This is Part II of a review of
Anne Wilson Smith, Charlottesville Untold: Inside the Unite the Right Rally, Shotwell Publishing, 2021, 396 pages, \$24.95 paperback, \$5.00 e-version from publisher
Part I can be found here.
On the evening after police cancelled the rally, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe held a press conference and said:
I have a message to all the White supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today. Go home. You are not wanted in this great commonwealth . . . . You came here today to hurt people, and you did hurt people . . . . But my message is clear. We are stronger than you. You will not succeed . . . . There is no place for you here. There is no place for you in America.
As Mrs. Smith writes, the Governor’s remarks were outrageous for at least five reasons:
- His characterization of Unite the Right attendees as “White supremacists and Nazis” that was sure to inflame ire against all participants.
- His assertion that the citizens whom he disfavors should not be allowed to exercise their constitutional rights to assemble and speak.
- His order that protesters “go home” when in fact many attendees were from Virginia, and at any rate he has no right to close Virginia to residents of other states.
- His unjustified accusation that attendees “wanted to hurt people.”
- Worst of all was: “There is no place for you in America.” McAuliffe was proposing the cultural cleansing of political enemies, many of whom want only to protect their culture and history. If these people have no right to exist in America, what is to be done with them?
The word “bias” does not begin to capture the character of media reports: They portrayed the victims as aggressors and the aggressors as victims. The general tone can be gathered from headlines:
“Charlottesville Reels After a White Supremacist Rally Turns Deadly” – Politico
“Shocking Photos from the Violent White Supremacist Rally in Charlottesville” – BuzzFeed News
“How A White Power Rally in Charlottesville Turned Deadly” – The Daily Beast
“Ted Cruz Condemns Charlottesville Terror: ‘The Nazis, the KKK and White Supremacists are Repulsive and Evil’ “ – PJ Media
“Terror in Charlottesville: Woman killed as car rams into anti-racist protesters at White nationalist rally” – Salon
“Two Virginia State Troopers Killed in Helicopter Crash Tied to White Supremacist Rally” – Fox News
The crash was due to mechanical failure and happened five hours after the rally was stopped.
Everywhere, the impression was that Unite the Right attendees were violent fanatics. Many stories did not even mention that the rally was to defend the Lee statue; readers were left to assume that the only purpose was “white supremacy” or “Nazism.”
For his own safety, Kessler spent the evening after the rally at a family member’s home, watching the day’s events as reported by Fox news.
He called a reporter he knew who was with the Fox affiliate in Charlottesville, Doug McKelway, to ask for an opportunity to address the public. McKelway informed him that the station had deemed him “too toxic” to be allowed on air. Kessler . . . suggest[ed] they put him in a contentious setting, such as on an opinion show like Tucker Carlson, so it would not appear the station was sympathetic to him. “I don’t care if they want to yell at me. I can take it. I just want a chance to speak.” McKelway said he would pass along the suggestion. Kessler never heard back.
Pres. Trump speaks
Many of Pres. Trump’s detractors complained that he did not address the public quickly enough once news broke of the “deadly white supremacist rally.” Trump explained: “Before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.”
Other politicians in his party had no such scruples. Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted: “Very important for the nation to hear @potus describe events in #Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by #Whitesupremacists . . . . The organizers of events which inspired & led to #charlottesvilleterroristattack are 100% to blame. . . . They are adherents of an evil ideology which argues certain people are inferior because of race, ethnicity or nation of origin.”
Senator Cory Gardner tweeted, “Mr. President — we must call evil by its name. These were White supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”
Senator Orrin Hatch said: “We should call evil by its name.”
None of these public figures seemed to know or care that the rally had been organized to defend a monument.
That evening, the President said “We’re closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia. We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides.”
As we have seen, most of the displays of hatred and violence originated on the side of the counter-protestors. But relative to other public statements by prominent persons, Pres. Trump’s words were remarkably fair.
