Credit Image: © Michael Nigro/Pacific Press via ZUMA Wire
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Anne Wilson Smith, Charlottesville Untold: Inside the Unite the Right Rally, Shotwell Publishing, 2021, 396 pages, $24.95 paperback, $5.00 e-version from publisher
Nothing has quite brought home to me the dishonesty of American journalism like watching the major “news” networks tell us what was happening in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017. As a thousand or so American citizens tried to gather peacefully to protest the removal of a monument to Robert E. Lee, the press regaled the country and the world with a hair-raising tale of neo-Nazis attacking a peaceful Southern town. This legend persists, a case-study in support of the old adage that a lie will travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on. Now, over four years later, the first accurate and detailed account of what really happened has finally been offered to the public by a tiny pro-Southern publishing firm in Columbia, South Carolina. The author is the daughter of Clyde Wilson, a distinguished scholar of the American South.
Jason Kessler campaigns to save the Lee monument
The Charlottesville rally, officially known as “Unite the Right,” was the brainchild of Jason Kessler, a local resident who graduated from the University of Virginia in 2009. Mr. Kessler had little involvement in politics before getting wind of the antics of Charlottesville City Council Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy, who in 2016 began agitating for removing the Lee statue and renaming Lee Park in which it had stood since 1924. As Mrs. Smith writes, “Bellamy presented himself as a champion of equality, but his social media posts revealed an open hatred of White people.” Examples:
“I DON’T LIKE WHIT PEOPLE SO I HATE WHITE SNOW!!!!! FML!!!!” @ViceMayorWesB 12/20/2009
“I HATE BLACK PEOPLE who ACT WHITE!!! (B U NIGGA) – Jeezy Voice!” @ViceMayorWesB 11/17/2009
“White women=Devil” @ViceMayorWesB 3/3/2011
“Lol funniest thing about being down south is seeing little White men and the look on their faces when they have to look up to you.” @ViceMayorWesB Tweet 10/13/2012
Jason Kessler discovered these tweets and wrote about them on his website on November 24, 2016, resulting in Bellamy’s forced resignation from the state Board of Education. Mr. Bellamy issued an apology three days later, claiming the postings were made “many years ago,” although some were too recent to be dismissed as youthful indiscretions.
Mr. Kessler was not satisfied, and collected 527 signatures for a petition to have Mr. Bellamy removed as vice mayor. Local anti-white groups such as SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) and the Anarchist People of Color Collective began organizing to defend Mr. Bellamy and oppose Mr. Kessler. In March, 2017, a judge dismissed the petition for Mr. Bellamy’s removal on the grounds that not enough signatures had been collected.
The following month, Mr. Kessler met Richard Spencer, a prominent leader of the Alt-Right, which had emerged during Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign. Although the two men never became close, they agreed to cooperate to preserve the statue. Mr. Spencer staged a torchlight march in support of the monument on May 13, 2017, while Mr. Kessler reported on the event for the Daily Caller. Marchers gathered at the monument chanting things such things as “You will not replace us,” and “Blood and soil.”
The next night, a group of “anti-racists” gathered in response. Mr. Kessler showed up and was surrounded by Antifa, one of whom reportedly spat on him. Police arrested Mr. Kessler on a charge of disorderly conduct, but the prosecutor declined to pursue the case, saying that Mr. Kessler’s actions were free speech.
In the aftermath of this first demonstration, activists began posting “Know your Nazi” flyers around town and encouraging businesses to deny service to Mr. Kessler and his supporters. On one occasion, a mob of about 30 people surrounded Mr. Kessler and his associates at a restaurant.
Preparations for Unite the Right
The Unite the Right rally was born of a determination to stand up to this kind of intimidation. On May 30, Mr. Kessler applied for a permit for a “free speech rally in support of the Lee monument,” to be held August 12 from noon to 5 pm for an estimated crowd of 400 people. Six days later, he publicly announced his plans at a tense City Council meeting. In the course of his brief speech, a number of counter-protesters began shouting “fuck white supremacy” and showing their middle fingers; they had to be physically removed.
Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, VA, ca. 2006.
Altogether unrelated to plans for Unite the Right, a Klan group from North Carolina applied for a permit to hold a rally in Charlottesville on July 8 to gather around a statue of Stonewall Jackson. Mr. Kessler charged that the leader of this group was an FBI informant “paid by left-wing groups to discredit legitimate conservatives.” About 50 Klan members were met by between 1,500 and 2,000 counter-protesters, including members of SURJ, Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and religious organizations. The following month, some “news” outlets broadcast video of the Klan event as footage of the Unite the Right rally.
Police managed to keep the two groups apart, but protestors threw things at the Klansmen as they returned to their cars. The Heaphy Report — an extensive independent review commissioned later by the City of Charlottesville — nevertheless found that local law enforcement’s “training efforts to prepare for the Klan event were fragmented, unfocused and inadequate,” foreshadowing similar failures at Unite the Right. Yet at the time, groups including the ACLU protested what they called a “highly militarized law enforcement presence” and “the outsized and militaristic governmental response” to counter-protesters.
There were complaints that the police were there “only to protect the Klan,” as if 50 people were going to attack a huge crowd of counterdemonstrators. Governor Terry McAuliffe later wrote that the ACLU letter “really had city officials nervous,” and that in the run-up to the larger Unite the Right rally “[t]he mindset for the Charlottesville City Council was to be wary of any strong law enforcement presence.” This was a bad mistake.
As Mrs. Smith notes: “Clashes between right and left-wing groups had been occurring all over the country over the previous year, so the Charlottesville Police Department was able to draw from the knowledge and experience of other jurisdictions for information about what to expect.” The Heaphy Report adds: “Those contacts suggested that the Alt-Right groups were generally cooperative with law enforcement, but also that the opposing groups needed to be physically separated.” Even so, Charlottesville Police Captain Victor Mitchell later acknowledged that “the input from outside jurisdictions was not a factor in planning for August 12th.” The report further found that “Efforts to train police officers ahead of August 12th were meager if not nonexistent . . . . There was no field training of any kind.”
Virginia State Police were somewhat better prepared, but communication between state and city police was poor. As the Heaphy Report found, “No officers were assigned to open areas in which protesters and counter-protesters would interact,” which meant that potentially violent contact was inevitable. Nor were any officers present along the route between the Unite the Right attendees’ shuttle drop-off locations and Lee Park, where most injuries would occur. The report continues:
We spoke to multiple officers at all levels who expressed concern that normal arrest procedures would put officers in harm’s way. In the week before August 12, the Virginia Fusion Center shared credible threats that members of Antifa would bring soda cans filled with cement and might attack police. Then, on the morning of August 12, rumors circulated among CPD [Charlottesville Police Department] that Antifa might attack officers with fentanyl. Out of concern for officer safety, Lieutenant Brian O’Donnell instructed his officers to avoid engaging attendees over “every little thing.” Officer Lisa Best told us that officers “were not going to go in and break up fights” or enter the crowd to make arrests “unless it was something so serious that someone will get killed.” This concern is reflected in our review of body camera footage, which reflects multiple instances of officer uncertainty about potential engagement with the crowd. Rather than engage the crowd and prevent fights, the CPD plan was to declare the event unlawful and disperse the crowd.
In other words, Charlottesville Police never had any intention of defending the constitutional rights of Unite the Right attendees to free speech and assembly. They would let Antifa attack and use the ensuing melee as an excuse to declare an unlawful assembly and stop the rally.
Police tried to talk with counter-protest organizations about safety. According to the Heaphy Report:
Efforts to contact local Charlottesville residents associated with counter-protester groups were met with extreme resistance. Officers attempted to speak with members of Standing Up for Racial Justice and Black Lives Matter, resulting in demands by a local attorney that such contacts cease. As a result, detectives were instructed not to reach out to anyone affiliated with those groups. Officers told us that they were frustrated that their safety-focused information-gathering actions were construed as harassment against vocal members of the community.
