CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia—The proximate reason for Saturday’s Unite the Right event, a demonstration of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, was to “defend” the city’s memorials to Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Earlier in the year, city officials voted to remove the statues, which were erected in the early 20th century as monuments to white supremacy. For many residents of today’s Charlottesville, the statues were a blight—fraught objects that anchored racist propaganda in the city’s geography.
That move brought a backlash. Republican Corey Stewart nearly won his party’s nomination for governor on a pledge to protect these statues, leveraging Confederate nostalgia to surprising success. A local white supremacist, Jason Kessler, organized against removing the statues, bringing his supporters to bear on City Council. The Ku Klux Klan joined the protest against the city, gathering in defense of the statues last month. Unite the Right, which Kessler helped organize, was part of that reaction. But it wasn’t just that.
None of the (mostly) men who came to Charlottesville wore masks or hoods. They didn’t on Friday night when they marched to the University of Virginia carrying torches and attacking counter-protesters, and they didn’t on Saturday, when they gathered in downtown Charlottesville with weapons, Confederate flags, and Nazi paraphernalia. They weren’t just unafraid; they were proud—proud to stand for racial hatred, eager to intimidate those opposed them.
Yes, the proximate reason for Unite the Right was to defend the city’s Confederate memorials, but the actual reason was for the marchers to show their strength as a movement.
You can argue easily that they failed. Hundreds came to march in support of white supremacy, but they were outnumbered by thousands of residents who turned out to oppose the rally. The rally was scheduled to last for five hours, but it was over after 15 minutes; police cleared the park when it was clear the demonstrators were angling for a fight. By the afternoon, the streets of downtown Charlottesville were controlled by cops and counter-protesters, and the white supremacists had either retreated to a different park or left entirely.
But this argument doesn’t quite stick. Yes, the Nazis and white supremacists retreated from their initial stand, but that didn’t stop a man who appeared to be one of their number from using a car to kill one counter-protester and injure 19 others. Yes, they were outnumbered on the ground, but they received tacit support from a White House that refused to condemn them by name. In their initial statements, President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions condemned “hatred” and “violence” without naming the actual perpetrators, an abrupt shift away from their typical penchant for bluntness and clarity. And when speaking to the press, Trump accused “many sides” of fomenting violence, equivocating at a moment when white supremacists had just terrorized an American city. He even seemed to back their defense of Confederate memorials, asking all Americans to “cherish history.”
No, the white supremacists who came to Charlottesville couldn’t secure physical space in the city. But they can still claim a kind of victory. They revealed the extent to which they can threaten and intimidate with a certain amount of impunity. Compared with protests in places such as Ferguson, Missouri—where largely peaceful protesters were met with snipers, armored vehicles, and riot police—the response in Charlottesville was tame, with armed white supremacists facing restrained and measured law enforcement.
More importantly, they revealed the extent to which they hold political influence, such that the president of the United States refused to condemn them outright. The men who gathered under Unite the Right made clear that they saw Trump as an ally to their cause. And if Trump’s equivocation is any indication—if his unwillingness to name and shame the worst kind of racism is any sign—then that feeling is mutual.