Horrible as it was, Charlottesville did at least show that actions do have consequences. People can be held accountable for their deeds. That’s especially true when they congregate in broad daylight and spew some of the ugliest hatred I’ve ever heard in my life, and assault passive bystanders, all surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of smartphone cameras taking nonstop pictures and videos. Those pictures and videos immediately went up on social media. Alt-right protesters who had lived double lives soon found they could no longer hide from who they really were. They had exposed themselves—and the world took notice, and recoiled. The world shuddered and said, no.
The time in the public eye was especially disastrous for the lead organizer of the “Unite the Right” rally, Jason Kessler. Did his time in the limelight go to his head? Was all that notoriety too much for him? Or was his judgment always seriously suspect? It wasn’t enough that he stepped up to that row of microphones to attempt a press conference the day after Heather Heyer, Berke Bates, and Jay Cullen were killed, and had to turn tail and run. He couldn’t help himself.
The following Friday, Kessler went on Twitter and sent out one of the more vile social-media posts I’ve ever seen: “Heather Heyer was a fat, disgusting Communist. Communists have killed 94 million. Looks like it was payback time.”
After that even a lot of Kessler’s alt-right fellow travelers wanted nothing to do with him. Richard Spencer, his idol, washed his hands of Kessler. He replied on Twitter, “I will no longer associate w/ Jason Kessler; no one should. Heyer’s death was deeply saddening. ‘Payback’ is a morally reprehensible idea.”
Kessler would try various excuses to walk back the despicable attack on Heather, saying he’d taken too much Ambien, suggesting he’d been hacked—but no one seemed to believe any of them. His words were appalling, and they were terrible publicity for the white supremacist movement.
“It’s just the exact wrong thing that anyone should be saying at this point, from a moral perspective and from a strategic perspective,” Richard Spencer told The Washington Post. “This woman did nothing wrong.”
Kessler went into hiding, deleting or suspending his various social-media accounts, but the damage had been done. The fish was dying from the head. “Condemnation poured in over the weekend,” Kristine Phillips wrote in The Washington Post. “The disavowals suggested that the alt-right, a movement that blossomed on social media and the Internet, may be splintering online after the disaster in Charlottesville.”
Unfortunately, Charlottesville was the first real opportunity during the Trump administration for these people to act on the license they felt they had from the president of the United States. They felt that they were empowered. Trump’s words had unleashed them, launching the scheme of a “Unite the Right” rally, and he had only given them more encouragement when on the day of the tragedy he failed to condemn the neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Two days later, Trump finally got around to making a clear statement, specifically calling out the KKK and neo-Nazis, as I had on Saturday. “Racism is evil,” he said at the White House. “And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
No one took his new comments very seriously. The damage was already done. Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck & Co., and two other executives resigned in protest from the American Manufacturing Council over Trump’s earlier Charlottesville comments—and were not swayed by the Monday statement.
“The statement today was more ‘kumbaya’ nonsense,” none other than Richard Spencer said on Monday. “He sounded like a Sunday school teacher. I don’t think that Donald Trump is a dumb person, and only a dumb person would take those lines seriously.”
By the next day, Trump decided to skip the pretext. Talking to reporters at Trump Tower, he said: “I think there is blame on both sides. You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now.” That was when he added: “You also had some very fine people on both sides.”
So much for walking back his earlier racist comments. As The New York Times reported, “Venting, his face red as he personally executed the defense of his own actions that no one else would, Mr. Trump all but erased any good will he had earned Monday when he named racist groups and called them ‘repugnant to everything we hold dear.’”
David Duke, the KKK leader, loved it—and immediately praised Trump’s remarks. A chorus of Republicans denounced Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” retreat from his words a day earlier. Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn drafted a resignation letter after standing in the lobby of Trump Tower during the president’s outburst, but ultimately delayed his exit from the administration until March 2018.The combination of the Charlottesville tragedy and Trump’s insistence on further inflaming both his supporters and critics came across almost as a challenge, and many responded.