“In contrast to the defensive and secretive counter-protester organizations,” notes the report, “representatives of Unite the Right were in open communication with law enforcement in the weeks leading up to the event.” This particularly includes Jason Kessler and two designated security agents. According to the Heaphy Report, “Each told [local police] that he expected a peaceful rally and hoped the police would protect Alt-Right groups from violent counter-protesters.” Mrs. Smith quotes several leaders of groups in attendance who, in view of the large police presence, anticipated a peaceful event. The plan was for ten men (including Mr. Kessler and Mr. Spencer) to speak in defense of the Lee monument and then for everyone to go home.
A number of private militia groups came to Charlottesville in a neutral peace-keeping capacity, despite discouragement from local law enforcement. This turned out to be fortunate; as Mrs. Smith writes, “the militias provided the only semblance of peace-keeping and law enforcement in Charlottesville that day.” They made clear their intention to protect free speech and discourage violence from both sides, and most witnesses, including some police officers, report that they behaved in a fair and responsible way. Yet the City of Charlottesville later filed suit against them. Because some militia members were wearing military style clothing and patriotic emblems, many counter-protesters assumed they were there to support the rally. Some “news” organizations also called the militias “far-right.”
Despite the name Unite the Right, there was a great deal of conflict among the organizers, and a lot of unedifying information came to light during the discovery phase of the many lawsuits that followed. An associate of Mr. Spencer’s named Elliot Kline was maneuvering to commandeer the event by spreading rumors that Mr. Kessler was Jewish and/or insane. Mr. Spencer himself wrote of Mr. Kessler: “After c ville, we need to drop him. He’s just stupid and crazy.” Some parties wanted David Duke to speak and withdrew their support when Mr. Kessler told them no.
Almost at the last minute, city officials became concerned the event would be too large for Lee Park, and tried to move it to McIntire Park, a larger venue a mile away. This created confusion, but the day before the rally, a judge granted Mr. Kessler’s motion for a preliminary injunction against the move.
Unite the Right rallygoers and their motives
One valuable chapter in Charlottesville Untold is based on interviews with a cross-section of 10 rallygoers. As the author writes: “These people have been accused by the most powerful voices in the nation of being ‘Nazis’ and every other despicable name imaginable. None of them have ever been offered a platform to refute these accusations and tell their own version of the story.” Here are some of their stories.
Luke is a graduate of Virginia Military Institute who had visited Charlottesville as a child and seen it gradually fill up with non-Virginians and radical liberals who “hate everything about the city, about the state, and about our history.” He learned that Unite the Right had protest permits, and he had faith the Virginia State Police would keep control. He had an old photograph of his grandmother with his great uncle in his WWII uniform in front of the Stonewall Jackson statue in Charlottesville. He kept it in his pocket throughout the rally to remind him why he was there. When things got heated and he thought about leaving, he remembered the photo and resolved to stay.
Steve grew up in a typical Republican but not very political family in Charlottesville and was disturbed when he heard about efforts to remove the Lee statue. “I grew up with that statue. I didn’t want them to tear it down . . . . The philosophy behind ‘Unite the Right’ made sense to me – Let’s get all hands on deck. No matter what ideological differences we may have, we all oppose the leftist assault on our identity. I think we all knew it was an assault on White people in general.”
Tom grew up in East Tennessee and was active in local government from an early age, where he found that traditional views like his were often ridiculed. Hearing of Unite the Right, he expected “we would picket and get our side heard.” He thought that since the rally was permitted, it would be safe. One friend offered him a shield to take along, and another offered a helmet, but Tom declined both, believing “ain’t nothing gonna happen.”
Chris, a young man from Appalachia, considered himself a political moderate and a Trump Republican. Hearing about Unite the Right on Facebook before the page was taken down, he expected the rally to be attended largely by others like himself, with a focus on defending the Lee statue.
