A year after the deadly "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., white nationalist groups are treading cautiously into the anniversary weekend.
The violence in Charlottesville sparked damaging lawsuits against the organizers and a crackdown from tech companies that's complicated recruitment and fundraising efforts, splintering the movement just as it's trying to show solidarity heading into Sunday's "Unite the Right 2" demonstration in Washington.
Jason Kessler, a lead organizer of both events, is discouraging participation by the more hard-core elements of the white supremacist movement, and some are happy to sit this one out.
“These post-Charlottesville marches have no purpose, other than to make anyone who supports white self-determination look like a fringe lunatic,” Andrew Anglin, publisher of the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, wrote this month in a blog post disavowing Sunday’s rally. “We do not want the image of being a bunch of weird losers who march around like assholes while completely outnumbered and get mocked by the entire planet.”
Richard Spencer, a key organizer of the Charlottesville rally, is even steering clear and urging others to do the same.
“I know that many have good intentions in going, but a rally like this does make sense at this time,” Spencer, head of the National Policy Institute, which aims to “give voice to the interests of white peoples,” tweeted last week. “I don't know exactly what will happen, but it probably will not be good.”
The long-term effect of the Charlottesville violence on the larger white nationalist movement is still unknown. But the initial consequence, experts say, has been a new degree of internal discord that’s expected to dampen turnout at Sunday’s rally across the street from the White House.
“I don’t know that’s it’s substantially grown or shrunk,” said Keegan Hankes, senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which tracks hate groups around the country. “What I can say is, since the previous Unite the Right, it is far more disorganized.”
“Every one of these groups is afraid they’re going to be associated with any potential violence, but also be further associated with the violence last year,” he added.
Don Black, founder of Stormfront, a white nationalist website, said the reverberations of Charlottesville — financially and strategically — are still being felt a year later.
“A lot of people have reevaluated the tactic,” Black told The Hill Saturday in a phone call. "I don’t have a problem with Jason Kessler. … But some other people do because he’s a … very recent convert to our side and they feel that … his events haven’t been properly planned."
“Most of the organization leaders who supported the Charlottesville event are not supporting this one,” he added.
The division and infighting suggests a movement still licking its wounds in the aftermath of last year’s demonstration, when hundreds of white supremacists gathered to protest the city’s removal of a Robert E. Lee statue — the largest march of its kind in decades.
The event quickly devolved into a series of violent clashes between marchers and counter-protesters. Amid the tumult, a car sped into a group of counter-protesters, injuring dozens and killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal. James Alex Fields Jr., a then-20-year-old white nationalist from Ohio, has been charged with first degree murder.
Separately, two Virginia state police officers monitoring events from the air were killed when their helicopter crashed.
The backlash came quickly. Numerous lawsuits, still pending, were filed against the organizers, including Kessler and Spencer, who are accused of promoting violence. And the giants of the technology world — Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube — also intervened in an effort to cull racist voices from their platforms.
“That’s probably been one of the most damaging things that’s happened to the movement in the last couple years,” said Hankes. “They can’t disseminate propaganda as easily [and] it’s a lot harder to raise money.”
Black, of Stormfront, confirmed the trend. After Charlottesville, his website was frozen for a month, and in December he was kicked off Twitter — an event he called “the great purge.”
“A lot of people depended on social media, and they still use it but it’s always iffy. Their accounts are regularly canceled and posts deleted,” he said. “It’s hard to even find a credit card processor now."
“We’re more under siege than we’ve ever been.”
Kessler had initially sought to stage the anniversary rally in Charlottesville. The city denied his petition, and last week he dropped a lawsuit seeking reconsideration, saying he would focus instead on the demonstration in Washington.
It’s unclear how many people will attend Sunday’s march, which will follow Pennsylvania Avenue from Foggy Bottom to Lafayette Square. Kessler has taken steps to avoid a repeat of last year’s violence, prohibiting shields, weapons of any kind and “non-approved flags,” all of which were featured elements of the Charlottesville marches. American and Confederate flags, however, are welcome.
Torches, another prominent feature of the Charlottesville marches, are also forbidden, given the National Park Service’s ban on fire in Lafayette Square.
“No fire allowed,” Kessler wrote on Facebook in May, a post obtained by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “We need to forget about the torch thing.”
Peter Montgomery, an expert on right-wing extremism at the liberal advocacy group People For the American Way, said the changes reflect a rebranding effort on the part of some white nationalists following “a real blow to their public relations” with the death of Heyer.
“You had people who wanted to disassociate themselves from who they saw as more embarrassing manifestations — people who come to these rallies holding Nazi signs and swastikas,” he said. “There’s a part of the movement that wants to be a kinder gentler face of the alt-right, but as a result it’s kind-of splintered.”
Unite the Right 2 organizers did not respond to questions posed through the rally’s website. Questions sent directly to Spencer and Anglin also went unanswered.
The Charlottesville violence shone a bright light on a white nationalist debate that was already percolating with the rise of President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump condemns white nationalist rallies: There is no place for neo-Nazism in US Sunday shows preview: Virginia lawmakers talk Charlottesville, anniversary protests Poll: Trump disliked as strongly as Nixon before his resignation MORE in 2016 — a victory cheered by racist leaders who see the president as a vindication of their own views, particularly on issues like guns and immigration.
Trump’s inner circle has featured figures like Steve BannonStephen (Steve) Kevin BannonSpeak out now against the citizenship question on the 2020 census National Archives warns it can't fulfill Kavanaugh documents request until October Thousands sign petition to block Bannon from entering UK MORE — the Breitbart News executive who has boasted of using the conservative news site as “a platform for the alt-right.” And the president’s equivocal response to the Charlottesville violence — there were “very fine people” on both sides, he said at the time — only fueled the view among white nationalists that they have an ally in the White House.
In its annual census of hate groups, released in February, SPLC identified 954 such organizations across the country in 2017, marking a 4 percent increase over the previous year and a 20 percent jump over 2014. More than 600 of those were associated with the white nationalist movement.
Anti-hate groups are quick to warn that whatever troubles white nationalists are facing, those political conditions remain. Indeed, a number of Republican candidates with nationalistic, if not outwardly racist views, are running for House and Senate seats this cycle, including Arthur Jones in Illinois, Seth Grossman in New Jersey, Corey Stewart in Virginia and Paul Nehlen in Wisconsin.
GOP campaign leaders are not backing any of them, though Trump has endorsed Stewart.
“In that big-picture sense, Trump’s campaign really electrified and energized white nationalists who had been quite marginalized in American political discourse,” Montgomery said. “He really opened up space for them to move more into the political conversation. And they’ve taken advantage of that.”
Sophie Bjork-James, an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University who has researched the white supremacist movement, agreed, saying “both sides have been galvanized” since the Charlottesville clashes.
“While there is an increased organized response against white nationalism, many in the movement still feel emboldened by the broader political climate and are trying to use anti-immigrant sentiment as a recruitment tool,” she told The Hill.
Hankes, of the SPLC, said white nationalists aren’t bowing out post-Charlottesville, even though they may be rethinking their tactics.
“I don’t think it’s had a chilling effect; I think basically they’re being more careful,” he said. “What was illustrated to me very clearly … last year is they had more to lose than they thought.”