Originally posted on August 14. This post has since been updated.
The world was watching Charlottesville this weekend when white nationalists and white supremacists descended on the Virginia city—setting the stage for a disturbing display of hatred and violence.
The weekend began with an illegal gathering at the University of Virginia campus Friday night. White protestors, carrying torches, chanted “you will not replace us” and “white lives matter” as they crossed the campus. A small group of counter-protesting students were doused in lighter fluid, pepper-sprayed and threatened.
Police in Charlottesville were not initially present at the “Unite the Right” rally the following afternoon at Emancipation Park. Protestors carrying Confederate flags and doing Nazi salutes were among the crowd gathered there to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, and featured speakers at the event included so-called “alt-right” leaders like Richard Spencer and former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. A white supremacist militia armed with automatic weapons patrolled the event.
Over 30 people were injured by the day’s end, mostly as a result of clashes between rally attendees and counter-protestors. Before noon, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) had declared a state of emergency, ushering in a police presence. The event was also designated an “unlawful gathering” by authorities. Soon after, 20-year-old James Field purposefully drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors—injuring nearly 20 people and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. As police arrived and the crowds dispersed across the city, one African American man, 20-year-old Deandre Harris, was beaten with poles by white supremacists in a parking garage next to the Charlottesville police station. A Virginia State Police helicopter crashed as authorities attempted to defuse and regain control over the space, killing two troopers.
Field, who has previously been accused of domestic violence by his mother and was known by teachers and peers for an unusual interest in Nazism and white supremacy, has been charged with second-degree murder and is being held in police custody without bail.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) held a press conference Saturday condemning the protests. “There’s no place in Virginia for hatred & bigotry,” he wrote on Twitter from the podium, echoing his formal remarks. “People who’ve come to VA today to hurt others are not patriots, they are cowards.” He issued a closing statement which minced no words: “go home.”
The jarring display of racism and anti-semitism in Charlottesville was more than a reminder of how much work is left to do—it is a reminder of how far we have yet to come. “This university was built by slaves, by a slave owner, on the backs of marginalized people, and really has been the face of oppression for two hundred years,” UVa student and counter-protestor Ian Ware told MTV News. “There’s no getting around that, which is why this narrative of ‘this is not the Charlottesville we know!’ is not necessarily true. White supremacy has been a part of this institution forever. It’s been a part of this town forever. So it’s a hard thing to unpack, but I think for a lot of us, it’s very important to recognize that. Even if it hasn’t been Neo-Nazis on our campus, it’s been some form of white supremacy for the last two hundred years.”
For the most part, lawmakers and political figureheads on both sides of the aisle condemned the violence that consumed Charlottesville. The response from the Trump administration, however, has been mixed. An initial statement by the President condemned “in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence,” but added a clarifier: “on many sides, on many sides.” His statement did not name white supremacists or the organizations and leaders who organized the rally, instead taking an approach less passionate and firm than those he has taken when condemning Nordstrom’s or his political opponents.
“As the country grappled with this tragedy, we were told that ‘many sides’ should be condemned,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) fired back. “Many sides. I often advocate that we look at many sides of an issue, walk in someone else’s shoes, and identify and reject false choices. But there are not ‘many sides’ to this. ‘Many sides’ is what kept children in this country at separate schools and adults at separate lunch counters for decades. ‘Many sides’ is what turned a blind eye when Emmett Till was lynched and stood silent when marchers were beat in Selma for ‘disturbing the peace.’ ‘Many sides’ is what my parents and thousands of others fought against during the Civil Rights Movement. ‘Many sides’ suggests that there is no right side or wrong side, that all are morally equal. But I reject that. It’s not hard to spot the wrong side here. They’re the ones with the torches and the swastikas.”
Presidential aides took to great lengths to defend the President’s initial remarks, but Trump ultimately made a clarifying statement—two days later—declaring that “racism is evil” and “those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” However, just today—one day later—he made another public statement once more reversing course and saying there was “blame on both sides.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has defended the president’s remarks, took a more firm approach himself: He called the “evil” scene in Charlottesville an act of domestic terrorism and opened a formal Department of Justice investigation. That announcement comes months after the FBI and Homeland Security warned of the growing risk of white extremists groups in the U.S.—a position that clashes with the Trump administration’s decision to focus its counterterrorism efforts moreso on so-called “radical Islam.”
As that development unfolds, lawmakers and activists are pushing for more changes. Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is renewing her call for the President to fire White House advisor Steve Bannon, former executive chair of alt-right hub Breitbart and noted white nationalist. Tech giants like GoDaddy and Google have cancelled the domain registration for the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, after its celebration of Heyer’s death following the incident. Activists are attempting to identify the alt-right protestors in efforts to press charges and raise funds for those injured. Solidarity protests broke out across the country on Saturday and Sunday, and on Monday activists in Durham toppled a Confederate monument while lawmakers in Baltimore made clear their intention to rid the city of any remaining such statues.
“There are not many sides to Charlottesville,” journalist Sarah Kendzior wrote in the Globe and Mail. “There is the anti-racist activist who was killed, and the white supremacist who killed her. There is the mob chanting the Nazi cry of ‘blood and soil,’ and the citizens demanding equality and respect. There is the confederacy, and there is the United States. There are the torches of neo-Nazis and the torch of the Statue of Liberty. There is Donald Trump and there is patriotism. There is one right side, and the President is not on it.”
This is not a situation with many sides. As a nation, we must decide where we will stand: on the side of hate and violence or the side of love and equality. If the Trump administration cannot decide which they choose, we will just have to dig in our heels as we fight for ours.