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White nationalists see violent Charlottesville rally as successful turning point

August 14, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
The national fallout continues after three people died and multiple people were injured in the chaos of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday. The NewsHour’s PJ Tobia and Mark Scialla join Hari Sreenivasan to discuss why many see the rally as a turning point, as well as to offer a look at the “antifa” counter-protesters.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: We begin tonight with continuing coverage of the attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend.

On Saturday, President Trump drew criticism from the left and right alike when he didn’t name neo-Nazi groups for inciting the attacks. He instead denounced violence — quote — “on many sides.”

Today, he was more specific.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.

We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal.

Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The fallout from the weekend’s violence continued to reverberate around the country today. In Charlottesville, the driver of the suspected vehicle that rammed into a crowd of people appeared in court via video link.

And Attorney General Jeff Sessions said this morning the vehicle attack meets the legal definition of domestic terrorism.

NewsHour producer P.J. Tobia was in Charlottesville over the weekend, and begins our coverage tonight.

P.J. TOBIA: Protests continued across the country today in Tennessee in response to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville over the weekend, and in solidarity with those killed and injured.

MAN: We are here today to send a message to our white brothers and sisters that white supremacy hurts you too.

P.J. TOBIA: Back in Charlottesville, fallout from the rally continued. In the district court there, a judge ordered 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. held without bond on second-degree murder charges. He’s accused of ramming his car into a crowd of demonstrators who came out against the white nationalist rally to denounce a Charlottesville city decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

The rally included members of the KKK, neo-Nazis and others. Those who knew him in high school say he professed enthusiasm for Nazi ideology.

Thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer of Charlottesville was killed in the attack. Nineteen others were injured.

Her mother spoke outside her home today.

SUSAN BRO, Mother of Victim: I am extremely proud of my daughter. I am extremely proud that she stood for what she believed in, that she not only gave mouth to it, but she gave heart to it, she gave her soul to it, and now she’s given her life to it.

P.J. TOBIA: Separately, two Virginia state police officers were also killed, when their helicopter, which had been monitoring the protests, crashed.

GOV. TERRY MCAULIFFE, D-Va.: Those state troopers were with me 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Berke Bates was part of our family. And it was tough yesterday, after I left here to drive to the Bates home and to see a man in those two beautiful children whose dad is not coming home ever again.

P.J. TOBIA: Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer called out the rally’s organizers.

MAYOR MICHAEL SIGNER, Charlottesville, Virginia: There’s a lot of bluster in the alt-right. There’s a lot violence in the alt-right. There’s a lot of hate.

P.J. TOBIA: Signer rejected criticism that the police response was inadequate.

MAYOR MICHAEL SIGNER: There were almost 1,000 law enforcement officers on the ground for an operation in a city of 50,000 people. We had descended upon us thousands of people for the initial event. Thank God it wasn’t worse. No shots were fired. No other lives were lost. No property was damaged.

P.J. TOBIA: White nationalist Matthew Heimbach, who leads a small group based in Indiana, helped organize the protest and showed up at the Charlottesville courthouse today. When we spoke yesterday, he called the rally a success and says the white nationalist movement is stronger than ever.

MATTHEW HEIMBACH, Nationalist Front: If the nationalist community can come together, stand together and fight together, that we are going to be unstoppable, that our rise, even just going back since I have been involved in this movement, it used to be a rally of 50 guys was very successful. Now we’re rallying 1,000, 1, 500 people in the streets. Our movement is growing.

P.J. TOBIA: Heimbach took zero responsibility for an event that led to death and injury.

Someone died yesterday because of your rally. In the rally you helped organize, someone’s dead because of that. How do you feel about that? And do you feel at all responsible?

MATTHEW HEIMBACH: Not at all. There would have been no violence whatsoever yesterday if the police had simply done their job and given the leftist protesters their own space to protest, which is their right, and we’d been allowed to hold our rally. The left are the ones that were attacking us.

