Charlottesville is a call to action against fascism

August 14, 2017

Katherine Nolde, Richard Capron and Scott McLemee round up on-the-spot reports from the deadly confrontation between the far right and anti-racists in a Virginia city.

THE FAR-right demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12--probably the largest public gathering of the racist "alt-right" ever--was clear evidence of the murderous forces nurtured and emboldened by Donald Trump over the past two years.

And it had deadly consequences: One anti-fascist protester was killed and more than two dozen injured when a neo-Nazi terrorist drove his car at high speed into a counterdemonstration led by left organizations, including the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Democratic Socialists of America and Industrial Workers of the World, among others.

Trump issued a weasel-worded condemnation of "hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides" that fooled no one--especially not the far right. "He refused to even mention anything to do with us," one racist website gloated. "When reporters were screaming at him about White Nationalism he just walked out of the room."

So the fascists see Trump as one of their own--and for good reason.

But the hate on display in Charlottesville--and promoted by the hatemonger-in-chief--is galvanizing people across the country.

Standing in solidarity with Charlottesville at a vigil in Oakland, California
Standing in solidarity with Charlottesville at a vigil in Oakland, California (Stephen Lam | Reuters/Newscom)

News of the racist car attack was met by a wave of solidarity--within hours, there were vigils and protests in dozens of cities, followed by many more the next day, and plans for still more in the days to come. By the end of the weekend, people had taken a stand in solidarity with Charlottesville in hundreds of towns and cities.

These people who sent a message of defiance were not only repulsed by the hatred of the fascists and horrified by their violence, but they understand the need to confront this menace before it can inflict more suffering and take more lives.

Charlottesville showed the grave threat we face in the form of an emboldened far right. But it is also revealing the potential to mobilize a mass opposition to the hatemongers, whether they strut in the streets or in the Oval Office.

THE THOUSANDS mobilizing against the Trump agenda in recent months are making it impossible for the far right to claim it represents more than a small part of the U.S. population.

When the Klan came to Charlottesville last month to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a city park, they attracted around 50 supporters--and were outnumbered 20 times over by antiracists.

Humiliated by this, far-right groups announced another rally for August. The city granted a permit for this past Saturday in Emancipation Park to "Unite the Right" organizers--a last-minute legal attempt to deny the permit was stayed by a judge based on an appeal by the ACLU. Permits were also granted to counterdemonstrators to assemble a couple blocks away in Justice Park.

The far right came looking for a fight in Charlottesville, and they got started Friday night with a torchlight parade on the University of Virginia campus. Chanting "Heil Trump" and "You will not replace us"--sometimes changed to "Jews will not replace us"--some used their lighted torches to threaten the small numbers of antiracist protesters who confronted them on campus.

If the racists thought they would have the same overwhelming force on their side the next day, they were wrong. The fascists were outnumbered by their opponents, ranging from Antifa contingents and the radical left to more moderate antiracist organizations. But the antifascists' advantage wasn't as large as it could have been.

Groups from each side made pass-by marches within sight of one another Saturday morning, and there were isolated clashes, leading to an atmosphere of confusion and uncertainly.

When a group of ISO members approached the southwest entrance to Justice Park, the counterdemonstration site, they found a handful of young white men with automatic rifles and red bandanas tied around their necks standing watch. Momentary fear dissipated when the socialists were welcomed with cheers and handshakes--these were members of Redneck Revolt, a newly formed militant Southern working-class self-defense group.

Local and state police were present, but they maintained a hands-off policy when the right-wingers made threatening moves against the counterprotesters. As a report from ProPublica recounted:

[A]t one of countless such confrontations, an angry mob of white supremacists formed a battle line across from a group of counterprotesters, many of them older and gray-haired, who had gathered near a church parking lot. On command from their leader, the young men charged and pummeled their ideological foes with abandon. One woman was hurled to the pavement, and the blood from her bruised head was instantly visible.

Standing nearby, an assortment of Virginia State Police troopers and Charlottesville police wearing protective gear watched silently from behind an array of metal barricades--and did nothing.

WHEN VIRGINIA Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency at 11 a.m., the National Guard made its appearance. Police dispersed the far right from its spot in Emancipation Park--but this led to roaming groups of racists looking for a fight in the surrounding streets.

Counterdemonstrators heard that the fascists were headed to a part of town with a concentration of public housing to harass low-income residents.

