On Tuesday, federal prosecutors in Virginia announced the arrest of four Southern California men on charges of conspiring to riot at the white-nationalist “Unite the Right” gathering in Charlottesville on the weekend of Aug. 11, 2017.
The four men are said to be members of a small, militia-like white supremacist group called the Rise Above Movement. In the affidavit submitted to justify their arrests, an FBI agent presents evidence that the group regularly meets for mixed-martial arts training that it has put into use by attacking perceived enemies at multiple public political events. In Charlottesville, video and photo footage appears to show members of the group attacking a member of the clergy, body-slamming and headbutting female counterprotesters, and punching a male counterprotester directly in the face without provocation.
The ostensible, publicly announced purpose of the Unite the Right rally was to protest the potential removal of a Robert E. Lee statue at an event featuring conservative political speeches. This week’s charges, though, are only the latest evidence that the individuals who attended—a group that, according to President Trump, included “very fine people” who were present for a positive celebration of Southern history—arrived for the express purpose of participating in mass violence. Previously, two lawsuits filed by nonprofit groups on behalf of Charlottesville residents have documented the extensive online discussions about prospective violence that took place between Unite the Right organizers on Facebook, on white-supremacist websites, and particularly on a private server (whose contents were later leaked and posted on a leftist site) that had been set up for the rally. Unite the Right leaders, the suits show, made detailed plans to bring weapons and move in military-style groups while prospective attendees egged each other on with rhetoric about beating “antifa,” “faggot,” and “commie” counterprotesters. When the weekend of the rally arrived, of course, many anti-racist counterprotesters were in fact hurt badly; at least 34 people were injured overall. While some of the violence was carried out by counterprotesters who were subsequently arrested and charged, much of it was not; needless to say, anti-racist protester Heather Heyer, who was run over and killed by a car driven by white supremacist James Fields Jr., did not provoke her own death.
In our current news environment, the public’s initial perception of an event often gets preserved in amber, with any development taking place more than a few days after the initial event relegated to footnote status. The violence in Charlottesville, a series of such footnote-style stories have shown, seems to have been even more of a horrifying development than it initially seemed—not just a chaotic outbreak of individually reprehensible acts, but in fact an organized, brownshirt-militia attack against anyone willing to defend the concept of a diverse democracy.