Jurisprudence

Terry McAuliffe Still Doesn’t Understand What Happened in Charlottesville

A counterdemonstrator marches down the street after the Unite the Right rally.
A counterdemonstrator marches down the street after the Unite the Right rally, on Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Next week marks the two-year anniversary of the horrific events of the fatal 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Terry McAuliffe, who was governor of the state at the time, recently embarked on a nationwide tour to promote his latest book, Beyond Charlottesville: Taking a Stand Against White Nationalism. As someone who called Charlottesville home for a decade and who took a stand when white supremacists descended on my town, everything about McAuliffe’s book is vexing. I was there, among a peaceful group of counterprotesters facing down a group of torch-bearing, swastika-wearing neo-Nazis on the grounds of the University of Virginia on the night of Aug. 11, the opening act of the Unite the Right rally. Terry wasn’t. What’s worse, his government grossly failed the people of our city and there has never been a full accounting.

McAuliffe’s book tour conspicuously avoids Charlottesville. That could be for a number of reasons. During a tour event on Tuesday, for instance, he was heckled for the second time in two weeks by survivors of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. Perhaps he’s afraid of meeting more of these people face to face. Our community has also developed a reputation for being difficult. In the wake of Heather Heyer’s murder at the rally, the city attorney, the city manager, and the police chief all either retired or moved on to positions in other cities. Mayor Mike Signer stayed on the five-member City Council but chose not to seek a second term of mayorship. The city’s police department, meanwhile, has had difficulty retaining and hiring new officers. Community activists have sought to hold the council accountable, sometimes taking over council meetings. It’s hard to blame McAuliffe for not wanting to face this music.

Crucially, when Newsweek published an excerpt of McAuliffe’s book, it revealed glaring inaccuracies and troubling conclusions. He claimed, for instance, that Brian Moran, the Virginia secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, didn’t know who the different heavily armed militias were when he first encountered them. He further stated that the Charlottesville Police relied on the “honor system” to ensure that the white supremacists and neo-Nazis—who advertised the event with a poster depicting tanks and armed troops marching in formation—would keep their word about avoiding violence.

These claims are naïve at best and dishonest at worst. On July 17, 2017, during a Charlottesville City Council meeting, I handed an extensive and detailed dossier to city authorities documenting the threats being made by those planning to attend Unite the Right. One militia man posted on Facebook, “I can assure you there will be beatings at the August event.” Of Black Lives Matter activists, he promised that his fellow militia members “will finish them all off.” On the neo-Nazi media portal Daily Stormer, user Exterminajudios (Exterminate Jews) posted, “Antifa and [N-words] will be out in force. We need some military guys there to crack skulls.”

Most of these threats materialized in some form or other. On Aug. 12, six men, at least four of whom were from out of state, beat a local young black man, Deandre Harris, senseless in a parking garage. A United States Marine, Lance Corporal Vasillios Pistolis, bragged in a private neo-Nazi chat forum that he “cracked 3 skulls” in the riot on Market Street. If Terry McAuliffe wants to claim that he and his teams didn’t know that the white supremacists were there with the explicit intention to commit violence, it is only because they chose to ignore the activists who went to extreme lengths to warn them. In this regard, McAuliffe is not alone. From coast to coast, we see authorities completely inverting the proper assessment of the sources of violence and terror. In Portland, Oregon, an unsubstantiated rumor of a cement milkshake attack by antifa protesters started a national conversation when a journalist had a non-cement vegan one thrown at him. Yet there has been no national conversation around what happened just weeks prior, when a right-wing activist in that same city allegedly clubbed an unarmed activist on the head with a metal baton, causing a serious neck injury. In New York City, two members of the Proud Boys are on trial after they were allegedly captured on video following a Metropolitan Republican Club event pummeling an activist who was laying in the fetal position on the ground.

All of this has happened as our nation has faced a rash of right-wing violence from coast to coast. Last weekend, 23 people were murdered in El Paso, Texas, allegedly by a white supremacist who targeted Hispanic people. This week, the FBI opened a domestic terrorism investigation into a young man who killed three people at a garlic festival in Gilroy, California, last month. Last fall, a white supremacist allegedly murdered 11 people who were attending Shabbat services at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Earlier this year, a white supremacist was sentenced to life in prison for murdering a black man in a 2017 sword attack with the stated intention of starting a war against black people. And of course, the terror attack in Charlottesville that ended Heyer’s life was committed by an avowed neo-Nazi who drove from Ohio to attend the event.

Despite this, in a time when actual hate crimes are increasing, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has focused his energies on co-sponsoring a bill to designate antifa a domestic terror organization. Leaving aside momentarily that the FBI classifies antifa as an ideology, not an organization, anti-fascist activists like myself have been at the forefront of effective intelligence gathering regarding white supremacist activities, frequently outpacing even the FBI. Although it is rarely our intention, federal court documents show that the FBI has repeatedly relied on activist-gathered intelligence to secure indictments and convictions against violent far-right actors.

This effort to criminalize dissent doesn’t appear to bother those in the Democratic Party who are happy to use the labor and sacrifice of anti-fascist activists in Charlottesville as launching points for new chapters in their political careers. Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden launched his 2020 bid with the words Charlottesville, Virginia, strong invectives against President Donald Trump, and a video of anti–Unite the Right protesters being assaulted by torch-swinging white supremacists. Those of us who were there that night, though, did not face down the angry mob to send a message to Trump, but because we know—we have always known—that white supremacy is violent, hateful, murderous, and outrageously common. We faced down the angry mob because we never believed that neo-Nazis would abide by the “honor code.” And too often, we have had to do the jobs of protecting our community that those in power, like McAuliffe, couldn’t or wouldn’t.

Three of Deandre Harris’ four assailants who have been convicted of felony assault were identified by online sleuths who had intimate familiarity with white supremacist social networks. Vasillios Pistolis, the Marine who bragged about cracking skulls, was discharged from the service after being outed by ProPublica and PBS Frontline with the help of myself and an anti-fascist former Marine, Ed Beck. I exposed another Marine, Michael Chesny, who was shown to have helped organize Unite the Right as a “transportation coordinator.” In a private planning chat group for the event, he appeared to have discussed running down protesters. He was eventually kicked out of the Marines for his apparent white nationalist ties. Anti-fascist activists in New York City, meanwhile, identified the mob members from the Metropolitan Republican Club event in October of last year. And anti-fascist activists in Portland have compiled extensive dossiers on right-wing actors across the Pacific Northwest, such as Eric Oelkers, who was recently rearrested for a probation violation.

With all due respect to McAuliffe and Biden, this is what taking a stand against white nationalism beyond Charlottesville actually looks like.