On August 12, 2017, several hundred Ku Klux Klan members, white supremacists, racists, and anti-Semites participated in “Unite the Right,” a march in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia (UVA), to protest a decision by local officials to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park. Counter-protesters confronted the white nationalist demonstration. The heated encounter between the two opposing groups culminated in tragedy, when a white nationalist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. Heather D. Heyer, a paralegal living in Charlottesville, was killed, and nineteen others were injured, The New York Times reported. In December 2017, an independent investigation produced a report concluding that the Charlottesville police department had not been adequately prepared for the rally and that this had contributed to the disastrous results. After the release of the report, the Charlottesville chief of police resigned.
President Donald J. Trump responded to the violent protests in Charlottesville by condemning the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” reported the Times. Trump’s statement drew criticism from both Republicans and Democrats for failing specifically to condemn the white nationalist movement. White House Homeland Security Adviser Thomas P. Bossert told the Times that Trump did not want to “dignify the names of these groups of people.” First daughter Ivanka Trump tweeted, “There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis.” Two days later, apparently after pressure from White House staff members, President Trump condemned the hate groups involved in the Charlottesville protests, saying “Racism is evil — and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazi’s, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” the Times reported. However, one day later, Trump told reporters in New York, “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now,” according to the Times. He also said, “What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? Let me ask you this: What about the fact that they came charging, that they came charging with clubs in their hands swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do. So, you know, as far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day.”
Heather D. Heyer worked as a paralegal at the Miller Law Group in Charlottesville. According to the Times, “Friends described her as a passionate advocate for the disenfranchised who was often moved to tears by the world’s injustices.” The City of Charlottesville issued a statement in response to her death, saying, “This senseless act of violence rips a hole in our collective hearts. While it will never make up for the loss of a member of our community, we will pursue charges against the driver of the vehicle that caused her death and are confident justice will prevail.” A GoFundMe campaign to provide financial support to Heyer’s family raised over $200,000 in two days, according to the Times.
James Alex Fields Jr. is accused of driving his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing Heyer and injuring nineteen others. Fields, who lived in Maumee, Ohio, was charged with second-degree murder and denied bail. His mother told the Associated Press that she knew he was attending the rally, but believed that it “had something to do with Trump.” A former high school teacher of Fields told The Cincinnati Enquirer that Fields was “a very bright kid but very misguided and disillusioned.”
Then-Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia declared a state of emergency in response to the events in Charlottesville. McAuliffe also defended the response of law enforcement from criticism by both the white nationalists and counter protesters. He pointed out that not a single shot was fired during the protest and said the car attack could not have been prevented by law enforcement, the Times reported.
Alfred Thomas was the Charlottesville police chief at the time of the march. He resigned in December 2017 following the release of an independent report that criticized the department’s handling of the rally. The report said the police did not respond to break up fighting in the downtown area. The lack of a police response conveyed a passive stance that the independent report deemed a “tremendous tactical failure.” In a news release, Thomas said he was grateful to have had the opportunity to protect and serve the Charlottesville community.
The Lead-up to “Unite the Right”
In February 2017, the Charlottesville Town Council voted to remove Lee’s statue, and also to rename “Lee Park,” where the statue was located, along with a nearby park named for Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Their names were changed to “Emancipation Park” and “Justice Park,” respectively. In May, “a circuit court judge in Charlottesville issued a six-month injunction to halt the removal of the statue after a collection of individuals and groups — including the Virginia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans — filed a lawsuit against the city,” reported the Times. That same month, alt-right leader Richard Spencer led two marches through Charlottesville. At one, Spencer shouted, “we will never back down from the cowardly attacks on our people and our heritage. What brings us together is that we are white. We are a people. We will not be replaced,” CNN reported.
Spencer later led two marches on May 13, one during the afternoon and one during the evening, which received attention due to the carrying of torches, which invoked imagery similar to a KKK rally. During the demonstrations, Spencer again shouted, “We will never back down from the cowardly attacks on our people and our heritage. What brings us together is that we are white. We are a people. We will not be replaced!” The crowd chanted, “You will not replace us,” and “Russia is our friend,” reported The Washington Post. Spencer also attended the Unite the Right protest in August and was photographed being detained by police. He is a graduate of UVA.
