The highly decentralized alt-right movement has primarily been known as an online phenomenon. If the organizers behind this weekend's "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia have it their way, that will soon begin to change.
Led by former Daily Caller contributor Jason Kessler, a number of perpetually feuding far-right groups are rallying together to protest the city's decision to remove a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Charlottesville is one of several cities across the American South that have chosen to relocate public memorials to the failed secessionist movement.
Among the right-wing groups and individuals that are coming together are the Traditionalist Worker Party, a neo-fascist political party that organizes within lower-income white communities; The Right Stuff, a podcast network for self-described fans of Adolf Hitler; Occidental Dissent, a neo-Confederate blog; AltRight.com, a website set up by white nationalist editor Richard Spencer; and Anthime Gionet, a former BuzzFeed writer who has since joined up with the alt-right.
Organizers of this weekend's event are hoping to draw thousands of demonstrators, a much larger crowd than the small number of people who typically attend far-right political rallies and conferences, even ones that are not sponsored by explicitly racist groups. In July, the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Charlottesville that attracted fewer than 50 participants, along with several hundred counter-protesters.
The difference this time may be the assistance of several old-school racist groups such as the National Socialist Movement, an American Nazi political party as well as the neo-Confederate League of the South.
The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi blog that attracts a far larger audience than any of the organizations and individuals mentioned above is also getting involved. Typically, the site's owner, Andrew Anglin, has refrained from encouraging his readers to attend conferences and rallies. The Stormer has made an obvious exception in the case of Unite the Right, featuring many posts urging fans to attend. Due to the site's infamous reputation, however, Kessler and other rally organizers are not publicizing the Stormer's involvement.
"Pepe [the Frog] memes are all fine and good, but if we really want to turn the heads of the idealist youth and win them over to our side, we need to get out in the streets, and we need to do it bigly," Benjamin Garland, one of the blog's authors, wrote last week, referring to the cartoon character which has been adopted by far right online activists.
"Next stop: Charlottesville, VA. Final stop: Auschwitz," Garland added.
It's unclear how many people will actually show up for the event. Charlottesville officials appear to be expecting a larger number of protesters and counter-protesters than the 400 people specified in the permit the city had originally authorized. On Monday, the city told Kessler, the principal organizer of Unite the Right, that he would have to move his rally from Emancipation Park -- formerly called Lee Park, and the site of the disputed statue -- to McIntire Park, a larger facility.
Kessler has refused the city's order on the grounds that his event is about protesting the removal of the Lee statue and therefore must not be relocated. He has vowed to hold the rally at its original time and place. On Wednesday, the ACLU of Virginia announced that it and the Rutherford Institute would represent Kessler in a legal challenge to the city's ruling.
“At the very least, the city must explain in more than just generalities its reasons for concluding that the demonstration cannot safely be held in Emancipation Park,” Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of ACLU Foundation of Virginia and John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, wrote in a joint letter to Charlottesville officials.
“Otherwise, it appears that the city’s revocation of the permit is based only upon public opposition to the message of the demonstration, which would constitute a violation of the organizers’ fundamental First Amendment rights.”
Some left-wing groups have criticized the ACLU for its position. In an email to Salon, an anonymous activist associated with the anti-fascist website It's Going Down condemned the civil liberties group.
"Liberals mobilizing to defend fascists on free speech grounds increases interest in their views by conferring legitimacy on them," the representative wrote. "This plays directly into fascist organizing goals, allowing them to drive a wedge between their opponents using free speech as a smokescreen. By tolerating racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia, so-called free speech advocates are complicit in the acts of terror fascist organizing makes possible."
Critics of the event will host their own gatherings on Friday and Saturday, including local religious organizations, the University of Virginia, and the Charlottesville chapter of Black Lives Matter. With several rally speakers encouraging their followers to bring concealed carry firearms, city officials are warning residents that the event may turn violent.
"With large crowds of individuals with strongly held and potentially opposing beliefs, there is also the potential for conflict," the city's communications director, Miriam Dickler, said. "Those who live and work in the area of these events should exercise their best judgment on the day of the rally and should avoid the area if they have concerns."
In a statement to students and staff, University of Virginia president Teresa A. Sullivan urged opponents of the neo-fascist rally to stay away:
I urge students and all UVA community members to avoid the August 12 rally and avoid physical confrontation generally. There is a credible risk of violence at this event, and your safety is my foremost concern.
Moreover, to approach the rally and confront the activists would only satisfy their craving for spectacle. They believe that your counter-protest helps their cause. One advocate of the rally said, “We should aim to draw the SJWs [social justice warriors] out in Charlottesville and create a massive polarizing spectacle in order to draw as huge a contrast as possible. They will reveal themselves to be violent, intolerant, opposed to free speech, the insane enforcers of political correctness, etc.” The organizers of the rally want confrontation; do not gratify their desire.
The Unite the Right rally may not see large-scale violence, however, since Virginia law prohibits the wearing of masks in public. Oftentimes, when provisions of this nature are enforced by police in conjunction with controversial political rallies, opposing sides do not engage in violent activities. The state's National Guard said it will be monitoring the situation and "rapidly respond" if requested by local law enforcement.
The event has not exactly achieved its objective of unifying all of the far right's disparate elements. Michael Madden, the owner of a popular Facebook page called Confederate Keepers charged Kessler with obsessing about race instead of history:
The Confederate Keepers will not be at the rally on Aug. 12th. We do not agree with Jason using our heritage to spread his hate. We are about love and spreading education on the war for southern independence. He is using Gen Robert E Lee's monument at LEE PARK because he knows he will get media attention. Yes he has the right to free speech, but that doesn't mean our southern heritage groups need to stand next to a known hate group. I highly condemn this rally as should everyone else. I've watched Jason for some time now and he talks about the statues maybe two mins then bashes other races. People of all races fought for the south. That statue and the Confederate battle flag is not just white heritage but black, Indian, Spanish, etc.... I've had a few debates on this subject. I agree move it out of Lee Park because hate has no room in our heritage. My ancestors fought beside blacks, Spanish, Indians, etc.... They fought for a free south, smaller government and states rights. To the ones showing up, I wonder what you're gonna do when he turns his subject to hate on your race? This rally shouldn't happen!
The web forum /pol/ hosted on 4chan (which is even more popular than the Daily Stormer) has been divided on the event, with many posters criticizing it as a trick by law enforcement officials into getting anonymous extremists to reveal their identities. Others have argued that local police will allow left-wing activists to engage in acts of assault without repercussions.
"Let me guess, the Cops will be disarmed too or given meme weapons just so the lefties can cause damage with out fear of retaliation," one 4chan poster wrote.
Posters on the /pol/ spin-off hosted on 8chan have generally dismissed the rally as a phony effort to make money from gullible right-wingers. Others on the board have argued that taking white nationalist activism public before it has become more popular would attract dangerous attention from federal law enforcement and from liberals.
"The whole premise behind the 'Unite the Right' rally is fucking idiotic. You know what happens when you 'Unite the Right?' You give the left a clear enemy to rally themselves with," an 8chan /pol/ poster wrote on Tuesday.
"Since much of the pro-white memes have come from /pol/, be it [4chan] or this /pol/, leftists have not been able to fight back since we are anonymous. There was no clear enemy for them."