CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—Violence and division gripped this affluent college town for the third straight day on Sunday, where everyone was still processing the death of a 32-year-old protester and two police officers—and almost everyone was still angry, or frightened.
In the wake of Saturday’s deadly clashes between white nationalist protesters, counter-protesters and police, those remaining on the ground here pointed their fingers at a variety of culprits: white supremacists, anti-fascist “antifa” demonstrators, city officials, police and President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, self-branded “alt-light” figures around the country followed Trump’s pox-on-both-your-houses lead, offering explanations for the weekend’s bloodshed that minimized the role of white supremacy.
At 2 p.m. in Charlottesville, under the watch of police snipers stationed on a nearby rooftop, the organizer of Saturday’s white nationalist “Unite the Right” protest tried and failed to hold a press conference in front of city hall. But the organizer, freelance journalist Jason Kessler, was shouted down by a crowd of about 200 chanting, “Shame” and “Say her name,” a reference to the late Heather Heyer, the victim of Saturday’s alleged vehicular homicide at the hands of protest attendee James Alex Fields. Kessler — whose Twitter bio says he has written for the Daily Caller, a site founded by Fox News hosted Tucker Carlson, as well as internet troll Charles Johnson’s GotNews — made a show of checking his watch and fiddling with his smartphone as he waited for the crowd’s shouts to die down. When the shouting persisted, Kessler began speaking into the assembled microphones anyways, but his words were inaudible. Within minutes, two men had stepped through the ring of journalists encircling Kessler, and began shouting in his face. As journalists and the crowd pushed in closer, a scuffle broke out. Kessler escaped around the building’s corner and up the street, which was quickly sealed off by police in riot gear.
One of the two men who had approached Kessler stood in front of the police line chanting, “No airtime for Kessler,” and “No protection, no airtime.” The man, who sported a salt-and-pepper goatee and faded yellow polo shirt, declined to be interviewed. Others chanted, “Murderer” at Kessler, who had disappeared from view.
Erin Cook, 25, an employee of UVA’s childcare center, said she was already seeing “segregation” in the town in the wake of Saturday’s violence. “Everyone’s sticking to their own kind,” she said, adding that she has heard people talk of moving away from Charlottesville, for fear that that tensions here will only grow worse.
Cook said that her four-year-old daughter was “screaming uncontrollably” on Saturday, unable to make sense of chaos she was seeing unfold on television and hearing outside their nearby home. Cook, who is black, said she fears that her daughter will come to have a different understanding of the events than her white best friend, driving a racial wedge between them before they even reach grade school.
Cook said she has also heard from friends around the country over the course of the weekend. “A lot of them are saying, ‘I’m looking at white people differently’” she said. “It shouldn’t be like that.”
Nobody died on Sunday, thankfully —but the specter of Saturday’s violence hung over the city.
Following Kessler’s foiled press conference, organizers from the Revolutionary Communist Party addressed several dozen anti-racism protesters with bullhorns on the town’s brick-paved Main Street. Candice Maupin, 38, her injured left arm wrapped in a colorful plaster cast, rested an aluminum baseball bat on her shoulder. “I can’t fight with one arm so I need the bat,” she said. “We are going to protect ourselves by any means necessary.”
Patrick LaForte, 35, said he drove from South Carolina to attend Saturday’s rally and had been on his way home when he caught word of Kessler’s press conference and turned his car around. A burly white man with a red beard, LaForte said he and his three equally burly companions returned to the scene out of a desire to provide Kessler with physical protection, though the press conference had been shut down by the time they arrived.
LaForte said the violence directed at the white nationalist protesters violated their First Amendment rights, and he lamented growing divisions in American society.
“There’s not a common culture anymore,” said LaForte, a regular reader of the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer. “Now anybody, no matter how small or weird the group, can insulate themselves inside their own internet echo chambers.”
Yards away, the usual Sunday crowd dined al fresco on Main Street in the shade. Sandwich boards outside many of the upscale shops proclaimed support for love, tolerance and diversity. On the approach to Emancipation Park, the site of Saturday’s rally—and home to the object at the center of the explosion of racial tensions, a statue of General Robert E. Lee—a banner strung up over Market Street declared, “DIVERSITY makes us STRONGER,” along with a cross, a crescent, a star of David, a handicap symbol, a rainbow and a clenched fist.
At the park, a homeless man had returned to what locals said was his usual post on one of stone benches surrounding the Lee statue, whose planned removal was the stated occasion for the “Unite the Right” protest. On another bench sat Marie Stern, 48, with her husband. The couple had driven 60 miles from their home near Quantico on Sunday morning to demonstrate their opposition to racism and violence. Stern, who wore a shirt from the Women’s March on Washington, has had trouble sleeping since Trump’s election. “All of this, in our opinion, is related to him,” she said, citing the president’s failure to offer any robust denunciations of white supremacy. “It’s what he’s not saying.”
John Ratalsky, 61, sat on another bench next to a dog-eared Bible held together with masking tape and said he saw a parable in an unusual sight he had just come across: excrement on the ground in the tidy town of Charlottesville. “God is telling me that what happened yesterday is flies on shit,” he said, going on to condemn the protesters, the counter-protesters and the officials who permitted the assembly to go forward. “Next time, if they don’t give a permit to the shit, the flies won’t come.”
Outside of Charlottesville, the weekend’s events have also posed a dilemma for figures that have emerged from the pro-Trump internet fringe and occupy an ideological territory adjacent to the alt-right. Labeling themselves the “alt-light,” they’ve sought to distance themselves from crude displays of overt racism.
Yet rather than issue Sister Souljah-esque condemnations of the alt-right, several of those figures instead offered narratives for the weekend’s events that minimized the role of white supremacy.
“Identity politics is ugly no matter where it comes from, and it always leads to horrors,” said pro-Trump provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. “But the situation America now finds itself in is almost entirely a creation of the progressive left. Progressives nurture and feed the disgruntled white working class with their crusades against ‘straight white men’ and then cry foul when their chickens come home to roost.”
Gavin McInnes, the founder of the pro-Trump “Western chauvinist fraternal organization” the Proud Boys, blamed the city Charlottesville for its efforts to block the white nationalists from demonstrating against the removal of a statue of Lee from Emancipation Park. “This is a free country and the city fucked up by denying them a permit,” he said. “The blood is on their hands.”
McInnes, a co-founder of VICE Media who left the company years ago and declined to participate in Saturday’s event, said white supremacists deserved blame for Saturday’s mayhem but that ultimate responsibility lies elsewhere. “The left created these assholes,” he said.
Peter Duke, who has become a semi-official photographer of leaders of the alt-right and “alt-light,” focused on his theory that young people on both sides of standoffs like this weekend’s are alienated from reality and using political street conflicts to live out their fantasies. He described their activities as “LARPing” or live action role-playing, a hobby most commonly associated with people who act out Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy games, dressed as wizards and knights. He also linked Saturday’s vehicular homicide to Grand Theft Auto, a popular video game in which players frequently mow down pedestrians with cars. “These people play video games and think if they dress up like their favorite characters, they are sending some kind of message,” he said. “They are virtue-signaling through a costume.”
Meanwhile, white nationalist figurehead Richard Spencer, who championed Saturday’s rally and has announced a press conference on Monday in Washington to address the weekend’s violence, faulted logistics.
“Kessler did nothing morally wrong,” he said. “However, his organizing left a lot to be desired.”