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A year ago, the Charlottesville rally shined a light on white supremacists and sparked overdue conversations

It was one of the darkest chapters in recent memory: hundreds of white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a rally to protest the removal of Confederate monuments, during which a counterprotester and two police officers died. William Brangham talks with P.J. Tobia, Mary McCord of the Georgetown University Law Center and Charlottesville City Council Member Wes Bellamy.

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  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    One year ago this weekend, hundreds of white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a rally to protest the removal of Confederate monuments.

    By the end of the day, a counterprotester and two police officers would be dead. It was one of the darkest chapters in recent memory, and led to a firestorm of controversy that encompassed the city, the nation, and the presidency.

    The NewsHour’s P.J. Tobia reminds us what happened that day.

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    The weekend began with a Friday night torchlight march on the historic grounds of the University of Virginia’s campus.

  • MARCHERS:

    You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    The white supremacists had arrived in Charlottesville. The next morning, a large group gathered in a park around a statue of Robert E. Lee.

    Earlier that summer, local groups demanded the statue’s removal. The racists were armed with sticks and heavy shields. One had a handgun. On the street, a much larger group of counterprotesters gathered. Some of them were carrying homemade weapons as well.

    As more white supremacists made their way to the park, they clashed with counterprotesters. What started as small scuffles soon turned into a full-on melee. One counterprotester, DeAndre Harris, was surrounded and beaten in a nearby parking garage.

    Then, a few moments of calm, as the white nationalists mostly fled downtown.

  • REV. SUSAN FREDERICK-GRAY:

    Fear and hate have been given license in our country. Violence — racialized violence has been giving permission in this country. And we’re here to stand for love.

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    But one white supremacist returned. He drove his Dodge Challenger through a crowd of counterprotesters.

    A short while later, I spoke to NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan about what happened next.

    People were calling for medics. There were bloody people on the street. There was someone performing CPR, a lot of people heaving and crying.

    Thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer was killed in the attack. James Alex Fields Jr., the man behind the wheel, is now awaiting trial for murder, hate crimes and other charges.

    The city was grieving. Much of the nation would join them.

  • PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

    We condemn in the strongest possible terms…

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    Following the attack, President Trump gave multiple responses, but it was two days later, in a press conference at Trump Tower in New York, where he said that the racist groups in Charlottesville were not all bad.

  • PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

    You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group — excuse me — excuse me — I saw the same pictures as you did.

    You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    He would face bipartisan condemnation for the remarks. A state of emergency has been declared in Charlottesville throughout this weekend to prevent a repeat of last year’s violence.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m P.J. Tobia.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    For more on the aftermath of last year’s events, yesterday, I talked with three people who’ve been watching this closely.

    I talked with the NewsHour’s P.J. Tobia, who’s continued his coverage of extremist movements. Mary McCord is with the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center. She filed a lawsuit against the groups who participated in the rally. And, lastly, I talked with Wes Bellamy, who sits on Charlottesville’s City Council.

    I started by asking Bellamy what’s changed since last year.

  • WES BELLAMY:

    I would like to think of our city as one that has kind of kicked off the awakening of sorts.

    To be very honest, Charlottesville was a city, in my personal opinion, that consistently perpetuated or operated in covert racism. So it was the kind that is polite. It’s the kind that might smile in your face. It’s the kind that might say, hey, well, we don’t have those issues here, when, in fact, we do.

    And it’s built around a system of systematic oppression for people of color. But what we have been able too do is truly open the eyes of not only our community, our city and our surrounding communities, but the nation, for that matter.

    And what we see is that in our city, we have ripped off the Band-Aid. We have pulled the scab off the wound, if you will, and now we’re able to do the surgery.

    For the first time ever, we have two African-Americans on our City Council. For the first time ever, we have an African-American female mayor. You see more civic engagement than you have ever seen. You see people joining boards and commissions that normally wouldn’t have.

    You see literally hundreds of people attending our City Council meetings, paying attention to different things. And, most importantly, in my opinion, the conversation has begun. I was all getting kind of hate mail and people upset that we were having this convo.

