How Charlottesville became the symbolic prize of the far right

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Eight years ago, as the nation’s first black president took office, pundits debated whether Barack Obama’s election marked the rise of a “post-racial America”. On Saturday, hundreds of American neo-Nazis and white nationalists clashed with anti-fascist demonstrators in the streets of a liberal university town, sending the city into chaos as the governor declared a state of emergency. The white nationalists had planned to rally around a statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee, which Charlottesville, Virginia, had decided to remove from a public park. The far-right activists who converged on Charlottesville say diversity is just another word for white genocide. Many are Holocaust deniers and blatant antisemites. They argue that white Americans are under attack, and they have been attempting to recruit new members on college campuses across America. Both Republican and Democratic leaders, though not President Trump, decried the protesters’ explicit racism, calling it a betrayal of American ideals. A neo-Nazi leader called Saturday’s rally, which was widely identified as the largest in decades, “an absolutely stunning success”. By the end of the day three people were dead – two in a police helicopter crash and a woman killed when a car drove into a group of counterprotesters – and dozens injured. Police have charged a 20-year-old man with murder, the Justice Department has announced an investigation, and some politicians have condemned what initially appeared to be an act of “domestic terrorism”. Speaking from his golf resort in New Jersey on Saturday, Trump, whose election was greeted enthusiastically by neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, condemned the “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” in Charlottesville, emphasising “on many sides” twice. He was widely criticised for not explicitly condemning the racism of the white nationalist protesters. “It’s the first president I’ve ever seen that wouldn’t just outright condemn. [He] said that there were many sides in the equation,” said Matthew Heimbach, the leader of the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker party, which he said had brought more than 100 people to Charlottesville to join the rally. Like other neo-Nazi and white nationalist leaders, Heimbach was an enthusiastic supporter of Trump during his campaign but has since said he feels betrayed and disappointed by how the president has actually governed. In their quest to maximise outrage and publicity, white nationalists have often chosen to target liberal university campuses and liberal towns. Charlottesville, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and often described as the northernmost tip of the south, is a geographically and symbolically ideal place for the far right to assert itself. Thomas Jefferson lived just seven miles away, while the current president owns a large estate nearby. According to John F Kennedy: “The natural beauty of the surrounding countryside and the manmade beauty of Charlottesvillle combine to weave a tapestry of American history few other towns or cities can boast.” Voted the happiest place in America in 2014 by the US National Bureau of Economic Research, Charlottesville became a flashpoint for the far right after a campaign by a high school student, Zyahna Bryant, convinced the city council to vote to remove the statue of Lee and to rename the park in which it stands. Kristin Szakos, a city councilwoman, said the council voted to remove the statue because it no longer wanted “to give pride of place to tributes to the Confederate lost cause’ erected in the early part of the 20th century”. In May, the “alt-right” figurehead Richard Spencer led a parade around the park to protest plans to remove the monument. “What brings us together is that we are white, we are a people, we will not be replaced,” Spencer said at the protest. Then in early July, about 30 members of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan assembled there. The KKK were heavily outnumbered by prote...

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