Nathaniel grew up in Delaware, a conservative who had soured on the Republican Party for its failure to follow up on its promises. Gradually learning more about the Civil War, he came to respect and sympathize with the Southern cause. He thought the rally “seemed like it was going to be a lot of fun,” and he hoped to meet some online acquaintances. He knew the organizers had been working with law enforcement, so he expected both sides of the conflict to be kept apart. On the drive to Charlottesville, he listened to the audio version of a biography of Robert E. Lee.
Jim was born in New York to an Irish immigrant family. His political views began to change when he became disgusted with media coverage of the Michael Brown riots, and later by the attack on all things Southern following the Dylan Roof murders. When Jim saw how rioters were celebrated as heroes while Southerners were vilified, “It got my Irish up.” He joined the League of the South and went to Charlottesville expecting to defend the constitution and the monument of the “great man” Robert E. Lee, and then go home.
Bill, an oilman who had lived all over the South, had been a yellow-dog Democrat most of his life, but when people in New Orleans began pushing to remove monuments and rename parks, he joined a group dedicated to preserving them. In the course of this fight, Mr. Kessler and some of his associates had supported him. He decided to go to Unite the Right to reciprocate, because “those boys had helped me out.”
Gene grew up in a traditional Southern family in Nashville. He had done enough reading to know that the things the television said about the South and the Civil War were biased. Gene knew antifa would be at Unite the Right, and he expected hostility and shouting, but not violence. He hoped to tour Monticello after the rally.
Ayla Stewart, known online as Wife with a Purpose, was given the middle name “Lee” at birth in keeping with a family tradition of honoring the Confederate general. Bearing his name brought her derision in some parts of the country, so she often had to defend Lee’s honor. “I felt completely safe rallying behind this,” she explains. “This is erasing our history based on wrong information.”
The evening before
On August 11, the eve of the publicly announced rally, a group of rallygoers gathered for a torchlight procession from an athletic field on the University of Virginia campus to the UVA statue of Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Kessler explained that the Jefferson statue was chosen to make the point that not only Confederate symbols were under threat. Unlike the next day’s rally, there was no permit for this procession, which was planned in secret so as not to give counter-protesters time to organize. However, word leaked out and about 20 counter-protesters gathered at the Jefferson statue beforehand. Around 5:00 pm, organizers discovered the leak and informed local police. Some groups withdrew from the procession out of safety concerns, but about 300 people marched in orderly fashion, reaching the Jefferson statue around 10:20 PM.
Credit Image: © Shay Horse/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press
Mrs. Smith writes:
Certainly, there were peaceful college students among the counter-protesters. However, what is omitted from most reporting is the small but vicious group of Antifa who antagonized marchers with pepper spray and other weapons. For example, one video captures an unidentified Antifa lighting and throwing a Molotov cocktail into a crowd. Studying video of the event, researchers have identified a number of known Antifa, some with serious criminal records, who were among the counter-protesters that evening.
After fighting broke out, local police called for support, but by the time it arrived, the fighting was over and marchers were dispersing. Both marchers and counter-protesters spoke with disgust about the passivity of the police. Black celebrity academic Cornell West marveled: “We were there to get arrested. We couldn’t even get arrested, because the police had pulled back, just allowing fellow citizens to go at each other.”
Many “news” outlets portrayed the counter-protesters as innocent victims of a “Nazi” attack. The author comments:
Unite the Right organizers had planned the torchlight march in secret for the explicit purpose of avoiding conflict, then voluntarily informed the police of their plans after learning counter-protesters would be present. Are those the actions of people with malevolent intentions?
As at Mr. Spencer’s torchlit procession in May, participators chanted “you will not replace us,” but on this occasion some changed the words to “Jews will not replace us.” Mr. Kessler recalls:
I remember being mortified when it happened . . . . They have essentially hijacked the message. You always want to be seen as righteous defenders of your own people rather than as aggressors looking to attack other people’s cultures.
Jason Kessler (Credit Image: © Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press)
Many marchers returned to their cars to find windows broken and tires slashed.
