The image, a photographer’s capture of the moment a driver plowed his car into a crowd of people in Charlottesville, Virginia, a year ago, is indelible.
Two people are airborne, one upside down, shoes fly away, a third person lies wounded on the street, someone, having been violently struck, has landed on the hood of the car.
The chaotic scene was the culmination of other violence that took place when white supremacists and those who opposed them clashed at a rally intended to, and titled, “Unite the Right.” The first anniversary of what has come to be known simply as “Charlottesville” was observed Sunday in that Virginia city with a rally and march on the University of Virginia campus in opposition to white supremacy. The university created a designated space for the demonstration and declined to allow the protesters to meet where fighting took place last year, at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville closed streets downtown and parks throughout the city.
The year’s passage was commemorated by white supremacy groups with a rally — “Unite the Right 2” — in Washington, D.C., at Lafayette Square in front of the White House. Various counter-protest groups also received permits to demonstrate and express their feelings, and one group marched to the same site. To avoid violence, a strong police presence kept the two factions apart.
It may have been the good law enforcement planning or the fact that the supremacists were greatly outnumbered by those opposing them or the shunning of the rally by some right-wing extremist groups — or some combination of those factors — that allowed the rally and counter-rally to take place without (at this writing, on Sunday afternoon) the sort of violence that came to characterize last year’s gatherings in Charlottesville.
But no one should be fooled into thinking that white supremacy is anything but alive and festering, or that last year’s white supremacist rally was some insignificant anomaly.
August 11 and 12, 2017, we recall, brought together a large number of Confederate diehards, Ku Klux Klansmen, neo-Nazis and an assortment of domestic militias to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the commander of Confederate forces during the Civil War, from Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park.
Among the marchers were many who chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans, carried semi-automatic rifles, swastikas, Nazi symbols, Confederate battle flags, Crusader era-style crosses and other symbols of recent and current hateful sentiment. The chants included “White lives matter!” “You will not replace us!” (which morphed into “Jews will not replace us!”) and the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil!”
Some of the posters held aloft targeted blacks; others, Jews. “The Goyim know,” read one. “The Jewish media is going down,” proclaimed another. “Jews are Satan’s children,” yet another. Two representatives of the rabidly anti-Semitic website “The Daily Stormer” led the chant: “Gas the kikes, race war now!” When speakers mentioned the name of Michael Signer, the Jewish then-mayor of Charlottesville, anti-Semitic slurs were shouted.
None of which was surprising, considering that official material promoting the gathering had included imagery reminiscent of the Third Reich.
Ahead of last year’s rally, with the memory of a KKK gathering in the city a month earlier still vivid, an array of faith-based groups, civil rights organizations, local businesses, and faculty and students at the University of Virginia planned counter-protests. Most of the counter-protesters were ordinary residents of Charlottesville who wanted to show their disdain for white supremacist groups, but an unknown number of radical left, violent anti-fascists, parts of a movement sometimes labeled “Antifa,” showed up as well.
That event turned violent after protesters clashed with counter-protesters, leaving over 30 injured and, the result of the driver who aimed his car at nonviolent counter-protesters, one woman dead.
The ADL’s Center on Extremism has reported that, in the months since Charlottesville, it has tracked nearly 500 white supremacist propaganda incidents, more than in all of 2017.
Robert E. Lee may or may not deserve the reverence or the opprobrium offered him by different groups of Americans. But his statue has become the symbol of a rift in American society, and an emblem for white supremacists who openly express hatred for those of different ethnicities or faiths.
As courts mull the fate of Confederate Army tributes, including the bronze likeness of General Lee in Charlottesville, that statue still stands. Regardless, though, of whether it will continue to occupy its pedestal or not, the hatred it came to reveal among some of the citizenry, unfortunately, perseveres.