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He was a witness in Charlottesville. Then the death threats and conspiracy theories began.

August 23, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Brennan Gilmore filmed the moment when a car plowed into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, killing one woman and injuring 19 others. When he made his video public and spoke out to the news media, he became the target of death threats and conspiracy theories. A former foreign service officer and a Democratic campaign aide, Gilmore joins Judy Woodruff to recount his experience.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, a personal take on the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville. Former Foreign Service officer and Democratic campaign aide, Brennan Gilmore, was there to join the counterprotest against a Unite the Right rally. He witnessed the car plow into a crowd of protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. He was taking a video that captured the incident. He made it public, did some news media interviews and then came death threats and conspiracy theories.

Brennan Gilmore joins me now.

Thank you for being here.

BRENNAN GILMORE, Charlottesville Attack Witness: Thanks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Brennan, tell us again, why did you want to be part of this protest?

BRENNAN GILMORE: Well, I thought it was very important to be there as a show of numbers against these white supremacists. So, I think any time you have this very vial ideology show its face in this country, you need to have a majority of people who reject it show up and show that the numbers are on our side. And so, that’s what took me to Charlottesville that day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were saying this is close to your hometown.

BRENNAN GILMORE: Yes, I live in Charlottesville now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what exactly did you witness?

BRENNAN GILMORE: Well, the day — as soon as I got there early in the morning — they had already become quite tense and there were fights breaking out between counterprotesters and the white supremacists in the park. That became pretty violent pretty quickly, you know, a lot of fist fights, things that were thrown —

JUDY WOODRUFF: On both sides.

BRENNAN GILMORE: Yes, this was happening on both sides. Shortly thereafter, a state of emergency was declared so the central location of the protest was broken up by a pretty overwhelming police presence, and then these groups split apart and moved elsewhere in Charlottesville. And the situation became quite dangerous as these groups were, you know, wandering the streets.

And so, not long after, I found myself on a side street, Forest Street in Charlottesville, with a couple of friends. And I witnessed a crowd of counterprotesters, of antiracist protesters, coming up Forest Street. And began to film their march.

And they were in, you know, a celebratory mood, think that after the state of emergency, these white supremacist and Nazi groups had been banished from Charlottesville.

I began filming when from behind me I heard a vehicle accelerating very quickly. I turned and saw the vehicle in question come down Forest Street at a very high rate of speed. It went over a median area, and then barreled into the crowd, sending bodies flying everywhere.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were there, you attended, I think, to some of the injured. Then you quickly posted this online. And then within a day or so, what happened?

BRENNAN GILMORE: That’s correct. Well, I immediately gave the video to police because I realized that I had evidence, and then took a little while to determine the benefits of posting it online. I did make a decision to do so.

And basically, within 24, 36 hours, I received a phone call from my sister who had been monitoring, you know, my presence on the Internet and media, and she said, Brennan, I’ve found this, you know, alt-right Nazi message board, and they’ve published our parents’ home address, and there’s death threats towards you. And they’re suggesting that you are somehow involved in the attack, either as an orchestrator or you somehow played a role, and that you weren’t just there to film it but you were actually there as part of the arrangement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some of these threats were pretty graphic. But what — I mean, what were the kind of things they were saying?

BRENNAN GILMORE: You’re a dead man walking. You’re a CIA operative. You work for George Soros or Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or a Jewish conspiracy.

And, you know, we’re coming for you. We know where you are. You know, you’re going to burn in hell. Any sort of a litany of accusations and threats that I, you know, can’t discuss on television.

But they came in on Twitter, via Facebook, posted on these message boards at a pretty alarming rate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There were — there were reports, I know, on the very — the far-right site called Info Wars, the —

BRENNAN GILMORE: Yes, that’s correct. Within, you know, a couple days, you know, these conspiracy theories started on some rather bizarre sites that sort of twisted my former service with the state department and to accusations that I had caused genocide in Africa, and some just ridiculously unbelievable things. But, yes, by a couple of days after the incident, it was on Info Wars, with an hour-long special about how the whole thing in Charlottesville was a Soros plot to destabilize the country —

JUDY WOODRUFF: George Soros being the wealthy —

BRENNAN GILMORE: Correct, billionaire hedge fund manager.


BRENNAN GILMORE: And that I had played a key role as an operative and that this — my role in it helped expose the truth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there anything about what you did or how you got involved, Brennan, that could have been interpreted as part of organizing this, making it happen?

BRENNAN GILMORE: Well, I think what triggered a lot of people was my background with the federal government and with, you know, Democratic politics. I had worked as chief of staff to Tom Perriello who had run for governor of Virginia, and I’d spent many years in the State Department.

And for, you know, some people, they think that that equates to some sort of — you know, some sort of spy work. But I was very proud of my Foreign Service career and what I did overseas. It had nothing to do with that.

But, you know, for people that are used to watching movies and things, and the truth is — is less — less relevant than the ideas that they have in their mind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were telling us just before this that this has died down a little, some of the threats and so forth. It’s still out there. How are you dealing with it personally?

BRENNAN GILMORE: Well, yes, I mean, if anything, it’s emboldened me to speak more. You know, the threats have come in, and this is a tactic from the alt-right to try and intimidate people and not calling things as they see them and not talk about the truth of a very, very difficult situation for our country, and that is the resurgence of a violent ideology of white supremacy.

So, you know, if anything, it’s convinced me to be even louder in condemning this, and the reason I went to Charlottesville in the first place was to stand up against it. And so, you know, certainly I was taken aback, and worried for my family’s safety. But, you know, they’ve also been incredibly insistent that I continue to speak out and use this platform which I came by in a very unfortunate way to push back against something that, you know, can do a lot of damage to us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would you say you learned from this experience?

BRENNAN GILMORE: The broader question here is how dangerous this ideology is for our country, what we saw in Charlottesville. And this is what I’ve seen overseas as well. I worked in a lot of conflict areas in Africa, where you see these very destructive forces of tribalism, of racism be manipulated and instrumentalized by political leaders. And they’re forces that once they are sort of — once the Pandora’s box of racism is opened up, it can spiral out of control very, very quickly.

And so, I think, you know, it’s imperative that political leaders on all sides condemn this and say, here’s the bounds of what’s acceptable in our political discourse in the United States, and we draw a very firm line, and absolutely exile the idea of and ideology of white supremacy which by its very nature is violence, which necessitates, you know, removing certain classes or race of citizens. And we’ve seen some leaders do this, but not enough.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s clearly something that I think many people thought couldn’t happen in the United States, but here it is.

BRENNAN GILMORE: Absolutely. I think it can happen anywhere, and it’s incredibly destructive when it rears its head. It belongs in the dust bin of history.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brennan Gilmore, thank you very much.