The discourse over Saturday’s events in Charlottesville has evolved so rapidly that it is hard to keep up. If there’s one thing that most of us can agree upon, it’s that the mayhem and murder may have taken place in Virginia, but it does not define Virginia. Heather Heyer, victim of the car attack, was a Virginian. But the advocates and violence and the man who (allegedly) struck her down, came from Ohio. We Virginians may disagree about the merits of placing statues of Civil War generals in public spaces, but we are not Klansmen, Nazis, white supremacists or murderers.
To the contrary, as my friend Jon Wight observed on his Economics and Ethics blog, while out-of-state protesters and counter-protesters were bashing heads in Charlottesville, “thousands of people of all races gathered 70 miles away to celebrate ideas that unite us—the sounds of blues, jazz, and everything in-between at the Richmond Jazz Festival. The races of humanity mingled, laughed, shared food and fans, danced, and enjoyed each other’s company.”
It has been remarkable to see how the incident in Charlottesville has been hijacked by the national media to serve national political agendas and to observe how the battle has begun to frame the meaning of the violence. The national media seems particularly fixated on President Trump’s reluctance to denounce white supremacist groups by name in his formal remarks condemning “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” But even before Trump made his scripted and oddly detached comments, media pundits had been depicting the violence as exclusively the handiwork of the radical right — even as videos flashed on our TV screens showing confrontation between the far Right and the far Left.
Insofar as the most devastating crime that occurred yesterday can be attributed James Alex Fields, Jr., a white supremacist from Ohio, and insofar as participants in the rally came armed with shields and batons in expectation of conflict, the white nationalist movement deserves the lion’s share of odium for recent events. But that expectation of violence did not occur in a vacuum. It takes two to tango, folks. And it takes two to whack each other with sticks and clubs. The white nationalists we saw on those videos were not wailing away at phantoms.
I bring this up not because it is the most significant part of the story but because it is the most neglected part of the story and the most likely to be white-washed by the national media.
Here’s the truth: Both the far Right and far Left came to Charlottesville spoiling for a fight. Virginia authorities had plenty of advance notice. As Governor Terry McAuliffe said in a press release issued the day before the rally took place:
In advance of tomorrow’s rally there have been communications from extremist groups, many of which are located outside of Virginia, who may seek to commit acts of violence against rally participants or law enforcement officials. In the event that such violent or unlawful conduct occurs, I have instructed state public safety officials to act quickly and decisively in order to keep the public and themselves safe.
One can argue how effectively the Charlottesville police and State Police handled the events. Right-wing rally participants have already begun blaming them for letting the violence running out of control. But plenty of evidence suggests that both sides came ready to rumble. As Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Ned Oliver reported:
Attendees ranged from clean-cut young men in pressed white shirts to heavily armed militia members in body armor and camouflage. Others were outfitted more crudely, but nonetheless ready for battle, carrying homemade shields, sticks, and wearing all manner of helmets and face masks. Many attendees embraced Nazi imagery and chanted racist slogans. …
At least as many counter protesters, some also militarized and clearly prepared to fight, surrounded the square. By 10:30 a.m., extremely violent skirmishes broke out between the two groups.
Both groups repeatedly fired pepper spray and other chemical weapons at each other. At one point, the rally attendees launched at least four tear gas canisters on the counterprotesters, scattering them in search of medical attention. Sticks and batons also figured prominently in the clashes, which would flare up in a wild melee and then quickly die down as both sides retreated to regroup.
The reporting I’ve seen suggests that most (though not all) of the white nationalists came from outside Virginia. I have not seen a comparable level of journalistic curiosity about the identity of the counter-demonstrators, although perhaps someone will fill in those details. Based on my superficial impressions, the counter-demonstrators appear to have been a mixed bag. Most were Virginians — a friend of my son’s, who was hit by Field’s car, had come from Fairfax County — and their intention was to protest peacefully against racism. But I have questions about those who came to confront the white nationalists. Were they locals, or were they part of the so-called Antifa movement from outside Virginia looking for confrontation?
Some readers of Bacon’s Rebellion seem to think that violence emanates exclusively from the right side of the political spectrum. Yet the man who shot the Republican congressmen in Alexandria was a Bernie Bro. The murderers of police in Dallas and New York were agitated by Black Lives Matter rhetoric. Radicals have used violence to shut down conservative speakers on multiple campuses. The sad reality is that both the far Left and far Right are prone to violence. Further, the interests of both groups are served by confrontations like the one that occurred in Charlottesville. Both sides seek to polarize public opinion, and both benefit when violence and raw emotion encourage people to seek refuge in tribal (racial, ethnic, religious or class) identities.
It is the responsibility of those who don’t want the United States to descend into downward spiral of anarchy to push back. And that requires an honest appraisal of the dynamics driving the violence. Not surprisingly, I have seen no such honest appraisal in the mainstream media. (I do not purport to have conducted an exhaustive analysis, so my impressions must be regarded as anecdotal.)
Judging by the response to my previous post, I expect to be accused of drawing moral equivalence between the far Left and the far Right, so I want to make a few points crystal clear. Nazism is a loathsome ideology. KKK racism is abomination. The volatile mix of these strains of evil on display with the so-called white nationalists who demonstrated in Charlottesville yesterday is an affront t0 core American values and to the conservative/libertarian principles that I espouse.
But I’m not blind. What happened Saturday is part of a larger struggle between far Left and far Right. I expect the events in Charlottesville to further inflame both sides and to inspire even more violence. This time, the rightists committed the most heinous crime. Next time, it will be the leftists. People of moderation and good will serve no useful purpose by denying the reality that threatens to consume us all.
Update: Excellent piece by Robert Tracinski, a conservative, Charlottesville-based writer, who makes many of the same points I do. Hat tip: Reed Fawell.
Update: I took down a picture of Heather Heyer, victim of the terrorist-style attack by a white nationalist in Charlottesville, and replaced it with a photo depicting the melee between white nationalists and counter protesters. The photo in combination — “It Takes Two to Tango” — with the headline was potentially misleading. The photo of the physical altercation better illustrates the thrust of the post.