Two days later, the President gave an interview. He rambled a bit, but made at least four important points left out of most media accounts:
- There were many supporters of the Robert E. Lee statue among the Unite the Right protesters.
- Unite the Right had a permit to assemble, unlike the counter-protesters.
- There were people on both sides responsible for violence, including an aggressive left-wing contingent.
- Removal of Confederate statues is likely to lead to removing the Founding Fathers.
Pres. Trump was denounced by many whose comments on the events were far less truthful or fair. One such denunciation came from Joe Biden, who later claimed he was inspired to run for president by Trump’s supposedly inadequate reaction to the “white supremacist violence” of Charlottesville.
Jason Kessler was “ecstatic” when he first heard Trump’s remarks, noting that the President had spoken “simple truths that the American public had not been given.” He briefly imagined it might be possible to win the battle for public opinion. Later, he managed to get interviews on a few alternative news outlets with hosts such as Alex Jones and Gavin McInnes, but even there his reception was hostile. He recalls that “they wanted to slit my throat.”
In the days following the suppression of the rally, as Mr. Kessler explains, “Heyer’s death was used to stoke a moral panic about the boogeyman of ‘White supremacy’ which has led to an unprecedented, un-American wave of political censorship against right-wing political dissidents and immigration patriots.” Even an ADL representative acknowledged: “I cannot think of another incident to which the backlash has been nearly so widespread.”
Facebook, Twitter, PayPal, GoFundMe, Uber and the gaming chat app Discord all removed countless accounts associated with the rally and its attendees, as well as some that were not.
Mr. Kessler explained the process behind the de-platforming trend: There are groups that:
manipulate our language, lie about the things that we’re saying, like, omitting things that have to do with the self-defense aspect. And then they go to all these different companies in Silicon Valley and they’re giving lectures as if they’re authorities, and as if their case has been proven. They’re doing one-sided prosecution with these tech companies.
Companies do not investigate such claims before acting on them.
Banning Unite the Right participants and many perceived allies was an important precedent for banning a sitting president from nearly all social media after the Capitol was breached on January 6, 2021. Mrs. Smith writes:
How might things have been different if Trump and other conservatives had stood up to the wave of censorship that took place after Unite the Right by passing legislation to protect the ability of dissidents to access online public forums? Unfortunately, most of them — weak-willed, short-sighted, and unwilling to be associated with the pariahs of Charlottesville — ignored or even applauded the purge.
Another aspect of the backlash to Unite the Right was the doxing campaign against participants. Hours of video of the events of August 11 and 12 were uploaded to the internet almost immediately, and Antifa and its sympathizers got to work identifying participants:
Within days, or in some cases, hours, Unite the Right attendees were doxed and their identities widely publicized. National news outlets amplified and celebrated the public shamings. “A Twitter account identified this Unite the Right participant. Now his family’s disowning him,” gloated Vox.com in an article dated two days after the rally. The article reports that “[t]he protester’s father says their family loudly repudiates his son’s ‘vile, hateful and racist rhetoric and actions.’ ”
One rallygoer estimated that “hundreds of people” lost jobs or became estranged from their families because they were at the rally. Mrs. Smith interviewed some of them for Charlottesville Untold. One man was reported to Child Protective Services by Antifa in an attempt to have his children taken from him. Andrew Dodson, an engineer who develops clean-energy technology, was driven to suicide by his ordeal; the man who doxed him was invited to appear on NBC News!
A number of criminal trials resulted from Unite the Right, and the difference in treatment for participants and counter-protesters was stark. Corey Long is a black Charlottesville resident who doused some rally participants with what one described as “some kind of paint thinner” and attacked them with an improvised flame thrower made from a bottle of hairspray. A man on the receiving end testified he had feared becoming a “human torch.” Celebrated by media outlets such as the New Yorker and The Root, Long was sentenced to just 20 days in prison.
