Politics

Very Fine People

The true legacy of the Unite the Right rally will be the unity forged by those on the other side.

A diverse group of counterprotesters argues with protesters in military gear.
Protesters and counterprotesters clash during the Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Calla Kessler/The Washington Post via Getty Images

One year ago, a torch-wielding mob chanting “Jews will not replace us” invaded my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. The following day, I was in the streets watching in horror as the modern-day Klan announced itself, flanked by heavily armed soldiers of hate in full fatigues and alt-righters chanting “Heil Trump” while flashing Nazi salutes. The Unite the Right rally was not an isolated incident but rather the culmination of a six-month campaign of escalating events to recruit members, stoke racial fear within local communities of color, and refine its tactics. One of these tactics—turning cars into weapons of terror—was used to murder Heather Heyer and severely wound dozens more.

That day, the modern-day Klan seared images of hate and “white power” into the national consciousness. They dealt beatings to people of color and white allies, many of whom are still struggling to recover or have felt compelled to leave town. And perhaps beyond their wildest dreams, they received the blessing of the president of the United States, who stunned the nation by including this violent, racist horde in his definition of “very fine people.”

But a year later, thanks to the tireless efforts of racial justice advocates, that hate-filled rally is beginning to look more like a wellspring of progress. The soldiers of hate that day were far outnumbered by those standing for justice—a force that crossed every line of race, class, gender, and faith. Subsequent hate rallies across the country fizzled. Some of the movement’s most vicious leaders have been prosecuted, fired from their jobs, or isolated and bankrupted. New legal precedents are being forged to bankrupt powerful figures who enable the weaponization of hate. Charlottesville is now led by fearless justice advocate Nikuyah Walker, the first black woman elected mayor. And the nation has inched closer toward a more honest rendering both of our past and our present.

After that emotional weekend, I offered my first draft of history. A year on, here is a first draft of what I hope will prove, over time, to be the legacies of this tragedy.

White (House) supremacists named and shamed. The most immediate national impact of the modern-day Klan’s rally was the loss of its two most powerful allies inside the White House: Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka. While President Donald Trump continues to attack and dehumanize people of color with his senior adviser Stephen Miller at his side, the media grew more comfortable after Charlottesville accurately labeling his agenda and the rhetoric of today’s GOP as “racist,” openly exploring the ideology of white supremacy, and acknowledging the threat of violent white nationalism. Even as the media provides far too many platforms to white supremacists, the slow death of “both sides” journalism may have begun that weekend.

Bankruptcy and jail time for Nazis. Unite the Right organizers I met that day were ready for a “race war,” but a year later—thanks to investigations by local researchers like Emily Gorcenski and national reporters like Shaun King—some of the most violent leaders have been outed and held to account. The platforms of the lead organizers of the rally, among them Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, have collapsed. The networks fueling and funding these hate groups are facing bankruptcy from a couple of creative, potentially precedent-setting legal cases. Conspiracy theorist and Infowars host Alex Jones faces a promising libel lawsuit for his “false flag” claims that one of the protesters—Brennan Gilmore, who posted video of the vehicle attack—had masterminded the event as an operation to validate a deep state coup. (Disclosure: Gilmore is a friend and my former chief of staff, and I play a supporting role in Jones’ conspiracy theory.)

2017 election landslide becomes a 2018 blue wave. That fatal weekend took place three months before Virginia held the country’s most consequential political test of the Trump era. Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie, who had barely won the GOP nomination over neo-Confederate Corey Stewart, responded with a deluge of racist, nativist ads, flooding the airwaves with calls to protect, as the New Jersey native put it, “our monuments.” In contrast, Democratic nominee Ralph Northam, a veteran and mild-mannered traditionalist who grew up in rural Virginia, made advancing an inclusive Virginia central to his message and declared that these monuments belong in museums. Northam won by 8 points, and Democrats picked up 15 state delegate seats in Virginia with the most diverse set of candidates in history. Since then, Democrats have overperformed in special elections across the country as the GOP has been reduced to the party of white grievance. As I have argued elsewhere, Trump is to the national GOP what Proposition 187 was to the California GOP—a racist play to win one last election while accelerating the demise of any moral or electoral credibility for a generation.

Real history replaces revisionist propaganda. The controversial statues may still stand in Charlottesville, but the Lost Cause’s revisionist propaganda has not faced this big of a defeat since Appomattox. Far more Virginians today know that these monuments were erected as part of the fight against integration and that this racist propaganda campaign deliberately erased some of the South’s most successful generals, like James Longstreet, who embraced black citizenship during Reconstruction. Thanks to the work of University of Virginia professor Jalane Schmidt and others, awareness is growing that a majority of people in Central Virginia during the Civil War were black, yet even today we erase their experience of the war when we think of Virginian or Southern heritage. Justice advocates in Charlottesville recently inaugurated a powerful pilgrimage carrying soil from the site of a local 1898 lynching across key Civil War and civil rights spaces, ending in Montgomery, Alabama, at the first museum dedicated to the reign of terror during and after Reconstruction. More voices have joined calls for a systematic approach—such as a national truth commission on race—to correct the false legacies of the Lost Cause and Dunning School mythology. A growing number of Americans after Charlottesville understand what museum creator Bryan Stevenson means when he says, “We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it.”

Raising the bar for white allyship. During the same six months that the modern Klan was planning its attacks, longtime activists were doing the deep work of building trust across racial, faith, and class lines. Groups spoke bluntly in planning about the moral obligation of white allies to be present, and even out front, when physical risks were acute. The frightening images from the Friday night torch rally kept some at home the next day but convinced hundreds of others that failing to show up was no longer an option. As one white childhood friend said to me that day, “I have never attended any protest, but I figure it’s on us to show that these racist assholes don’t speak for all white folks.”

These decisions mattered. The hate groups hoped for images of uniformed white bands facing off against black crowds, not the highly integrated resistance that emerged. My former colleague Sam Fulwood, who was part of the civil rights struggle in his native North Carolina, noted that dangerous marches back then tended to include “just a handful of fearless white people—a few nuns and a few rabbis—who you see up front in the pictures, but the bulk of courage came from African Americans, mostly women and young people.” While people of color, particularly black women, continue to shoulder far too much of the struggle, today’s white allies are more numerous, less expectant of being in charge, and more prepared to use white privilege as a shield on the front lines. Heather Heyer represented the best of this emerging tradition that understands history will judge our actions by the standard of moral courage, not civility.

We do not yet know how this story—or even this anniversary weekend—ends. It took only a few days for the community to reclaim UVA’s campus to make clear that the hateful mobs had in fact “been replaced.” Meanwhile, a year later, deep wounds fester, inequalities remain, and serious questions about accountability remain unanswered. But a growing body of evidence suggests that the true legacy of Unite the Right will be the unity that’s been forged by those on the other side—those who dare to face down the evils of historical revisionism and injustice to forge a better future.