P.J. TOBIA: Another group that drew people from around the country for the weekend’s rally, armed right-wing militias known as the Oath Keepers and 3 Percenters.

They don’t share all the beliefs of white nationalist groups calling for racial separations, but do hold some extremist views. The group’s leadership said they were there to protect everyone’s First Amendment rights. At least one militia group ended up needing protection themselves.

Earlier this year, NewsHour went inside one of these groups, the Georgia Security Force, a local 3 Percent militia.

Chris Hill is their leader.

CHRIS “BLOOD ANGEL” HILL, Georgia Security Force: I think what the government gives, the government can take away. If they’re providing the security for us, they can take it away.

P.J. TOBIA: After this weekend, at least one militia group said it would no longer encourage participants to show up at white nationalist rallies.

This morning, the FBI announced that it had arrested an Oklahoma man in a sting operation on charges that he tried to detonate what he thought was a 1,000-pound bomb in Oklahoma City on Saturday; 23-year-old Jerry Drake Varnell told an undercover agent he believed in the 3 Percent militia ideology, and was inspired by the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Meanwhile, other cities around the country are considering removing their Confederate statues, and white nationalists say they will continue to stage large protests to prevent their removal — Hari.

HARI SREENIVASAN: P.J., you and our producer Mark Scialla were both there over the weekend. Both sides, the left and the right that were there, say that this is a turning point. So, how is that the case?

P.J. TOBIA: Well, the right-wing right nationalists say it’s a turning point because they managed to pull off what was in their view a successful rally, even though the planned speeches that they had and the actual event formally really never took place.

They were able to create all of this chaos in Charlottesville. They were able to get their agenda pushed to the front page of newspapers, and television news programs. They were enter the city, protest, march around with their signs and wave their shields and get a lot of coverage for their message.

And they weren’t — none of them were injured. None of them were really hurt in any way. They feel like they got their message out and it was a success.

So, it was a turning point for them, in that they feel like they really know how to do this now. They can organize, get into a city, and get out and get headlines.

For the left, they feel like they’re the ones who actually won the day because the white nationalists weren’t able to carry out their formal program. They got pushed out of Lee Park, as Mark and I saw. They were rallied sort of from the area of battle, if you will, and then they were having a victory march when that terrible, tragic murder by automobile took place.

And so both sides feel they can claim victory and both sides will almost certainly become more calcified in their beliefs and a little more outrageous in their rhetoric.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How are these people different than the racists that used to march on cities years ago?

P.J. TOBIA: In many ways, they’re not.

They’re young men, many more affluent than in previous generations, but real — the real difference now is that they have harnessed the power of social media, so that they’re able to organize much more quickly, put together sort of lightning strikes of grouping to get together in a place.

They can also get their message out to a much broader audience, people who would never have engaged with white nationalists. Previously, if you wanted to hear these kind of messages, you had to go to some sort of weird bookstore downtown where they sold foreign magazines, whereas now, on Twitter, bots can be used to flood any Twitter stream with their messages of hate.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Well, Mark, let’s a little bit talk about the presence of the Antifa, the sort of increased presence of folks who are more aggressive in wanting to push back here than the predominantly peaceful counterprotesters that were there.

MARK SCIALLA: Sure.

So, Hari, Antifa has been around at least since the ’80s. Antifa is short for anti-fascists. And they have really got — they have come to prominence recently in the national conversation because they have been the ones who have been at the forefront of these alt-right rallies.

And their message is basically that toy way to confront these groups is by getting in their faces, is by showing up in force and not allowing them to have or hold public space, because if you really carry out the rhetoric of white supremacist logic to its end, it’s genocide. And they don’t think that it’s acceptable to allow them to organize.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Mark Scialla, P.J. Tobia, thanks for your reporting this weekend.

MARK SCIALLA: Thanks, Hari.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We will take a closer look at the issues coming out of Charlottesville, including the connection between Civil War statues and the current protest movements, and we will discuss the swell of reaction to President Trump in our Politics Monday segment later in the program.

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