Richard Preston is a Ku Klux Klan member from Maryland. When he saw Long brandishing his flame thrower at passing demonstrators, he drew his handgun, pointed it at him, and screamed at him to stop. Loading a round into the chamber, he fired a single warning shot into the ground next to Long, hurting no one. He then holstered his gun and walked away. One person assaulted by Long called Preston a hero, suggesting his action saved lives that day. Mr. Preston was sentenced to four years in prison.
But perhaps the most egregious example of both media mischaracterization and politicized criminal justice involved a black man named DeAndre Harris and four white men charged with assaulting him. As the author writes:
A viral photo from Unite the Right depicted a group of White men holding weapons and standing over a Black man, Harris, as he lay on the ground. This photo, usually provided with no context whatsoever, was exploited by the media to help contribute to the public impression that Unite the Right attendees were violent racists on a rampage, looking to brutalize any non-Whites in sight.
Carefully omitted from such accounts were the events that led up to the photo.
It is common for Antifa militants to entice blacks to participate in violence by giving them simple weapons. DeAndre Harris had been given a “Maglite,” a long, heavy brand of flashlight, by an Antifa activist on the morning of the rally. Just before the viral photo was taken, Harris was following a group of departing attendees back to a parking garage in the company of Corey Long (who used the homemade flamethrower) and another black man. Sneaking up behind the attendees, Mr. Long tried to steal a Confederate flag while DeAndre Harris hit rallygoer Harold Crews over the head with his Maglite.
Brad Griffin of Occidental Dissent describes what happened next:
As [the three black men] are forced back into the parking garage, a Black male in a blue shirt runs up from behind one of our members, clubs him and knocks him unconscious. He continues to beat him with another Black male. THIS provokes the parking garage fight . . . .
The fake news was only interested in DeAndre Harris because he was Black and could be portrayed as a ‘victim’ of ‘White supremacists.’ They ignored the White kid who was bludgeoned with the club in the parking garage by DeAndre Harris’s friends which provoked others to rush to his defense . . . . Dan Borden and Alex Michael Ramos came to the aid of a League of the South member who had been clubbed and knocked unconscious in the parking garage . . . . What do the Charlottesville Police do? They issued warrants for the arrest of Dan Borden and Alex Michael Ramos. . . . [T]hey charged people who were forced to defend others.
A witness to the fight writes: “[Harris] clubbed one of our people and took off running . . . . They didn’t pick him out because he was Black. They picked him out because he ambushed someone from behind.”
DeAndre Harris was subsequently able to raise over \$166,000 on GoFundMe, supposedly to cover his medical expenses. Soon after, he mysteriously starred in a professionally produced rap video “driving a Mercedes Benz and sporting a \$2,000 pair of Nike Air Jordan Retros.” For two months, police failed to arrest him. Finally, the man he had struck from behind, Harold Crews, took the initiative to press charges. Harris was found not guilty of misdemeanor assault and battery by a judge who accepted his claim that he had intended to hit the flagpole, not Crews. The four men who retaliated against Harris received sentences of two, six, six, and eight years’ imprisonment.
Brad Griffin compiled a series of videos reconstructing the exact sequence of events surrounding the assault on Harris:
I contacted The Daily Progress [of Charlottesville] and NBC 29 about the video. I sent it to detectives at the Charlottesville Police Department. I told the Associated Press what really happened in Charlottesville. I played the video in person on my smartphone for a news crew from Atlanta that was interviewing me about the arrest of Alex Michael Ramos. We bombarded reporters with the video of DeAndre Harris attacking with the MagLite on Twitter. No one was interested in investigating or reporting the truth . . . . The media refused to report on it after gleefully showing the out-of-context video.
James Fields can hardly be said to have received a fair trial either. Just two days after the event, Pres. Trump treated his guilt as an established fact: “the driver of the car is a murderer.” A month later, the US Senate declared him a domestic terrorist. Potential jurors were inundated for over a year with coverage by a hostile media. More than one courtroom observer noted that his attorney failed to defend him aggressively. Despite considerable grounds for doubt regarding his intentions, he received a sentence of life plus 419 years.