In response to the march, Teresa A. Sullivan, president of UVA, issued a statement in which she said that while the university does “respect the rights of free expression and assembly,” it also “reserve[s] the right to criticize those expressions and assemblies.” Her statement also asserted that the demonstration appeared to be a deliberate attempt to intimidate African-Americans. Charlottesville mayor Mike Signer wrote on Facebook, “This event involving torches at night in Lee Park was either profoundly ignorant or was designed to instill fear in our minority populations in a way that hearkens back to the days of the KKK,” and “such intolerance is not welcome here.”
On May 14, a counter-protest occurred in which speakers promoted tolerance and acceptance, surrounded by signs reading “Black Lives Matter” and “F**k White Supremacy.” Others associated with Spencer’s demonstration showed up, and several scuffles occurred. Police made three arrests, and one officer was hit in the head with an object thrown from the crowd.
In July 2017, approximately 50 supporters of the Ku Klux Klan participated in a rally to save the Lee statue. They shouted “white power” for approximately half an hour, the Times reported. More than 1,000 counter-protesters confronted the KKK supporters, protesting “their presence by hurling insults, water bottles and apple cores,” according to the Times. Law enforcement officials deployed tear gas in an effort to force the counter-protesters to disperse. “City officials and church leaders had asked residents to stay away from the rally. Concerts and other events were planned to encourage residents to spend the day elsewhere,” the Times said.
On August 11, 2017, a day before the Unite the Right rally, a judge in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, Charlottesville division, granted an injunction allowing the event to be held in Emancipation (formerly Lee) Park. City officials had attempted to relocate the Unite the Right rally to a different venue, McIntire Park, due to safety concerns. While the proposed new location was larger and could accommodate more people, it was not where the statue of Lee stood. Jason Kessler, the event’s organizer, sued the city and was represented by the Rutherford Institute, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The two groups argued that moving the march’s location would violate Kessler’s free speech rights. After the injunction was granted, ACLU’s Virginia Executive Director, Claire Guthrie, said in a statement, “We are grateful that the court recognized that the First Amendment applies equally to everyone regardless of their views,” NBC 29 reported. Her statement continued, “We hope that the city will focus . . . on managing the expected crowds using de-escalation tactics and flexibility.” Mayor Signer responded to the injunction, saying, “While the City is disappointed by tonight’s ruling, we will abide by the judge’s decision. The goal in moving the Unite the Right rally from Emancipation Park to a larger, more accommodating space like McIntire Park had nothing to do with the content of the demonstrators’ speech.”
New York Times reporter Richard Fausset called the white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville “perhaps the most visible manifestation to date of the evolution of the American far-right, a coalition of old and new white supremacist groups connected by social media and emboldened by the election of Donald J. Trump.” Additionally, the Southern Poverty Law Center described the rally as “the largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades in the United States.”
In addition to Heather Heyer’s death, two Virginia state troopers died in a helicopter crash the evening of the Unite the Right march. The helicopter was being used to monitor the protests from above. The reason for the crash was not immediately clear, but was being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, according to the Times.
On Wednesday, August 16, 2017, thousands of students and others participated in a peaceful vigil at UVA. The organizers intentionally kept their plans off social media and instead spread information by word of mouth, CNN reported. Participants in the vigil carried candles, sang the national anthem, and followed the same route the white supremacists had charted on the previous Saturday. The same day, Heather Heyer’s mother spoke about her daughter’s death at a memorial service. “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well, guess what? You just magnified her,” she said, according to CNN.
After the protests, Twitter users attempted to identify individuals who were photographed while participating in the Unite the Right rally. One successfully identified a man carrying a tiki torch as an individual who worked for a restaurant named Top Dog in Berkeley, CA. Top Dog promptly fired the man, reported the Daily Mail. Additionally, Twitter users were able to use photographs to identify a University of Nevada, Reno student who had traveled to Charlottesville for the protest. “I came to this march for the message that white European culture has a right to be here just like every other culture,” he told KTVN’s Channel 2 News after being identified on Twitter. “As a white nationalist, I care for all people. We all deserve a future for our children and for our culture. White nationalists aren’t all hateful; we just want to preserve what we have,” he continued. University of Nevada, Reno President Marc Johnson released a statement acknowledging that a student at the school had been involved in the Unite the Right protest. It read, in part, “Racism and white supremacist movements have a corrosive effect on our society. These movements do not represent our values as a university. We denounce any movement that targets individuals due to the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, political beliefs, sexual orientation, ability/disability, or whether they were born in our country,” KTVN reported. Although Johnson’s statement did not identify the student, a petition on Change.org calling for the school to expel him garnered more than 13,000 signatures within 48 hours. The university, however, declined to expel the student.
