The alt-right rally was a coming-out party for resurgent white nationalism in America.
Hundreds of protesters descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday for a “Unite the Right” rally: a belated coming-out party for an emboldened white nationalist movement in the United States.
The rally was dispersed by police minutes after its scheduled start at noon, after clashes between rallygoers and counter-protesters, and after a torchlit pre-rally march Friday night descended into violence. But activity is ongoing, with some rallygoers engaging in a march instead.
It was perhaps a predictable culmination to the event — which has been a prime example of the difficulty of disentangling defenses of “free speech” from efforts to prevent violence, and the fine line between the self-described alt-right movement and more widely recognized forms of white nationalism.
Self-described “pro-white” activist Jason Kessler organized the rally to protest the planned removal of a statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee from a park in Charlottesville. Kessler is affiliated with the alt-right movement that uses internet trolling tactics to argue against diversity and “identity politics” — part of a broader cultural backlash that helped elect Donald Trump.
But the rally quickly attracted other more traditional groups of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan.
The involvement of hate groups and the threat of violence led the city of Charlottesville to attempt to marginalize the rally for “hate speech,” but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defended the demonstrators’ rights. The combination of rallygoers spoiling for a fight, and counter-protestors determined to convey that the rallygoers’ ideology was not welcome in America, allowed the violence to overshadow the speech — and eventually prevent the rally from going forward as planned.
Plans to remove a Confederate statue have made Charlottesville a hot spot for right-wing activism
Charlottesville, like many cities in the South, still has public spaces and monuments celebrating heroes of the Confederacy — many of which weren’t erected until the 20th century, as the civil rights movement began to pick up steam and Jim Crow laws started to come under attack.
In the wake of the 2015 massacre of several worshipers at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston by a white supremacist, there’s been a renewed push to remove some of these Confederate monuments and rename streets and squares honoring the Confederacy. But where those campaigns have succeeded, there’s often been a backlash from conservatives concerned about attempts to erase history, Southerners who consider the Confederacy part of their “heritage,” and outright white nationalists.
In Charlottesville, advocates targeted a statue of Robert E. Lee in a park called Lee Square — City Council members pointed out that Lee had no connection to Charlottesville, implying that commemorating him was just an indirect way to celebrate the Confederacy, while a high-school student collected 600 signatures on a Change.org petition to rename the statue. (A counter-petition collected 2,000 signatures.)