Civil suits — offense
There were even more civil suits than criminal cases. Jason Kessler was, of course, sued, along with other rally organizers and participants who allegedly conspired to deprive onlookers and bystanders of their civil rights (see below). Mr. Kessler remembers calling every law firm in Charlottesville and not finding a single one willing to defend him. When he tried to do legal research at the law library of his alma mater, the University of Virginia, he was banned from campus. Eventually a sympathetic lawyer contacted him. He has spent most of the last four years trying to defend himself and to hold the city of Charlottesville accountable.
A fierce advocate for the First Amendment, Kessler was determined to sue the City of Charlottesville for violating his civil rights and the rights of all Unite the Right participants. He sought support for his suit from other people associated with the event, but found most of them either wanted to distance themselves from the residuum of Charlottesville, or were struggling financially and unable to help with legal expenses. Out of everyone involved with Unite the Right, Matt Parrott of the Traditionalist Workers Party is the only other named plaintiff on the lawsuit.
On the second anniversary of Unite the Right, Messrs. Kessler and Parrot filed suit against the City of Charlottesville and three named officials, charging that stopping the rally was a denial of free speech. Six months later, Federal District Judge Norman K. Moon dismissed the suit, ruling that law enforcement has no obligation to protect people when other parties attempt to suppress their speech. Mr. Kessler called this “a pretty novel ruling. We were floored when we got it.” Within a few days, he appealed, and is waiting for a ruling.
The principle at stake is called the “heckler’s veto.” This happens when authorities stop protected speech on the grounds that it might provoke a violent reaction. Mr. Kessler and many civil libertarians believe the government should not be able to appeal to such possible violence as grounds for failing to protect free speech. “The [prohibition of the] heckler’s veto has in some ways been established for a long time, then in some ways the details of it need to be fleshed out,” says Mr. Kessler. He adds:
If the police aren’t obligated to protect people, the First Amendment is done. The people who defended themselves [at Unite the Right] were not the aggressors and they should not have been put in the situation by police that they had to defend themselves. That’s what this case is about. Something like Charlottesville should never, ever happen again. Those effing cops need to show up and separate the groups and protect the First Amendment. It’s that simple.
We’re already four years in and they’re trying to wear us down by wasting our time, wasting our money . . . . We’re just at the Fourth Circuit. It could be years more before we’re done with this. But if — IF — we win, it will establish a clear heckler’s veto precedent across the land.
Mr. Kessler and his legal team are optimistic. They think their case is strong and that even if they lose the current appeal, the Supreme Court could look into the matter because standards on this issue vary in different federal districts.
As part of his efforts, Mr. Kessler has also filed a number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to get records, some of which authorities claim have been lost or destroyed. He notes allegations by the Heaphy Report that former police chief Al Thomas and the Charlottesville PD command staff deleted text messages relevant to their investigation. He asks:
Why did they destroy this evidence? They also went in and doctored certain documents to make it seem like they had done certain preparations that they really hadn’t done. That is a class-one misdemeanor that should, if these people were convicted, bar them from future public service. Of course, the government is not going to police themselves. So who is going to hold them accountable? That’s where I come in. I’ve been filing FOIA requests for the past 3 or 4 years.
When Mr. Kessler requested text messages from city manager Maurice Jones, he was told that no such messages existed. This assertion was proven false by former mayor, Mike Signer. In his book about Unite the Right, Cry Havoc, Mr. Signer gave details of his exchange of emails and text messages with Maurice Jones. Mr. Kessler cited Mr. Signer’s book to demand release of the data. A week before a FOIA-related trial was to take place, Mr. Kessler received a letter with a link to 1,200 pages of email, along with an apology claiming that Mr. Jones had misunderstood what was included in the request.
The fight continues:
We want an injunction to keep them from ever destroying more evidence like this again and we want them to recognize that these text messages are public documents and they need to change their practices forever because of this situation. We’re [also] asking for the judge to order them to hire an electronic forensics firm to go over their hard drives, their phones, with a fine-tooth comb and reconstitute destroyed messages so we can find out what the hell it is that they were saying in the first place that they so badly didn’t want anybody to see.
