Why the Neo-Nazis Picked Charlottesville in the First Place (It Wasn’t the Statue)

In August of 2017, alt-right activists, Klansmen, and neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, claiming the town as their own, partly responding to the town’s battle over the fate of a statue of Robert E. Lee that occupied a central place in a park. This past week, that statue—the symbol of what white supremacists sought to preserve—was melted down in a Southern foundry. It seems a fitting demise.

In her new book Making #Charlottesville: Media From Civil Rights to Unite the Right, University of Virginia media historian Aniko Bodroghkozy investigates whether what happened in 2017 in Charlottesville was ever really about the statue at all. Instead she analyzes the relationship between the mass media and Civil Rights Movement, tracing a straight line from the 1963 Birmingham and 1965 Selma Civil Rights campaigns to the events of Charlottesville 2017 as worldwide media events. She was the person I most wanted to hear from after news of the statue’s end came out—and as one point of disclosure, we are friends, and were members of the same synagogue when I lived in Charlottesville. Our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.

Dahlia Lithwick: You argue that in a sense, Selma and Birmingham’s Civil Rights protests of the 1960s and Charlottesville 2017 are media bookends, with the former signaling how a social change movement could push government to repair its racist past, and the latter signaling the rise of a political movement dedicated to reversing that project.
You write that “What the SCLC did in Birmingham and later in Selma, the alt-right wanted to do in Charlo­ttesville.” Talk more about the ways in which the two movements are connected, in your view?

Aniko Bodroghkozy: They’re connected in a mirror-image way in what they represent and signpost about U.S. history and the struggle against white supremacy and for democratic access across the past half-century. The 1963 Birmingham campaign and the 1965 Selma campaigns were high-water marks of the Civil Rights Movement—they’re two major media events that got massive amounts of national and international press attention and that led directly to the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

From the perspective of white supremacists, that movement and those pieces of legislation effectively dismantled “the White Republic.” In the alt-right timescape, as scholar Alexandra Minna Stern argues, 1965 is like year zero for white supremacists. In the Civil Rights Movement timeline, 1965 is often seen as the apotheosis, the crowning moment. What the alt-right wanted to do was build their own dynamic social change movement to reverse all those racial equity and democratic access gains—and do so by tapping into the very movement media strategies that the Civil Rights Movement had honed in the 1960s. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville was supposed to ignite an in-the-streets movement as a visually stunning media event. It was never about coming to Charlottesville to protest the removal of Confederate statues.

You describe the construction of media events specifically designed to elicit the attention of the media for publicity purposes in the 1960s and the advent of made-for-TV media events. How were the Civil Rights protests and Charlottesville similar and different in the 50 years of monumental media shifts between the two?

Martin Luther King and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), perfected a protest campaign approach that involved strategically choosing a specific town that they determined had the right set of ingredients for “drama” and confrontation. They, of course, were philosophically and tactically nonviolent, but they needed white supremacists to react to their protest actions with violence: That’s what brought the news media, especially the era’s “new media”: network television news that was grounded in compelling visual imagery. Birmingham in 1963 and Selma in 1965 both had the right ingredients for confrontation: specifically, law enforcement leaders known to be overtly racist, belligerent, and likely to behave violently in public—as Bull Connor did in Birmingham when he called out police dogs and high-powered fire hoses on youth protesters during what was called the “Children’s Crusade.” Similarly, Selma’s sheriff, Jim Clark, was known for his hair-trigger temper and for his Klan-like group of possemen. Both towns also had well-organized Civil Rights and voting rights activists willing to engage in protest activity against these violent white supremacist forces. In Selma, that ended up with the brutal clubbing and gassing of marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Charlottesville, likewise, had the right set of ingredients for confrontation. It had a liberal and Jewish mayor who publicly touted the town as a “capital of the resistance” to Trump administration immigration policies, and a high-profile and controversial Black vice mayor who took on the cause of removing Confederate statues. Both served as convenient foils for alt-right leaders. Most importantly, the town had a very well-organized and visible anti-racist, anti-fascist network of activists. And, by the way, some of those activists are part of the Charlottesville organization Swords Into Plowshares, which is responsible for the melting down of the Robert E. Lee statue that will be transformed into a community art project. In the months leading up to the Unite the Right rally, those activists clashed often in Charlottesville’s streets and downtown parks with alt-right organizers and the Klan.

One month before the Unite the Right rally, you and I both, as Charlottesville residents, heeded the call of Solidarity Cville, a key anti-racist collective, to protest a Klan rally in a downtown park practically next door to our synagogue. Over 1,000 protesters showed up to drown out the few-dozen Klansmen. Organizers of the Unite the Right rally, which would bring hundreds of white nationalists, racists, and neo-Nazis to town, knew they’d clash dramatically and violently with counterprotesters; that was always the goal. Part of the Birmingham and Selma script was confrontation and “drama.” Unite the Right flipped the script, because in soliciting media attention and building their movement, they were the ones bringing the violence, rather than expecting violence from the other side while being nonviolent themselves.