The combination of the Charlottesville tragedy and Trump’s insistence on further inflaming both his supporters and critics came across almost as a challenge, and many responded. These guys thought they were going to have themselves a wild weekend, going out and kicking some ass and having some fun, splitting some heads, beating some people up, men or women, they didn’t care. Never for a second did they stop to think they could lose their jobs over it. Their faces were put up on social media, and then they were hounded.
Logan Smith of Raleigh, North Carolina, started a Twitter account, @YesYoureRacist, and started posting pictures and videos of torch-carrying white supremacists. One of the first the site focused on—and named—was Cole White, a twenty-three-year-old who traveled all the way from the San Francisco Bay Area to Charlottesville specifically with the intent of wreaking havoc. Soon after Smith posted White’s picture at the Friday-night torch rally at UVA, he lost his job at Top Dog, a famous Berkeley hotdog joint one block from campus known for libertarian politics, over the public outcry.
By December 2018, White was pleading guilty in U.S. district court to federal charges stemming from his violent actions in Charlottesville. Law enforcement did great work. They had White and he knew it, so in court he confirmed the obvious, that he flew to Virginia in August 2017 specifically to “engage in violent confrontations with protesters or other individuals at the upcoming events in Charlottesville.”
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office offered this explanation of White’s actions at the Friday-night march: “Violence erupted among the crowd, with some individuals punching, kicking, spraying chemical irritants, swinging torches, and otherwise assaulting others, all resulting in a riot. Among that riot, White admitted today to swinging his torch and striking several individuals and that none of these acts of violence was taken in self-defense.”
At the “Unite the Right” rally the next day, White and other members of the Rise Above Movement (RAM) moved into a group of counter protesters and “collectively punched, pushed, kicked, choked, head-butted, and otherwise assaulted several individuals resulting in a riot. White admitted to personally committing multiple acts of violence. For example, after having already made his way through a group, White turned around and observed a protester blocking the sidewalk by holding on to a street sign. White walked back, grabbed the individual by the shoulders, and punched him until he released the sign. White then head-butted a male whom he perceived was in his way. Finally, White head-butted a female protester who was present on the sidewalk, resulting in a laceration to her face.”
Part of the horror of that weekend was how brazen these racists were. It was unbelievable that weekend to see so many young men showing their faces and engaging in such vile acts. They didn’t cover their faces, even though they knew they were being photographed, and seemed to welcome the attention. One by one, many of them joined Cole White in regretting that they could ever have been so un-American.
A. C. Thompson reported in his Frontline documentary Documenting Hate: Charlottesville on Vasilios Pistolis, an active duty United States Marine Corps Lance Corporal. Thompson was able to identify Pistolis as a neo-Nazi participant in the Charlottesville violence, active in hard-core neo-Fascist groups like the Atomwaffen Division and Traditionalist Worker Party—and made him pay a price.
I’m the proud son of an Army captain and the proud father of a Marine captain, and it was shocking to hear that a United States Marine lance corporal could be capable of such hateful violence. “Today cracked three skulls open with virtually no damage to myself,” Pistolis posted online the day of the “Unite the Right” rally. “Photographs taken at the rally show Pistolis clubbing an unidentified counter-protester with a wooden flagpole,” Thompson wrote. “Pistolis would later post photos of his bloody custom-made Confederate flag to chat logs, with the addendum, ‘not my blood.’ Pistolis also bragged about assaulting a well-known local activist, Emily Gorcenski, on the night of August 11, 2017. Multiple videos taken that evening show Pistolis, dressed in a black Adidas tracksuit, launch a fling kick in the direction of Gorcenski, although it is unclear if he connected. In Atomwaffen’s chats, Pistolis claimed that ‘I drop kicked Emily Gorcenski.’”Part of the horror of that weekend was how brazen these racists were.
On August 1, 2018, a Marine spokesman announced that Pistolis, after having been court-martialed and spending a month in the brig at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, had “officially been separated from the Marine Corps.”
Justice had also come for men who had severely beaten DeAndre Harris, a twenty-year-old African American, in a parking garage in Charlottesville the afternoon of the “Unite the Right” rally. One of the four found guilty, fifty-year-old Tyler Watkins Davis of Florida, “was seen on video whacking Harris on the head with a wooden stick—a tire thumper,” prosecutors told Judge Richard E. Moore. “The injury gave Harris such a large laceration on his head that it required eight staples.”