The Virginia public records act says that the city manager communications are never supposed to be destroyed. They’re supposed to be kept permanently in agency. . . . And no one in the media is holding them accountable, and even a lot of people who went to the rally are just moving on, like this doesn’t matter anymore. It does matter. People were set up. . . .
And so that’s why we filed this newest lawsuit dealing with FOIA and the Public Records Act, and to address that letter where they admitted they destroyed evidence. We’re trying to set some pretty exciting precedent for open government in Virginia because it’s such a murky area where precedent hasn’t been set.
Civil suits – defense
The most important civil suit against rally organizers and participants is Sines v. Kessler. The suit alleges that 10 organizations and 14 named individuals:
conspired to plan, promote, and carry out violent events in Charlottesville. . . . Starting at least as early as the beginning of 2017 and continuing to today, they have joined together for the purpose of inciting violence and instilling fear within the community of Charlottesville and beyond.
James Fields is listed among the defendants; the plaintiffs claim that the death and injuries from the ramming were the result of a conspiracy between Fields and the rally organizers. Kessler notes:
[T]hey are saying the rally was just a pretext to violently attack counter protesters, specifically racial minorities. Yet they have no evidence of that. They say that we conspired with James Fields, and yet there is no evidence of that. They’ve gone through all of our text messages, all of our emails, all of our social media. . . . We have the head investigator with the CPD Steve Young testifying under oath that there is not only no conspiracy in the death of Heather Heyer, but that there was no communication with James Fields whatsoever.
Many defendants suspect the suit really amounts to “lawfare,” i.e., a “factually baseless attempt to use bad-faith litigation to cripple them reputationally and financially.” This interpretation finds some support in lead attorney Roberta Kaplan’s response when asked what she hoped to achieve with the suit:
We absolutely can and will bankrupt these groups. And then we will chase these people around for the rest of their lives. So if they try to buy a new home, we will put a lien on the home. If they get a new job, we will garnish their wages. The reason to do that is because we want to create a deterrence impact. So we send a message to other people that if you try to do something like this, the same thing will happen to you.
The lawsuit is being financed by Integrity First for America (IFA), an organization that boasts that the case “is the only current legal effort to take on the vast [!] leadership of the violent White nationalist movement.” Among their donors are LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, and actress Natalie Portman. Even though public records list no fewer than 33 lawyers working for the plaintiffs, the money will not run out any time soon.
Mr. Kessler says that “in nearly four years, IFA haven’t proved a single thing except that they can mug and beat down defendants who can’t afford attorneys and those who can’t afford researchers, expert witnesses, and evidence collection software to defend themselves on the same footing.” Yet media reports continue to portray the plaintiffs as plucky underdogs standing up to a powerful “white supremacist” movement.
As part of discovery, defendants have been required to turn over all email, messages, and social media posts about the rally, an onerous burden for some of the more active organizers. Matt Parrot, also a named defendant, calls this:
an ongoing fishing expedition where they’re desperately looking for some sort of evidence of criminal conspiracy to initiate violence in Charlottesville. They’ll find nothing. Essentially, they know they don’t have a case, but they have unlimited financial resources and they’re leveraging them with the hopes that we’ll eventually trip ourselves up on a technicality or run out of funds for our legal support.
In conclusion, the author remarks:
Even though an immense amount of data is available about the defendants’ communications and their activities the weekend of Unite the Right, none of the numerous defendants in the Sines civil suit have been criminally charged with anything remotely resembling a conspiracy to commit violence. If they are guilty as the Sines plaintiffs claim, why not?
The Heaphy Report
The City of Charlottesville paid \$350,000 for an independent investigation of what happened at Unite the Right. It was carried out by the law firm Hunton & Williamson under the direction of Timothy Heaphy, and resulted in a 207-page report called Independent Review of the 2017 Protest Events in Charlottesville, VA, known as the “Heaphy Report.” As the author of Charlottesville Untold notes, “In a healthy media environment, the results of this review would have been headline news all over the country.” However, because it did nothing to support the official story about a “violent white supremacist rally,” it got little attention.