One of the reasons the alt-right was so competent at capturing the media to platform its activities was the advent of the internet and the decline of the Big Three networks. How did the rise of unregulated “fake” news contribute to the rise of Unite the Right, and “Gamergate” that came before?

White supremacists were early settlers in cyberspace. They latched onto digital media beginning in the 1990s as an effective platform for organizing. The internet didn’t have mass-media gatekeepers, and its very niche-oriented character allowed hatesites like Stormfront to grow in the shadows. By the time we get to 2014, far-right groups were really adept at appealing to disaffected young white males, whether it’s the group Identity Evropa (one of the key Unite the Right participants), who tended to use Greco-Roman imagery along with their slogans like “You will not replace us,” or Metapedia, a white nationalist alternative to Wikipedia.

Gamergate, with its vicious online harassment and doxing of feminist gamers, provided more grounds for white supremacist recuiting of disaffected young white males worried that women and people of color were taking over “their” game turf. Media coverage at the time tended to focus on questions of free speech rather than the inherent violence of the phenomenon. They didn’t get what the Gamergate forces were really up to. The alt-right and Unite the Right were next steps—and mainstream media were largely clueless about that, as well, until Aug. 12 happened.

You write that the alt-right’s decision to deploy ironic and childlike symbols, from Pepe the Frog to Walmart tiki torches, was a deliberate conflation of irony and threat in terms of media signifiers, right? That this was all just boyish, rhetorical fun?

Yes, neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer admitted in his “Normie’s Guide to the Alt-Right” that irony and “we’re just kidding” were essential tactics. They provided deniability about actual white supremacist and neo-Nazi politics. It threw things back on liberals for being too serious, not having a sense of humor, not understanding meme culture or adolescent male exuberance and edginess. Same with the tiki torches: “How can you take that seriously—it’s tiki torches! Backyard barbecues!” But even the tiki-torch parade turned violent, with the assault on a small group of anti-racist students who gathered around the statue of Thomas Jefferson, the place where the parade was supposed to end with triumphal speeches by alt-right leaders. Only now, by the way, are participants of the parade being prosecuted for intimidation using burning objects. Charlottesville journalist Molly Conger has been providing great reporting on this.

I love your section on how the iconic images from both the Birmingham 1963 protests and those of Aug. 12 in Charlottesville subvert the trope of Black victimization and replace them with images of “active Black bodies.” Say more about what Corey Long and his improvised flamethrower signals to the press and the public.  

The iconic images of the Civil Rights era tend to emphasize African American victimization and helplessness, white racist brutality against Black bodies—for instance, the famous Birmingham photo of a Black youth being attacked by a police dog as he seems almost to submit to the attack. There’s also the iconic images showing white youths harassing, attacking, and dumping ketchup on the bodies of sit-in activists who just continue sitting. The narrative from one iconic image to the next is of whites in charge and powerful, even while being evil.

Many of the iconic images that we associate with Unite the Right tend to tell a similar narrative. The Pulitzer Prize–winning photo of the car attack, I think, tells this story. It’s an incredibly complex and horrifying image, with bodies flying as the car plows into counterprotesters. The only fully visible body is of a young Black man in the very center of the photo. He’s tumbled over the car and is shown in midair with his leg in a badly twisted position. It’s another image of Black victimization—this time by a neo-Nazi and his muscle car.

Another image from that day went viral: It showed UTR participants with poles beating a Black counterprotester who is prone on the ground and helpless, with these neo-Nazis surrounding him. It’s really similar to a famous photo of John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, also on the ground, being beaten by an Alabama state trooper looming over him.

But the photo you’re referring to, “Flamethrower,” did also get a lot of circulation.
Corey Long, a young African American counterprotester, is fighting back against a Unite the Right marcher who is using a rolled-up Confederate flag to attack him. Corey Long had just been shot at, and appears to be trying to protect a cowering elderly white man behind him. The photo shows him making an improvised flamethrower from an aresol can. These kinds of images of Black people fighting back against white supremacists (which also circulated in the Civil Rights era—there’s a photo of a Birmingham man during the Children’s Crusade struggling against a police dog while wielding a small penknife) tend to be culturally and politically problematic. White sympathy tends to evaporate when these kinds of images circulate. So the picture that wins the Pulitzer Prize and symbolizes “Charlottesville” is the car-attack photo, not the Corey Long photo.

But now, six years on from Unite the Right, I’m spending time looking at another set of images that tell a newer story: Charlottesville’s anti-racist activists finally prevailing over that ultimate symbol of white supremacy, the statue of Robert E. Lee being melted, piece by piece, in a crucible. At the end of my book, I suggested readers keep their eyes on the Charlottesville community for models about bending the arc of racial justice and democracy. What comes next will be worth paying attention to.

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