The hour arrives
By 8:45 the next morning, hundreds of attendees had gathered in the parking lot of McIntire Park. Shuttles were to take them to Lee Park about a mile and a half away. However, Charlottesville police ordered drivers to drop off attendees not at Lee Park as planned, but several blocks away. The reason for this decision is not known, but is the subject of a Freedom of Information request.
The result was that many demonstrators arrived on the wrong side of the park and had to walk around to the other side through streets full of hostile counter-protesters. Some were blocked by a group of clergymen standing arm-in-arm. These men of the cloth were saying such things as “I hope you get fucked to death” and “God hates you.” Some spat on attendees. By obstructing entry to Lee Park, they left these attendees vulnerable to Antifa attacks; as the author points out, this may have been their intention. A group of 60 attendees eventually pushed through the line of clergy. Police observed without intervening.
A group of about 100 attendees decided not to participate in the shuttle plan, fearing that small groups would be more vulnerable to attack. Instead, they marched from the Market St. parking garage to Lee Park. One participant recalls: “Pretty immediately I realized there was no police cover. I realized there was going to be a fight. We were getting attacked from all sides.” Even women were punched, and some elderly attendees were targeted with pepper spray. Counter-protesters threw bricks, bottles of urine, and bags of feces.
Fortunately, some attendees in this group, fearing violence, had come equipped with defensive gear such as shields, helmets and eye protection. The League of the South in particular was, in Pres. Michael Hill’s words, “ready to defend ourselves and our property but not to carry out any aggressive/offensive actions.” They headed the procession and, as they approached Lee Park, ran straight into Antifa. As attendee Matt Parrott remarked to the author, “a formation that large cannot just reverse — the people in the front were being pushed ahead by those in the back who could not see what was happening.” So a melee ensued between the generally burly League of the South members and Antifa, after which the procession was able to enter Lee Park. One witness told the folks in the rear:
Wish y’all could’ve seen that clash out here a minute ago . . . it was pretty brutal. They ran into each other like Barbarians on a battlefield with their shields, riot shields and sticks and billy clubs, just beating on each other. Probably lasted about 30 seconds, 45 seconds.
Once again, local police watched and did nothing. A League of the South shield wall was later of critical importance in protecting attendees inside Lee Park from the mob outside. An attendee remarked: “it was precisely the group most stigmatized by the MSM, the armored Alt-Righters with shields, who created what order existed.” Many of the neutral militia members also did good service protecting the innocent that day. One left-wing organizer confirmed that rally attendees bore the brunt of the violence: “From what I observed from my street, it was mostly Nazis that were getting beaten at that point.”
Credit Image: © Shay Horse/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press
A witness told this reviewer that about 1,000 attendees had gathered in Lee Park by 11:00 am, and estimated final attendance might have been as high as 2,000 if the event had been secured, but strictly speaking, the Unite the Right rally never took place. The scheduled start time was noon, but the gathering was declared an unlawful assembly at 11:31 AM. By 11:49, Virginia State Police in riot gear began moving into the park to push anyone who had not yet dispersed. None of the scheduled speakers ever said a word.
Some attendees were pushed by police off the top of a four-foot wall. One was told: “Get the hell out of here. We’re not gonna clear a path for you.” All were forced to exit directly into a mob of hostile counter-protesters armed with mace, bear spray, slingshots and urine-filled balloons. One black counter-protester improvised a flame-thrower with a can of hairspray.
Several participants told their story on the Memphis-based Political Cesspool radio show that night. A caller named Darren said: “The police were clearly on the side of the enemy. They attacked us. They were not on the side of law and order. It was planned, obviously, by the city government. The police attacked us with pepper spray.” A guest of the program named Mike told this harrowing story:
I was part of a group of five people who got cut off from the rest of our entourage by the police shield wall. They kept pushing us forward toward the Antifa. I tell them ‘What are you doing? There are five of us, and there was at least 200 of [the Antifa] standing over here.’ Two of the guys tried to dive down to get past the police, and one of them got rewarded for it with a hit in the back with a baton loud enough that I was able to hear it from six feet away. They were both coated in mace. I got coated in mace. I turned around. I had a shield, I told them to follow me, we were going to try to force our way through the Antifa, and one of the police officers nailed me in the back with his shield, tried to knock me down the steps and two of the other guys tumbled right beside me . . . . They intended us to fall. So finally we got up and made our way around. We were pressed up against a wall by I don’t know how many of them, one of the guys took a blow to the head, he had blood pouring down the side of his face from it.