The verdicts against some of the worst violent offenders in Charlottesville made international headlines. “Video of the garage attack—and of Harris’s bloodied head—sped across the Internet, ultimately helping online sleuths, led by journalist Shaun King, to identify the assailants,” Ian Shapiro wrote in the London Independent. “The three others are: Jacob S. Goodwin, twenty-four, a white nationalist from Arkansas who received an eight-year sentence; Alex Michael Ramos, of Georgia, who got six years; and Daniel Borden, of Ohio, who is serving a nearly four-year sentence . . . . Video evidence showed that by the time Harris was fully in the garage, he was scrambling on the floor and the assailants—armed with a shield, a wooden board or a stick—were standing over him in a full-scale attack.”
Probably the highest-profile conviction was of James Alex Fields, the neo-Nazi terrorist who revved up his muscle car and drove into the crowd of peaceful protesters that Saturday afternoon, murdering Heather Heyer in cold blood and injuring dozens of others. In December 2018, a jury released its verdict, finding Fields guilty and recommending that he be sentenced to 419 years in prison and given $480,000 in fines. Fields’s lawyers tried to claim that he was acting in self-defense when he drove his Dodge Challenger down the narrow street crowded with defenseless people, but the jury had no trouble rejecting that defense as absurd.
“This trial and today’s outcome has been a long time coming for the victims and their family members,” the chief prosecutor in the case, Joe Platania, said after the jury verdict was announced. “We are unable to heal their physical injuries or bring Heather back. But we are hopeful they’ll be able to take some comfort and solace from these verdicts and sentences.”
Susan Bro, Heather’s mother, also spoke after the verdict. “So many emotions, so many reactions, it’s really still hard to process,” she said. “So we move forward. We still have social justice work to do.”
Talking to me for this book, Susan questioned the preparedness on the ground in Charlottesville; for example, the wooden sawhorse that was placed down in an attempt to block off Fourth Street. “The fact that they knew how to block off the street when she already had been killed and knew how to put up permanent barriers for a month tells me they knew how to do it in the first place, they just didn’t do it,” she said.
But she also told me it does no good to blame anyone. “The bottom line is, human beings were in that situation, and I don’t think any of us are completely responsible for him driving his car into that crowd,” she said. “We all maybe would have done things differently had we known. But, bottom dollar, he chose to put his foot on that gas pedal. He was sitting at the top of the hill as they started up Fourth Street, I saw in the police evidence. He was already sitting there. He had already pulled down and backed up and decided he would make that choice after they came up the street. So I certainly don’t hold Charlottesville police responsible for that. That’s just what happened.”
A lawsuit filed by the nonprofit Integrity First for America on behalf of ten Charlottesville plaintiffs, some injured in James Fields’s terrorist car attack, was moving forward in the courts in early 2019 with a trial set for July. The case, filed under the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, targeted twenty-five prominent white supremacists, including Jason Kessler and James Fields, and—as the group’s website explains—“Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who believes in ‘ethnic cleansing,’ [and] Matthew Heimbach, a white nationalist who said, ‘Of course we look up to men like Adolf Hitler.’”
Ku Klux Klan leader Richard Preston, a self-professed KKK imperial wizard in Maryland, pleaded no contest to firing his handgun at the rally in Charlottesville—and was sentenced to four years in prison. He’d founded a group called the Confederate White Knights of the KKK, but later tried to claim he was not a racist and was only in Charlottesville to keep the peace.
Just to underscore how the alt-right unraveled and opened itself up to mockery in the aftermath of Charlottesville, the “Crying Nazi,” Christopher Cantwell, responded to the Fields jury decision with a flurry of hateful gibberish, something about how the verdict was going to inspire the “complete and total destruction” of the “broad Left.”
Cantwell was barred from setting foot in the commonwealth of Virginia for five years after pleading guilty to two counts of assault and battery for his hooliganism in Charlottesville. He appeared in a video on Vox that soon turned viral.
