I am under siege by people who are employing my family history for their own radical causes. The Bentons were not Confederates.
A year ago Sunday, crowds of far-right and white supremacist protesters descended on Charlottesville, Virginia. They marched toward a statue of confederate General Robert E. Lee carrying tiki torches, swastikas and semi-automatic rifles and chanting slogans like “White lives matter” and “Jews will not replace us!” By the end of the day, Heather Heyer was dead, mowed down by a white supremacist who drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters. When the nation turned to President Donald Trump, he provoked outrage by declaring that there are “very fine people on both sides.”
A year later, we’ve asked some of the most thoughtful people we know—from historians to a former CIA director to researchers of extremism—to put this shocking moment in context: What did Charlottesville change? Was it a moment of reckoning for our society? Did it fracture the movement known as the “alt-right,” or did it strengthen it? As new crowds of white supremacists descend on Washington and other U.S. cities this weekend, and as invigorated counterprotesters come to meet them, here’s what they had to say.
After Charlottesville, ‘the alt-right movement is at once lower-profile and more violent.’
Ryan Lenz is an investigative reporter covering the alt-right. He was formerly a senior investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The deadly “Unite the Right” rally one year ago in Charlottesville was supposed to be a coming-out party for the alt-right, a moment when disparate ideologies could openly unite and feel true grass-roots political power. Instead, the rally left one person dead and fissured a movement whose followers were, until then, certain the political age of Trump would resurrect ideas long thought to be fossilized—and not at underground metal shows or in street brawls like American History X-era nationalism, but in public squares and think tanks. “We definitely put ourselves off in this ghetto where we are now this thing, and we burned any bridges that we had to the wider right,” Mike Peinovich, a white supremacist blogger who uses the pseudonym Mike Enoch, said on his podcast in March.
The rally was a moment when the language of the alt-right changed, from demonstration to street violence, returning to the underground—but more brutal—realm that such strains of thought had in the 1990s and 2000s with skinheads and old-fashioned Nazis. The alt-right movement is at once lower-profile and more violent. Just last weekend in Portland, Oregon, groups led by the Proud Boys, a white nationalist fight club, came looking to brawl in the name of “free speech.” It was the second time they came to Portland, a city that knows well the presence of racist and far-right street violence, having earned the nickname “Skinhead City” in the 1980s and 1990s. Two months ago, in June, a similar rally led to violent clashes with anti-fascist protesters, and city officials declared a riot.
Welcome to the new alt-right, which might not be so new at all.
‘Where America still sees Nazis and flaming torches, I see the first stirrings of the thing that comes after.’
Dahlia Lithwick is the senior legal correspondent for Slate.
I lived in Charlottesville for 16 years before Charlottesville became “Charlottesville.” It’s never ever going to seem normal again that a word that signifies “Nazis and torches” to most Americans was just “home” to those of us who had our babies in the hospitals, hiked the trails, ate Bodo’s bagels on Sundays and name-dropped John Grisham. A year later, I think that for most of the country, Charlottesville signaled the end of something—innocence, exceptionalism, tolerance. After Charlottesville, “Charlottesville” came to mean that someone in the White House thought there were two sides, and nobody else in the White House stopped him.
But if you lived through Charlottesville, 2017, you realized that it wasn’t the end of anything. It was the start of something. It was the start of peeling off the scales about what a seemingly perfect, sleepy Southern college town had obscured; it was the start of a faith-led resistance that lights up the dark a year later. It was the start of reckonings and accountings by state and local government. It was the start of a clear-eyed view of what America has been built on and where it might go. Nobody thinks that Charlottesville handled Charlottesville perfectly. But where America still sees Nazis and flaming torches, I see the first stirrings of the thing that comes after.
Charlottesville was the beginning of a new fight.
Cornel West is a professor at Harvard Divinity School and the author of Race Matters, among other books.
Charlottesville means we have to refortify ourselves to fight for truth and justice!
‘Charlottesville is not an anomaly. … It is a symptom of a greater moral malady.’
The Rev. William J. Barber II is the architect of the Forward Together Moral Monday Movement, president of the North Carolina NAACP and pastor of the Greenleaf Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Goldsboro.
A year after Charlottesville, America’s conscience has been stirred, but we have yet to reach a true moral awakening. The same politicians who quickly denounced the violence and murder in Charlottesville as an act of hate and racism remain complicit in passing racist public policy. Denouncing acts of racism is good public relations, but dismantling the works of racism is the true challenge facing our leaders.
When 23 states pass voter suppression laws, purge voter rolls and draw racialized, gerrymandered districts, furthering the disenfranchisement of black, brown and white voters, that’s racism. When the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and for five years since House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have refused to restore it, that’s racism. And when we see the Trump administration rip Latino children from their parents and deport them, that’s racism.
Charlottesville is not an anomaly. It is not a flashpoint. It is a symptom of a greater moral malady afflicting our nation. We are a nation that allows 140 million of our neighbors to live in poverty, a nation that disproportionately incarcerates black and brown people, continues to segregate public schools and housing. This is not the America we were meant to be.
If as a nation we are willing to denounce Charlottesville, then we must be equally willing to denounce and restructure the systems that create the animus and ignorance that ignite events like it. Ultimately, racism is a denial of the 14th Amendment, which provides equal protection under law regardless of wealth, creed or color. Movements in our history—from emancipation to suffrage, civil rights to workers’ rights—have not been about challenging individual groups or actors. Those movements were about forcing systemic changes to our moral and civic structures. Many people will never say they are racist, but every day they participate in policies that align with the policy agenda of white nationalists. This is the racism we must address for a true revolution of values.
