The turnout of white nationalists that sparked violence in Charlottesville, Va., this weekend reflects an alarming level of cooperation among disparate hate groups to gain mainstream media attention. That’s the view of an expert at the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Montgomery, Ala.-based civil rights org that has tracked the activities of white supremacist groups since the early 1980s.
Keegan Hankes, a research analyst for the SPLC, said the Charlottesville gatherings on Friday night and Saturday morning were heavily promoted in a months-long organizing campaign via social media by multiple white nationalist organizations in a bid to demonstrate a show of force in numbers. The effort not surprisingly brought out counter-protesters from leftist organizations, including those identifying with the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as clergy and others who tried to advocate for non-violent protest.
The timing of the rally dubbed “Unite the Right” was pegged to the city’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park, which was the site of violent clashes Saturday between protesters, counter-protesters, and police. But the real agenda, according to Hankes, was to garner mainstream media coverage as a recruitment tool.
The violence that erupted between various factions of protesters will be selectively mined for images to portray white nationalists as under attack from violent leftists and the police, Hankes said.
“The whole thing has been orchestrated around trying to get media attention,” Hankes told Variety. “They used the controversy around the Lee statue as a peg but what you really have is all these little hate groups competing in the same space trying to make a name for themselves. They’ll use media coverage and strategically controlled images (from the gathering) to bring in new members.”
Among the most prominent groups represented at the rally were organizations that have revved up activities during the past two years as tensions over racial and ethnic differences and the urban-rural divide have heightened nationwide. The list includes numerous groups studied by the SPLC: Identity Evropa, Vanguard America, League of the South, the Daily Stormer, and the Right Stuff.
Many Americans were outraged by news footage depicting clusters of mostly white men chanting racist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ statements. Some attendees sported Nazi-related symbols and T-shirts emblazoned with quotes from Adolf Hitler. There were reports of rally-goers shouting “Hitler was right” among other hateful statements. Friday night’s march through the University of Virginia campus offered chilling images of young men hoisting Tiki torches and making the Nazi-esque salute.
The top organizers of the event were likely dismayed by some of the more extreme statements and actions captured by news coverage, Hankes noted. The goal of the rally was to raise awareness of the movement among people who might be sympathetic to some their public policy goals — such as curbing immigration — but would be turned off by unabashedly racist rhetoric.
Rally organizers such as Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer “are very concerned about the optics and message,” Hankes said. But the level of anger on both sides could not be contained as protesters chanted such venomous statements as “Jew will not replace us” and anti-LGBTQ slurs such as “F— you, f—-t.”
The hate speech and taunts spurred a violent response from some counter-protesters, which contributed to the melee that ensued about two hours before the scheduled noon start time of Saturday’s rally. The planned gathering with speakers, including Spencer, was ultimately scrapped when Charlottesville police declared the scene to be an unlawful assembly amid the chaos. But the organizers’ objectives were nonetheless achieved, in Hankes’ view.
“You’ll see the whole (white nationalist) machine swing into action when this is all over,” he said. “You’ll see them very selectively pushing out images that show fake numbers and peaceful demonstrations by their groups. They’ll portray violent leftists and the Virginia State Police siding with the violent leftists to give a sympathetic edge to the people who are spewing the hate.”