The report is a damning indictment of many public officials, but especially the leadership of the Charlottesville Police Department (who bore primary legal responsibility) and the Virginia State Police. The author paraphrases the report: “Neither agency deployed available field forces or other units to protect public safety at the locations where violence took place. Command staff prepared to declare an unlawful assembly and disperse the crowd. The City of Charlottesville protected neither free expression nor public safety on August 12 . . . . This represents a failure of one of government’s core functions — the protection of fundamental rights.”
The Charlottesville police chief at the time was Al Thomas, the city’s first black chief. Two people told the Heaphy investigators they heard Mr. Thomas say, at the first signs of violence, “Let them fight, it will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly.” The report stated that “Chief Thomas’ slow-footed response to violence put the safety of all at risk,” and accused him of deleting text messages relevant to the investigation and trying to limit what subordinates told investigators. In the wake of the report, Chief Thomas resigned.
Matt Parrot notes that the Charlottesville police brass bear primary responsibility for failure, not ordinary officers:
The police all appeared angry, frustrated, and confused as I’ve never seen them before. While I was furious at them at the time, it’s clear that they were the victims of an egregious leadership failure which also imperiled them. They were not able to keep up with the entirely unnecessary chaos they had been ordered to unleash and then ordered to deal with.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe later published a book about Unite the Right. In it, he had a great deal to say about:
the historic sins of the state and the duty he felt to rectify them. He spoke about the “deep legacies” of racism, and described Richmond as “the capital of the Confederacy, spearheading the resistance to freeing slaves in the Civil War.”
He rebuked the words of Robert E. Lee’s great-granddaughter at the dedication of the Charlottesville statue of Lee in 1924, “remembering her ancestor as a man who she said represented the ‘moral greatness of the Old South.’ For her, the Civil War was not about slavery, it was about differing ‘interpretations of our Constitution’ and differing ‘ideals of democracy.’ She was wrong. It was about slavery and it was about treason, pure and simple.”
He wrote at length about his pet issue of restoring voting rights for felons, describing their disenfranchisement as “a legacy of Jim Crow, a variation of the poll tax,” adding, “I never whitewashed Virginia’s sordid history. In June 2015, I used my executive authority to remove the Confederate flag from Virginia license plates [which were available as a type of vanity plate].”
Readers may not be surprised to learn that the New-York-born McAuliffe was worried that when he first decided to run for governor, he “might have a hard time convincing Virginians I was truly one of them.”
Charlottesville mayor Mike Signer also wrote a book about Unite the Right filled with contempt for what he called “rebel flag-wearing defenders of ‘southern heritage.’ ” Mrs. Smith writes:
He hailed Nikki Haley’s efforts to remove the Confederate flag in South Carolina as a means to “repudiate [Dylann] Roof’s twisted, demonic project” and wondered, with regards to the Confederate statue issue, how he would feel “as a Jew, if I had to walk by a statue of Adolf Hitler.”
Such are the men who run the Old Dominion.
Mrs. Smith notes another aspect of Unite the Right that has not been adequately noted, namely:
the astounding amount of restraint showed by the attendees. Open carry was legal in Virginia, and there were hundreds of militia members and Unite the Right attendees bearing arms that day. Despite hours of being pummeled by hard projectiles and chemical weapons, those hundreds of armed Unite the Right attendees exercised remarkable self-control and restraint by NOT drawing their firearms.
The only shot fired by an attendee all day was Richard Preston’s warning shot intended to keep Corey Long from using his flamethrower.
Anne Wilson Smith’s Charlottesville Untold is the first comprehensive, objective study of what happened at the aborted rally on August 12, 2017. She has done a duty ignored by literally thousands of professional journalists who appear to have no interest in knowing the truth or informing the public.