    But now, in our schools, at the grocery store, at our public parks, wherever you go, people are dealing with the topic of race, white supremacy, and just the effect that it has on our community.

    So in order for us to move forward, we have to have that conversation, which was what we’re doing now, and now we’re able to implement policies to push us in a better position.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    P.J. Tobia, you cover these white supremacist movements. You were at Charlottesville last year, and I know you understand a great deal about them.

    But, for the rest of the country, Charlottesville last year was an enormous eye-opener.

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    Yes.

    By this time last year, I had been to many white supremacist, KKK-type rallies, national socialists, that kind of thing.

    But I had never seen anything like that. Besides the sheer number of people there, it was also the variety of white supremacists and nationalists. You had old-school neo-Confederates, and also David Duke, who is a guy, a name that hasn’t been in the headlines since the early 1990s.

    But, more importantly, you had this new generation, the alt-right, which people were just learning about sort of in the wider conversation at that point. And you also had armed men, militia groups, right, on the right and the left, liberal and conservative, guys who looked like they just stepped out of “Soldier of Fortune” in form body camo, with long guns, hats, sunglasses, wraparound shades, the whole thing.

    And I think this really woke people up to a trend that a lot of us who had been covering had been seeing this for a while, which was the surge in these groups, primarily on the right, but also a little bit on the left. And then, later that day, of course, the tragic death of Heather Heyer and the beating of DeAndre Harris.

    My producer and I were just about 25 yards away from where that happened, where that gray Dodge plowed into the crowd. It sounded like a bomb going off. And we ran to the scene. There were broken, bloody bodies on the street, people screaming in panic. It was awful.

    And almost as bad, next day, I interviewed one of the organizers of the rally. He was completely unrepentant. He blamed Heather Heyer’s death entirely on city officials and the police and counterprotesters.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Mary McCord, you brought a lawsuit on behalf of members of the city and businesses there against some of these groups. What were you trying to do?

  • MARY MCCORD:

    I, like so many people around the world, really watched with horror as we saw the events unfold on August 11 and then continuing much worse even on August 12, and was sort of astonished to see such brutality, such violence, such open, organized, coordinated use of force by those without any authority or public accountability.

    And I heard a lot of comments over the weekend of, well, there’s a First Amendment right to free expression, there is a Second Amendment right the bear arms, Virginia is an open-carry state. What…

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Meaning you can carry weapons openly, no problem.

  • MARY MCCORD:

    That’s right. And so what else could be done? There’s little to be done.

    And I, being a lawyer, sort of scratched my head and said, this is not the First Amendment that I know or the Second Amendment that I know. The First Amendment doesn’t protect violence. It doesn’t protect threats of violence, intimidation, incitement to violence.

    The Second Amendment, the Supreme Court has told us it protects the right of an individual to bear arms for one’s own individual self-defense. It doesn’t protect the right to collectively group together and bear arms and form private armies.

    And so we started looking into, what could we do the try the take the violence out of demonstrations and rallies? We know that the content of the speech, as abhorrent as it may be to so many of us, that of the white nationalists and white supremacists, that part is protected. But the violence, this coordinated use of arms is not.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Wes, you in Charlottesville have to deal with racial issues 364 days, all the other 364 days of the year. How are you guys doing?

  • WES BELLAMY:

    Sure.

    So, there’s been progress, but I definitely would say that there is nowhere near enough, right? And it’s a consistent thing when you’re trying to right the wrong of nearly 400 years of systematic oppression.

    So that kind of change doesn’t occur overnight. I think that’s part of what made a lot of these white supremacists so upset. And they want to come to Charlottesville, in addition to the fact that there is an empowerment, an awakening of a lot of people, specifically African-Americans within our community, and our white allies, who are also seeing that there is an issue here.

    So, when you put all of that together, that’s when we really start to be the change and make the change. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long process. This is a marathon. But as long as we are committed to winning this race, we can take a punch in the face, like we did last year, but we will indeed win this fight.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    P.J., as we approach this anniversary, this weekend, there’s supposedly another one of these white supremacist rallies planned for D.C.

    But I know you have been following this all year long. What has happened to the movement, this so-called alt-right movement, since last year?