Trump’s response to Charlottesville ‘put the concept of nation as “blood and soil” back into play for the first time since Appomattox.’
Michael Hayden is a retired four-star general and the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency.
For me, Charlottesville highlighted the basic question of American self-identity. Will we continue to see ourselves as a creedal people, identified by the values we believe in and enshrined in our foundation documents and in the Federalist Papers? Or, are we changing our self image to be a people defined by blood, soil and even shared history? There are good nations that seem to be the latter; Germany comes to mind. But, that has not been our traditional view of self. The Irish rock star Bono has said that for the rest of the world, America was really an idea, and I think that most Americans for most of our history would agree with that: Believe in and swear allegiance to the idea, and you can be as much an American as anyone else.
But, for me, the president’s response to Charlottesville put the concept of nation as “blood and soil” back into play for the first time since Appomattox. After all, he said there were “very fine people on both sides,” and the president’s affinity for the “blood and soil” approach has since been reinforced by his actions toward immigrants, refugees and our international responsibilities.
After Charlottesville, ‘the public finally connected Silicon Valley’s hubris to its culture of toxic masculinity.’
Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy.
As we reckoned with violent white men swarming my town, Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, we could no longer ignore the fact that they all found each other and whipped each other into a frenzy because digital tools made it so easy. After that, 2018 was destined to be the year that we finally confronted the monsters we had unleashed.
The ideology of Silicon Valley reflects a shallow, unarticulated libertarianism that rests on the assumption that government functions, and all the democratic accountability that supports them, are archaic and inefficient. Within Silicon Valley, of course, there has always been a stronger, full-throated libertarianism voiced by investors like Peter Thiel and Marc Andreesen—both members of the Facebook board of directors. CEOs like Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg are not libertarians, but they are fellow travelers who operate within those boundaries of imagination, so their companies reflect their commitment to make the world better. There is a fine line between wanting to do no evil and believing you can do no wrong.
These ideas are extensions of the arrogance of masculinity—the deep belief many men have that they and they alone can handle challenges. The “take-charge” attitude, fueled by Red Bull and testosterone, flourishes in an environment largely devoid of women with authority.
So what happened since the white supremacists marched on Charlottesville? The public finally connected Silicon Valley’s hubris to its culture of toxic masculinity. Concerted attention to the “alt-right” and its connection to the “manosphere” revealed how complicit Reddit, Twitter, Google and Facebook have been to the spread of violent hatred. Uber’s corporate culture of almost institutionalized sexual harassment became public. Meanwhile, women around the world used the tools that men provided them to spread their own stories of harm and humiliation via testimony and hashtags like #MeToo and #TimesUp.
We can’t separate the deflation of the myth of omnipotence that Silicon Valley has suffered in 2018 from the society-wide confrontation with toxic masculinity. Silicon Valley has finally started reforming and confronting its own sordid history. But there is so much more to do.
Charlottesville ‘left countless communities of color truly seeing the president for who he is.’
Christina Greer is a professor of political science at Fordham University.
The events of 2017 Charlottesville shocked many Americans, in that far too many believed that this country was indeed in a post-racial moment. After the election of Trump, many Americans soothed themselves by saying that the racists in this country were old and would die off soon enough—and our country would be restored. The events in Charlottesville, literally in the backyard of slave-owning Thomas Jefferson, illustrated the very real deep-seeded new generation of racist and white supremacist individuals. As they marched and chanted about blacks, Jews and immigrants, their words and subsequent actions made it very clear that they felt they were being displaced and replaced in “their” country. What made matters worse was the president’s empathy for these individuals after news stories of counterprotesters being beaten while police stood idly by; an innocent white woman, Heather Heyer, being run down by a white supremacist who had driven down to the protest from Ohio; and the Nazi and Confederate symbols worn so proudly by (primarily) men who would leave the protests and continue their lives as teachers, engineers, law enforcement officers and other occupations of import.
For many Americans of color, the events of Charlottesville were not shocking or surprising. This nation has a long and bloody history of white mobs, across time and place, who suffer no consequences or punishment for their actions. What was jarring was a president and his administration who were so obviously sympathizers of these white supremacists in our nation in the twenty-first century. It was the president’s speech following the protests and beatings that left countless communities of color truly seeing the president for who he is. At that moment, many people linked Trump’s obsession with the following: the denigration of the innocent Central Park Five members, his eight-year race baiting of President Barack Obama, his insistence on his “good German genes,” his years of racial profiling in his businesses, his obsession with NFL players and the anthem, his appointment of some of the most racist and xenophobic members to his administration that this country has seen in decades, his insistence that Mexicans are rapists and Muslims are terrorists, his rallies that harken back to Klan mobs of the early and mid-20th century, and the list could go on and on … and on.
Charlottesville exposed the plain fact that no one in this administration is going to see people of color as equal, deserving or worthy of being in America. The white supremacist project currently underway by Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions and even Trump is a direct correlation to the Charlottesville marches. In order to “Make America Great Again” they must indeed make America solidly majority white. That will be accomplished by deportations of nondocumented and now even documented immigrants. Shortly after Charlottesville, Obama made a statement that this is not who we are as a nation. Sadly, this is who America has always been. Luckily, we have had leaders and hardworking individuals who confronted their biases and ignorance to change longstanding opinions. We are currently in a fight for the soul of this nation, and, sadly, the current president of the United States believes we should go back to the good old days. The protesters in Charlottesville chanted, “The Jews will not replace us! The blacks will not replace us! Immigrants will not replace us!” We must now mobilize to replace Trump and the members of his party who believe in his exclusionary ideals. I just hope it is not too late. The president and his party seem to enjoy this version of America, as does Russia.