One attendee reported it took him 15 minutes to get to Lee Park, but two hours to return to his vehicle. Many got lost in the unfamiliar streets, and some accidently wandered into the city’s hostile black ghetto. Antifa absurdly imagined they were there to attack residents.
A writer for the Daily Caller noted: “The State of Emergency order meant that any public gathering was de facto illegal, but Antifa were still allowed to roam freely bearing weapons and attacking people.” A caller to the Political Cesspool recounted, “After we were driven out of the park, the people who had the permit – guess what? One of our people came back 30 minutes after we were driven out of the park and the Antifa were still there. They were lounging around like having a holiday.”
Credit Image: © Shay Horse/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press
A neutral observer recalls: “I saw a bunch of nasty shit. People fighting each other like they weren’t human. They were going for faces and putting each other in choke holds. I’m surprised there weren’t more deaths and serious injuries.” An emergency medical worker remembers: “People would come in soaked with pepper spray from the tops of their heads to the bottom of their feet. The only way to deal with that was to have them disrobe, fully hose them down, and send them out in a Tyvek suit with their clothes in a plastic bag.”
Some remarked on how well the counter-protesters seemed to be prepared. Charlottesville native Hannah Zarski said “The organization for Unite the Right was so far beyond anything that could have been arranged here. It was very well coordinated.” She points out that many Antifa were carrying professionally printed signs mounted on thick wooden dowels. “Those things are not cheap.” There are many unanswered questions about their funding and preparations.
An organizer for left-wing groups that day acknowledges that the Alt-Right were not the aggressors: “It was during this dispersal that some of the more violent hand-to-hand clashes happened and as groups of Nazis were leaving the area, and Charlottesville residents alongside Anti-fascists from all over the US demonstrated to them that they were not welcome. They were chased up to the parking lots, they were chased down towards McIntire.”
One rallygoer ran into an old schoolmate who was there with the counter-protesters. They:
ducked into a nearby bar for shelter where he found himself in a group with her friends. He was dressed neutrally and they didn’t recognize him as a Unite the Right attendee. They seemed to be hyped up on adrenaline. His impression was that they were excited and happy about the chaos and riots. “They were getting what they wanted.”
Among the authorities’ most consequential failings that day was inadequate traffic control in the downtown area. Tammy Shiflett was a “school resource officer” assigned to the corner of Market Street and 4th Street NE. Her only instructions were that she would be “doing traffic.” After the unlawful assembly order was called, Miss Shifflett found herself standing alone, with no protective gear, as Unite the Right attendees streamed past her away from the park. The Heaphy Report explains:
She felt she was in danger. As people started to pass, they made profane and aggressive statements toward her. She smelled pepper spray in the air. Shiflett radioed Captain Lewis and said, “They are pushing the crowd my way, and I have nobody here to help me.”
She was allowed to leave, but, as the Heaphy Report notes, no one “notified the traffic commander or the Command Center that she was no longer at her assigned post at 4th Street NE and Market Street. As a result, all that remained there was a wooden sawhorse barricade.”
This explains why no police were present when James Fields rammed his car into a group of protesters at that very corner an hour or so later at about 1:45 PM, killing counter-protester Heather Heyer and seriously injuring many others. The Heaphy Report praised the Charlottesville Fire Department and University of Virginia health system for handling this emergency but noted, “This prompt, effective response represents a bright success on a day largely filled with failure.”
Part II of this review will cover press coverage, Donald Trump’s statements, deplatforming and doxing campaigns, and the criminal and civil suits that followed the rally.