Update: This story was updated after President Trump's remarks Monday.
Everyone from the governor of Virginia to his mom and dad was telling Fintan Horan to stay away from this weekend’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.
He paid them no mind.
“You have people coming here who say they want to incite violence, so as someone who lives in Charlottesville – you know, this is my back yard … how can I not [get involved]?” says Mr. Horan, a computer science student at the University of Virginia, who lives near where a man, in a possible act of domestic terrorism, was arrested for allegedly plowing his car into a crowd of people, killing one woman and injuring 19. “These people are literally invading my hometown and killing my fellow citizens. It’s absurd.”
Horan, who joined a counter-protest Saturday, is far from the only one to have been thrust into the middle of the boldest show of violent white supremacy in the United States in generations.
A coalition of hundreds of the self-described "alt right" – some armed with makeshift armor and weapons and many wearing khakis, Top-siders, and golf shirts – descended on Charlottesville with Confederate battle and Nazi flags to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. It was the biggest rally yet of what has become an increasingly common sight across the US as emboldened white supremacists try to build a movement, in part by goading leftists into street fights in blue enclaves such as Berkeley, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and, now, Charlottesville, Va., where 70 percent of people voted for Hillary Clinton.
Twenty-four hours of building tension left the US reeling – and Virginia in a state of emergency – as hatred spilled out into the cobbled streets of Thomas Jefferson’s hometown.
The sight of Americans fighting and intimidating one another with tiki torches, chemical sprays, and fists is a fast-moving twist in a long-running ideological battle over equal rights that has grown less civil as America changes demographically and politically.
“A lot of people understand now that this is a precarious time, and they are right,” says Randy Blazak, a professor of sociology at Portland State University in Oregon who studies the world of online white supremacy. “Most Americans are going to look at what is happening in Charlottesville and be appalled…. The image of those guys marching through campus with torches is very powerful. There’s a lot of white people who say, ‘Wait a second, this isn’t what I voted for.’ It’s a historical tipping point where it could go one way or it could go the other.”
For many Americans caught in the middle, no matter their political stripe, the clashes at Charlottesville may be part of a broader racial reckoning, political scientists say, brought to a head by the election of President Trump and intensified by a rightward lurch in US domestic policy.
“As a country, anybody who was trying to stay silent about who they voted for, silent about what’s happening, silent about Black Lives Matter, silent about race in America, [the street fighting is] pushing them out into the open and demanding: ‘Take a stand. Which way do you go?’ ” says Nusrat Qadir Chaudhry, a New York nurse and spokeswoman for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, a reformist Muslim movement that dates back to 1920 in the US.
At least 35 people were treated for injuries, including the 19 hurt when a Dodge Challenger smashed into a group of people. An Ohio man has been arrested and charged with second-degree murder. Two police officers were also killed in a helicopter accident. As police broke up the assembly because of violence, the skirmishes spread out through the city, from parks to parking garages.
White supremacy's final gasp or a new day?
Given the raw displays of Nazi and white supremacist regalia, some say this weekend may wind up being a final gasp of an old, discredited ideology, coming out swinging from a tight political corner. But political scientists and hate group researchers say that a sense of reckoning is dawning on many Americans. The alt-right crowd chanting “Jew will not overcome us” and other hate speech at the University of Virginia and Charlotteville’s Emancipation Park, no matter how small an actual minority, are seeing their far-right views increasingly normalized. For their part, they notch each melee, even in retreat, as symbolic victories over multiculturalism.
“Just the fact that they have a presence in mainstream political discourse and talk about the beleaguered struggle of the white man in a multicultural country, that’s a victory,” says Professor Blazak, director of the Hate Crime Research Network. “It’s like being a singer in a hate rock band and giving away 1,000 copies of my tape for free. If I get the kids driving around in grandma’s car chanting ‘White power!’ I’ve won.”
After being criticized for an equivocal response that "many sides" were responsible for the Charlottesville violence – which critics said put white supremacists on equal moral footing with civil rights-focused counter-protesters, one of whom died – Mr. Trump emerged Monday with a far stronger statement. In brief remarks to reporters, he forcefully condemned "the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups" as "criminals and thugs." He added that "anyone who acted criminally in this weekend's racist violence, you will be held accountable." The Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into the car ramming, which is being considered a domestic terror attack.
Marcher Andrew Dodson, a self-described “racial realist,” saw the fighting and Trump’s refusal over the weekend to specifically condemn Nazi flags on US soil as “a phenomenal victory” for the rally, he told Daniel Lombroso of The Atlantic.
Charlottesville resident Darby Wootten, for one, struggles to gauge the depths of how much the president represents to America’s hateful fringes.
“This has been building … since people said our last president wasn’t American, which was started by our current president,” says Mr. Wootten, who runs a putt-putt golf course and was at a candlelight vigil for the victims of the car attack. (In fact, Trump popularized the rumor, rather than invented it.)
'Yesterday made me feel like 9/11 did'
But the moment also comes amid other battles in the long American struggle of reconciling the Constitution’s guarantee of equal rights for all with a deep strain of white supremacy that, at times, curdles the body politic.
The 2015 attack on a church in Charleston, S.C., that left nine African-American parishioners dead at the hands of a white supremacist named Dylann Roof provided a tipping point to push Confederate symbols off public grounds. Charlottesville voted to sell a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on his horse, the removal of which the Unite the Right rally was ostensibly in town to protest. Some 60 Confederate memorials have been removed from public places since 2015, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, heightening tensions among those claiming them as Southern heritage.
“I got ancestors that fought in that Civil War, and I’m proud of ‘em, of what they done, and they should be honored for it,” says Charles Wells, a business owner in Lyndhurst, Va., who voted for Trump. “I think [the statue] should stay, and people should have the right to do what they want without violence.”
But neither he nor his wife, Frances, condoned Saturday's violence.
“Yesterday made me feel like 9/11 did," says Frances Wells, who says she also voted for Trump. “It’s just unnecessary, I mean people are acting crazy; we need peace in this world instead of violence…. This world has just gotten so hateful. I mean, how can people be so hateful?”
'Democracy is a fragile thing'
The push of white supremacists into the open picked up speed after Trump endorsed a plan to cut legal immigration in half and set up a merit-based system that would require new immigrants to be able to speak English, says Blazak.
“It’s got to be a great time to be a white supremacist: They really now feel like they’ve got a friend in high places, and they’ve got a lot of people in positions to make policy happen,” says Blazak. “This is their moment in the sun,” he adds. “This internet troll phenomenon has taken to the streets to create as much havoc as possible, and people are going to show up. Each event is an advertisement for the next.”
As far as their opponents, “it’s true that a lot of the anti-fascists are whackadoos who have a good heart but no coherent strategy – they just want to knock heads together. But others know … that democracy is a fragile thing,” he says. “All it takes is a charismatic figurehead who can tweak the machine enough to tilt the balance [toward white supremacy] and, that’s all she wrote.”
Indeed, Americans are being forced off the sidelines even in genteel places like Charlottesville – nicknamed “Joy Town” after being voted America’s happiest city three years ago.
For many, like Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer, the clashes embody a fight over a national narrative on race. He believes it “will have the effect of redoubling our progress,” he told reporters. “To become an honest society, I don’t think we have any choice but to tell the full story.”