Three years later, Charlottesville's legacy of neo-Nazi hate still festers

By: 
CNN - Roberta Kaplan and Deborah Lipstadt
Published on:
August 12, 2020
CNN
Roberta Kaplan joined Deborah Lipstadt to write for CNN  about the anniversary of the violent conspiracy in Charlottesville, the lasting and hateful legacy of that day, and our lawsuit to hold its perpetrators accountable. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Roberta Kaplan is the founding partner of Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP and lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Sines v. Kessler civil rights lawsuit brought against 24 neo-Nazi and white supremacist leaders alleged to be responsible for organizing the racial- and religious-based violence in Charlottesville in August 2017. Deborah Lipstadt teaches Holocaust Studies at Emory University. Her most recent book is "Antisemitism Here and Now." She will testify as an expert witness in the Sines v. Kessler civil rights lawsuit. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors. Read more opinion on CNN.

On Aug. 11, 2017, hundreds of people descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, a bucolic college town that is home to the University of Virginia, a school established in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson after his presidency. They came, not for a football game, concert, or graduation, but as expressed in comments on various right-wing sites, intending to commit violence under the auspices of a "rally."

Called "Unite the Right," the gathering's ostensible motive was to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Rather, we believe, it was designed to galvanize for the first time at such scale a wide array of white supremacists and white nationalist organizations and to promote racial, religious and ethnically motivated hatred and violence.

By the end of that August weekend, scores of counter-protesters had been harassed, intimidated and physically injured. One of them was murdered, run down by a driver who intentionally drove his car straight into a crowd of people. Others were left with permanent physical and psychological damage.

Several Black protesters who encountered rally participants were beaten by roving "alt right" gangs of white supremacists and neo-nazis. And for likely one of the few times in modern American history, Jews, gathered for Shabbat, felt it necessary to remove their Torah scrolls from their synagogue.

Fearful of what white supremacists, armed with semi-automatic weapons positioned in front of the synagogue might do, the rabbi instructed the retreating congregants to leave as inconspicuously as possible through the back door.

Although the organizations and ideologues who had issued the call for this gathering express hate for anyone who challenges their goal of a "white America," their most passionate loathing was truly "intersectional," in the sense that it was focused on two groups -- Blacks and Jews -- both of whom have long been in the cross-hairs of white supremacists. They advocated "gas[sing] kikes" and called for "a race war." They were contemptuous of cities such as Charlottesville, with its Jewish mayor and Black vice mayor.

Among the more notable aspects of Charlottesville was the prevalence of Nazi rhetoric and symbols. They were everywhere. Participants displayed swastikas, Nazi SS lightning bolt symbols and helmets and shields that were replete with imagery from the Third Reich.

At the rally, one of the organizers conducted a call-and-response that began with the question: "Did Hitler do anything wrong?" The crowd vigorously replied "No!" During the gathering, participants repeatedly intoned the phrases such as "Seig Heil" and "Heil Hitler" and performed Nazi salutes with their arms outstretched. One organizer shouted at counter-protesters: "The heat here is nothing compared to what you're going to get in the ovens!" The organizers frequently invoked "Auschwitz," as was the case when, in anticipation of the rally, the Daily Stormer, the white supremacist publication, wrote: "Next stop Charlottesville. Final Stop: Auschwitz." It remains unclear whether this was merely a rhetorical device or instead an expression of their ultimate objectives.

At the Friday night march, participants chanted: "Jews will not replace us." This phrase explicitly invokes what White supremacists and White nationalists call, "White genocide replacement theory," which falsely posits that there exists an organized plan to wreak havoc on "White Christian" civilization in Europe and North America by flooding these continents with non-Christians and people of color. Behind this plan, the purveyors of this conspiracy theory insist, is a "Zionist conspiracy to...exterminate the white race."

In their hateful rhetoric, the Jew, once again, is depicted as the master puppeteer who secretly manipulates people of color in an effort to destroy white civilization. Those who are committed to stopping this putative genocide have a pledge. Called the "Fourteen Words," it was frequently recited at Charlottesville: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children."

Marchers also chanted the slogan "Blood and Soil," a translation of the German phrase, "Blut und Boden," a foundational slogan of the Nazi party. In the Third Reich, it conveyed the message that those without "Aryan" blood had no connection to German land. In short, they were interlopers and the nation must rid itself of them. As was the case for Germany's Nazis, for those gathered at Charlottesville, nationalism is "based on blood and soil." What they think should be done with the interlopers may be unclear -- unless one believes that they were not being figurative when they chanted "Sieg Heil" as they walked by the synagogue, or when they shouted "white power" at Black and Latinx protesters, telling them to "go back" to where they came from.

Sadly, it is now clear that the violence and hatred evident at Charlottesville was not a passing moment or a onetime event. Its ideology has served as the inspiration for many others. The alleged killers at the Tree of Life synagogue (Pittsburgh), Chabad Center (San Diego), Walmart (El Paso), Halle synagogue (Halle, Germany) and Al Noor mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre (Christchurch, New Zealand), all had connections to and echoed the slogans and worldview so proudly proclaimed by the groups and individuals who came to Charlottesville.

Nor did it start in Charlottesville. Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people gathered at Charleston's Mother Emanuel church to study and pray two years earlier, repeated the same slogans and relied on the same memes. In fact, Roof believes that a race war, such as the one promoted at Charlottesville, will eventually result in his being freed from prison. The organizers of the violence in Charlottesville have openly idolized him ever since.

It is the ongoing nature of this threat and the violence that comes with it that has prompted us to come forward and make it clear that bigoted, racial and religious motivated violence has no place in America. That's why, in partnership with civil rights non-profit Integrity First for America, nine brave plaintiffs filed a landmark civil rights suit against two dozen prominent white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and hate groups who organized Unite the Right.

One of us serves as lead counsel in that case and the other will be a testifying expert. The trial in this case will demonstrate that what happened in Charlottesville was no accident. As we prepare to hold those responsible for the violent conspiracy in Charlottesville accountable, we cannot help but lament the fact that the same destructive designs used by white supremacists to stoke fear and violence in August 2017 continue unabated nearly three years later. It is now more critical than ever that -- together -- we recognize the urgent threat they pose and stand up against hate.

Read this article at CNN

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