Opinion

Are America's White Supremacists Planning Another Charlottesville?

The U.S. far right is less united than a year ago: infighting may mean fewer attend an anniversary rally in Washington D.C. planned for August. But that's no indication of the state of white supremacy, which is in the midst of a disturbing resurgence

White nationalist demonstrators use shields as they clash with counter demonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017.
Steve Helber/AP

Next month marks the anniversary of the Unite the Right events in Charlottesville, Virginia, which led many Americans to the painful realization that white supremacists were energized, emboldened, and ready to act.

The question now is: Will the planned anniversary rallies attract the same crowds, hatred and violence that stunned the country last year?  

To answer that question, we need to understand the changes in the white supremacist movement, and particularly the alt-right, since August 2017.

Over the past year, the alt-right has experienced significant turmoil due to infighting between leaders and factions, evictions from internet platforms, and various arrests and lawsuits. 

White supremacists of all stripes have questioned the motives and effectiveness of holding an anniversary event this year. Many of the white supremacists who promoted and helped organize last year’s events in Charlottesville are not openly supporting this year’s event or its main organizer, Jason Kessler

The odds that Kessler, the chief organizer of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, can inspire this year the same spirit of unity that led hundreds of extremists, including people who’d never attended anything like this before, to participate last year are extremely low. Kessler, who absurdly compares his efforts to those of Martin Luther King Jr., is trying to drum up support for an anniversary rally that he says will focus on "white civil rights."

Kessler’s efforts thus far appear to have fallen flat, leaving several white supremacists to declare on social media that they will not attend. Leaked chat logs and his rants against his would-be allies in the alt-right have only exacerbated Kessler’s problems.

Unite The Right rally organizer Jason Kessler at a press conference in front of Charlottesville City Hall in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 13, 2017
\ Justin Ide/ REUTERS

Furthermore, the circumstances around last year’s Unite the Right rally that were in Kessler’s favor have faded. In the summer of 2017, the alt-right, neo-Nazis, traditional white supremacists, and even members of the anti-government movement were all motivated to take their political battles to the streets. They were abuzz with the idea of unifying against their common enemy, the political left, as our analysis of the far right’s attendance at the Charlottesville rally showed.

Kessler used the removal of a Confederate monument in the college town as a catalyst to attract people to the rally, helping him get the full support of the alt-right and other segments of the white supremacist movement. The widely accepted message at the time was: White people are under attack and they must set aside their various ideological differences to unite under one banner.

This time around, there is little of that. Public condemnation and the harsh backlash that followed the "Unite the Right" rally resulted in dissension and discord in the white supremacist movement. This may impact the willingness of some to participate in the anniversary.

Some participants were "doxxed," with their personal information shared with the world identifying them as part of the far right. Some were arrested, lost their jobs, or rejected by their family and friends. This has caused some to retreat to the online world or engage in different activities, such as propaganda distribution, particularly on college campuses, which enables them to have an impact on the ground with less of a risk of being exposed, or unannounced "flash" demonstrations.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle to white supremacist unity is over "optics" - the internal debate over the style of messaging and appearance that should be used to bring new recruits into the movement.

Should they avoid blatant white supremacist imagery and stress American patriotism, or is it more effective to march in military-style uniforms screaming "white power" and waving swastika flags? This debate has pushed the various segments of the white supremacist movement farther apart, creating a staunch unwillingness to work together.

White nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017.
CHIP SOMODEVILLA/AFP

That said, a poorly attended "Unite the Right 2" anniversary rally - if that is what happens - should not be seen as indicative of the state of white supremacy.  Even a relatively small gathering of white supremacists can spread hate and lead to violence

America’s white supremacist movement is in the midst of a resurgence with a new generation of energized followers driving its growth and activity. While not well known like Charlottesville, incidents of white supremacist violence have continued over the past year.  

Kessler wants the main rally this year to be in Washington, D.C. Without committing to attend, initial responses from white supremacists are supportive of the decision to choose D.C. over Charlottesville, although it is not clear that arrangements for Charlottesville have been completely abandoned. 

Last year, ADL’s Center on Extremism warned that the August 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville would be one of the biggest white supremacist events in at least a decade. Unfortunately, we were right.

This year, while we believe Kessler won’t attract the same numbers as last year, complacency is not an option. We must continue to protect against those who promote hatred and violence. We will continue to speak out against racism and anti-Semitism, wherever and whenever it arises.

Oren Segal is Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism which combats extremism, terrorism and all forms of hate in the real world and online. Twitter: @OrenSegal