“None of the marchers soared so high or crashed so hard as Chris Cantwell, who became the ivory-skinned, gun-toting star of a documentary about Charlottesville that aired Monday on HBO—and a week later is better known as the ‘weeping Nazi’ who got banned from OkCupid,” The Washington Post reported.
“‘I’ve been told there’s a warrant out for my arrest,’ Cantwell pleads to the camera, through sniffles and a trembling voice. ‘I don’t know what to do!’” The Post reported.
Charlottesville police had reportedly issued felony warrants for his arrest on charges of “illegal use of gases” and “injury by caustic agent or explosive.”
“In his confessional, Cantwell told the camera he was too scared to go to the courthouse or meet police,” The Post continued. “He complained that Chelsea Manning had been threatening to ‘curb-stomp Nazis.’ . . . ‘I know we talk a lot of s— on the Internet,’ Cantwell said. But: ‘Every step of the way we’ve tried to do the right thing and they just won’t stop.’”
These crybabies and cowards had to learn the hard way that you’re responsible for your actions—and you will pay a price.
Word started reaching us that Jason Kessler was trying to organize a “Unite the Right 2” rally in Charlottesville for August 2018, one year later. He was actually hoping to go big and organize two rallies that month, one in Charlottesville and one in Washington, DC. The Charlottesville plans never panned out. Charlottesville denied his request for a permit on the grounds that the rally he wanted to organize would inevitably turn violent. Kessler applied for a permit to stage a protest in Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, and it was approved. The event itself fizzled, with only a couple of dozen protesters showing up.
Once again, it was the video making the rounds afterward that everyone remembered, as Vox reported—under the headline the organizer of the Charlottesville rally just got humiliated by his own father—in a piece by Zack Beauchamp.
“It was a dreary failure,” Beauchamp reported from the protest. “I walked around the crowd of counterprotesters that dwarfed the neo-Nazis by orders of magnitude. But as pathetic as all of that was, none of it was quite as hilariously humiliating to the alt-right as the video below—in which the rally’s organizer, Jason Kessler, is yelled at by his father to get out of his parents’ room in the middle of a live stream with a fellow alt-righter . . . . Kessler says, in the livestream, that he has been forced to move in with his parents after a series of lawsuits stemming from last year’s violence sapped his funds. It’s an arrangement neither he nor his father seems pleased about. ‘Hey!’ Kessler’s father says, ‘. . . You get out of my room!’”
Boy, how the mighty have fallen. Beauchamp’s conclusion: “The alt-right movement—which supporters hoped and analysts feared would become stronger and more mainstream after Charlottesville—has actually devolved into farce, with one of its key figures literally living at his parents’ house and sneaking into his father’s room to film his hateful videos.”
The alt-right movement was in disarray, with so many of its leaders in jail, sniping at each other, or leaving the movement—but its notoriety still had a toxic influence. Robert Bowers, the white nationalist who murdered eleven people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, was apparently egged on by some mix of anger over Charlottesville participants being held to account and online conspiracy theories about the alleged “caravan” of Central Americans heading toward the United States.
“For some, though, Charlottesville served to harden their resolve, to push them deeper into white supremacist ideology,” A. C. Thompson told me. “After Charlottesville, a lot of these younger guys—and they’re overwhelmingly guys—turned toward terrorism. They said, ‘Rallies don’t work, political parties don’t work, Trump isn’t doing what we want. The only answer is terrorism.’ They began idolizing guys like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber; and Dylann Roof, who shot up the African American church in Charleston, South Carolina; and Anders Breivik, a Norwegian man who killed seventy-seven people, many of them children. This faction of the white supremacist movement is stockpiling weapons and explosives. They want to set off [a] race war and topple the government. These are the kind of people I worry about now. You don’t need a lot of money or a lot of technical sophistication to commit a mass-scale act of violence. Look at Robert Bowers, the man accused of murdering eleven Jewish congregants at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. It seems Bowers was part of this new terrorist milieu.”
From Beyond Charlottesville by Governor Terry McAuliffe. Copyright (c) 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.