A march was organized spontaneously in defense of the community. "Feelings of uncertainty and defenselessness changed immediately to confidence and authority," said one ISO member who was part of the action. "We wouldn't let the fascists control the day."

Some 300 antifascist protesters marched and chanted in tight formation, coming to a halt just before turning the corner on the street where the projects were located. But on arriving, they found no right-wingers. An organizer from the community went to the front of the march and got on the bullhorn, urging a withdrawal to decrease the chances of bringing police into the neighborhood.

The group made its way back downtown to find another contingent of counterdemonstrators flooding the street in an exhilarated mood. The groups merged and headed uphill toward Justice Park, planning to celebrate their seeming victory in sending the right-wingers packing.

They were about halfway up the hill when all at once came what sounded like a crash or explosion. Bodies flew into the air, and people were screaming. A car had driven into the crowd at full speed, then reversed up the hill and out of sight.

IN THE chaos, people did their best to maintain composure, take stock of the situation and call for medics assigned to the march. They moved the wounded out of the street--out of harm's way, in the event of another automobile assault--and called for ambulances.

What arrived instead was a police tank. A man in military dress emerged from the top of the hatch with a rifle designed to shoot tear gas canisters. Three police cars filled in behind him, along with a squad of cops in riot gear. Police finally shut down the area, and the demonstrators dispersed.

Police later reported arresting and charging an Ohio man, James Fields Jr., with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and failure to stop at the scene of a crash that resulted in a death. Photographs from earlier that day show the killer brandishing a shield with the emblem of the neo-Nazi American Vanguard group.

Fields' car attack killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer, a native of Charlottesville who worked as a paralegal and was passionately devoted to social justice.

A neighbor said "she lived her life like her path--and it was for justice." Heather's mother Susan Bro teared up as she told a writer from HuffPost: "Somehow I almost feel that this is what she was born to be, is a focal point for change.

More than two dozen other people were seriously injured. Bill Burke, a member of the ISO from Athens, Ohio, was among those taken away from the scene in an ambulance, given concern that he might have suffered spinal injuries. He didn't, but he was treated for a concussion and monitored for brain damage, along with lacerations to his face that required many stitches and staples, and severe abrasions on his arms and legs.

Burke was released from the hospital late Sunday afternoon and is expected to make a full recovery. He sent this message via fellow ISO members:

I appreciate the support and solidarity from everyone. I hope that what the fascists did is a wake-up call for our side. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism: The right-wingers represent all the worst parts of this capitalist system. If we really want to stop them, we have to be better organized and fight in solidarity against all oppression. Ultimately, we need to fight for a new world that is run for people, not for profit.

THAT THE vehicular assault was no accident seems obvious to everyone but the likes of Donald Trump.

But anyone who doubts it should consider the alt-right meme that appeared months before the Charlottesville showdown. It shows the words "ALL LIVES SPLATTER" above a car plowing into three people--and beneath it: "Nobody cares about your protest. Keep your ass out of the road."

It follows Trump's spirit of "fun" terrorism--with his "joking" offers to pay the legal bills if his supporters beat up protesters and "tongue-in-cheek" references to assassinating an opposing candidate. Such rhetoric has emboldened reactionaries like the torch-carriers reenacting the Nuremburg rally on Friday night in Charlottesville.

Their sickening violence has already led to an eruption of antiracist protest around the country. But we can't stop there. We need a sustained movement that mobilizes to confront the far right with much greater numbers whenever they try to raise their heads--and that organizes a radical left alternative to the fascists' politics of despair and scapegoating.

As one participant in the Charlottesville antifascist protests wrote on social media:

In order to command the streets, we have to fill them. If we had had people covering every inch of downtown Charlottesville, we wouldn't have been so vulnerable.

In order to demobilize the fascist movement, they have to be physically outnumbered and driven out...Isolate them, demoralize them.

The heartbreaking thing is that the counter-protesters in Cville had just begun to feel a sense of confidence and unity in action [before the car attack]....Two contingents, two crowds marching happened to converge downtown and were heading to Justice Park to celebrate, finally having achieved a sense of organization after being divided between multiple locations.

This is the goal of the far right: to terrorize, intimidate and destroy the organizations of workers and the left, and anyone else they deem a threat.

We cannot let them become more emboldened because of what happened today.

Alan Maass contributed to this article.

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