee Park hardened the resolve of Charlottesville elected official to remove the Lee statue. Three weeks later, on June 5, the Charlottesville City Council voted unanimously to change the name of Jackson Park to “Justice Park” and to change the name of Lee Park to “Emancipation Park.””
The events surrounding that weekend also elevated the profile and exposure of the two principal white nationalist leaders of the rallies, both locally and statewide, and “among both Alt-Right followers and local progressive activists.”
“The May 14 event triggered by the white nationalist rallies the day before also demonstrated a degree of coordination between various activist groups in Charlottesville and their ability to rapidly mobilize a large scale response to a perceived threat using social media and interpersonal networks.”
These weekend events revealed an “operational blind spot” within the Charlottesville Police Department (CPD). “The CPD moved to purchase software capable of pinpointing potential threats based on social media activity.” To anticipate future events, the CPD also beefed up intelligence assets to report on activities of the various players.
City leaders also looked into strengthening the town’s event-permitting process.
“The most important outcome of the events of May 13 and May 14, however, was an escalation of the attention and participation in the debate surrounding the removal of Lee statue … a local dispute moved to the forefront of a national debate on race and cultural heritage,” stated the Independent Report. It was revealed (that) the rally leaders “planned to use the Lee statue as a vehicle to transmit their white nationalist message to a broader audience,” and that these leaders were willing “to employ tactics and evoke images drawn directly from Nazi Germany and the Ku Klux Klan.”
What the Independent Report failed to mention was the obvious fact the tension between the various factions, and their violence or the threat of violence, dramatically increased when the opposing groups came into contact with one another in public places. This reality would play an enormous roll in the upcoming rallies staged on July 8th and on the weekend of August 11/12, when clashes would grow exponentially.
In my next post, I will examine the white nationalist rally of July 8, and how the City of Charlottesville reacted to it.
Reed Fawell III, the former president of a Washington D.C., law firm, is a graduate of the University of Virginia.