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    Well, Charlottesville last year really shined a white-hot light on this new generation of white supremacist leaders.

    And, frankly, most of them wilted underneath it. Most of their groups completely atomized, disintegrated in the following weeks and months, either through infighting or because of legal mechanisms by folks like Mary McCord and other private citizens, or they were doxed. Their private information, their home addresses, their places of businesses, their family ties were released on the Internet.

    Guess what? People don’t like associating with white supremacists, white nationalists, Klansmen and skinheads. But there are also groups that really learned another lesson in Charlottesville. And that’s street fighting will get you media attention, will get you followers, and resources.

    And so they march around, sometimes armed, and part of their goal is to draw out left-wing protesters, sometimes violent left-wing protesters, and others. And that’s when, again, it disintegrates into violence on city streets. And it’s really — it’s part of their goal.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    P.J. mentioned, Mary, some of these other rallies that are going on.

    Have other cities and other areas in the country taken the lessons and some of the specific injunctions that you have put in place in Charlottesville? Are those lessons being learned elsewhere?

  • MARY MCCORD:

    They are. And we hope for there to be more of that.

    So the lawsuit was based actually on a constitutional provision in Virginia that says, in all cases, the military should be under the strict subordination of the civil power. That means no private militaries.

    We also brought it under a number of state criminal statutes that bar paramilitary activity, which is defined in the statute as essentially organizing two or more people to coordinate their use of weapons in furtherance of a civil disorder in a way that’s capable of injury or death.

    And we also brought public nuisance claims. And one thing that we found is that these statutes — we then — after we brought this litigation, we did a 50-state survey. And we saw that that constitutional provision exists in 48 state constitutions, every state except…

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, they could apply it just as it was done in Virginia?

  • MARY MCCORD:

    They can apply it. But other cities don’t have to sort of wait and use litigation.

    Other cities can proactively use these sources, these statutes and constitutional provisions, because 28 states have one type of anti-paramilitary activity statutes; 25 states have another type. Almost every state has something.

    They can use those legal authorities as the basis for conditions of permits or restrictions in limited geographical and time areas to coincide with rallies and demonstrations that are concerned they might be violent.

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    You have seen Internet companies do the same thing.

    PayPal has prohibited these groups from transferring money to each other. And a lot of servers — servers, companies that host servers’ Web sites, have pulled down their Web sites.

    So it basically chokes off the oxygen, whether it’s a money supply or an information supply, for these groups to interact and grow.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Wes Bellamy, we’re hearing a lot of these things that have happened in the last year, that they’re trying to address some of the problems that were revealed a year ago.

    What do you see that’s still left undone?

  • WES BELLAMY:

    Well, I think we have to continue to move forward in regards to addressing issues surrounding equity.

    So there is a difference between equity and equality. And I think that those two terms get mixed up.

    So, equality is essentially providing everyone with the exact same thing and saying, hey, you all are equal, go do what you need to do. But equity actually hits at what is truly the issue, specifically within our community, because there’s been the systematic level of oppression that’s been over a group of people for generations.

    So equity would mean that, if we’re all running a race, I may have to jump over 10 different hurdles in the 100-meter dash, while you can just run straight. So, of course, you will beat me there.

    So we have to look at how do we address that, specifically, looking at affordable housing, specifically, dealing with those who may be more moderate in terms of how they want to deal with topics of race.

    And I’m proud of our community for at least being willing to deal with it. But now, for some of those who still feel uncomfortable with the topic of race, even after someone was killed, how do we deal with them? How do we deal with those who are in positions of influence and power who still choose to say that, well, I don’t believe that the white supremacists came here because they were all bad, or those who say, as 45 had said, there’s good people on both sides?

    There are no sides here. This is either right or wrong. And if you believe that the white supremacists, those who actually came here and killed someone, are OK, or you believe that they have a right to be able to just walk aimlessly with guns or do whatever it is that they want to do, and that is OK for them to do this in our community, then we’re not on the same side.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    All right, I want to thank all three of you very, very much for being here.

    Wes Bellamy, P.J. Tobia, Mary McCord, thank you.

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    Thanks, William.

  • WES BELLAMY:

    Thank you.

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