President Trump’s statements regarding the events in Charlottesville prompted many prominent business executives to resign from the his business advisory councils. Inge Thulin, chairman and chief executive of 3M, announced his resignation from the Manufacturing Council, saying “the initiative is no longer an effective vehicle for 3M to advance its goals,” NBC News reported. Soon Denise Morrison, president and chief executive of Campbell Soup, resigned as well. Reacting to Trump’s comments at the news conference in New York, Morrison said, “Racism and murder are unequivocally reprehensible and are not morally equivalent to anything else that happened in Charlottesville.” On April 16, Trump announced via Twitter that he was dissolving both the Manufacturing Council and the Strategy and Policy Forum.
The events in Charlottesville prompted numerous editorials in national publications concerning hate speech and the First Amendment. Some argued that the ACLU ought to reconsider its decision to represent white supremacists, although the organization stood by its actions. “I want to be clear, the violence of this weekend was not caused by our defense of the First Amendment,” the ACLU’s executive director, Anthony Romero, told the Times.
In September, UVA released a report finding that the university’s administration had not adequately prepared for the alt-right rally. The report, authored by the Deans Working Group, led by UVA Law School Dean Risa Goluboff, cited numerous shortcomings in the university’s preparation and response to the “Unite the Right” rally, reported the Post. The report urged UVA to “forge new policies and practices that will prevent it from again becoming a locus of intimidation and violence while recommitting to the principles of free speech at the core of its mission.” Suggested improvements include procuring better information prior to protests, changing certain regulations concerning large gatherings on campus, and improving an understanding of campus rules, reported the Post. In one example of inadequate preparation, UVA campus police failed to enforce a rule prohibiting flames on campus due to incomplete knowledge and understanding of the regulation. Alt-right demonstrators carried torches on Friday night prior to the Unite the Right rally.
In December 2017, Chief of Police Alfred Thomas resigned following the release of an independent report analyzing the Charlottesville Police Department’s response to the march. The independent report was prepared by Timothy Heaphy, a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia. It specifically criticized the department’s failure to maintain a separation between the demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, a reluctance on the part of the police to intervene in fights, and a lack of overall planning for responding to violence. Heaphy said during a news conference he had heard from a police officer that Thomas had told his officers to let protesters fight because it would be easier to declare the assembly unlawful. Thomas denied that he had made such a statement, reported the Post.
1 killed, 19 injured while protesting hate groups
Heather D. Heyer was killed while participating in a counter-protest when a car driven by a white nationalist from Ohio ploughed into a crowd. Nineteen other counter-protesters were injured, and the driver was charged with second-degree murder. He was denied bail two days later by a judge in the Charlottesville General District Court, reported USA Today. Additionally, two state troopers were killed in a helicopter crash while monitoring the protests. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the crash was likely caused by faulty maintenance.
23 Arrested and Tear Gas Deployed After a K.K.K. Rally in Virginia, The New York Times
State of Emergency in Virginia as White Nationalists March, The New York Times
Our Sister’s Keeper #HeatherHeyer, GoFundMe
City of Charlottesville Statement on the Deaths of Heather D. Heyer, Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates, Charlottesville Tomorrow
The Statue at the Center of Charlottesville’s Storm, The New York Times
Trump calls KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists ‘repugnant’, CNN
Fire & Expel Peter Cvjetanovic, Change.org
No bail for Charlottesville car attack suspect James Fields, USA Today
A Guide to the Violence in Charlottesville, The New York Times
Death of 2 State Troopers Adds Another Layer of Tragedy in Charlottesville, The New York Times
Trump Dissolves Business Advisory Councils as CEOs Quit, NBC News
After Backing Alt-Right in Charlottesville, A.C.L.U. Wrestles With Its Role, The New York Times
Thousands gather for peaceful candlelight vigil at UVA, CNN
The A.C.L.U. Needs to Rethink Free Speech, The New York Times
Charlottesville police chief resigns in wake of report on white-supremacist rally, The Washington Post
Charlottesville response to white supremacist rally is sharply criticized in report, The Washington Post
Independent Review of the 2017 Protest Events in Charlottesville, Virginia
NTSB Releases Preliminary Report in Charlottesville Helicopter Crash, The Washington Post
Prepared by Will Haskell ‘18 and Graham Piro ‘18
Uploaded September 17, 2017
Updated January 22, 2018