Making #Charlottesville

By Aniko BodroghkozySeptember 6, 2023

Making #Charlottesville

Making #Charlottesville: Media from Civil Rights to Unite the Right by Aniko Bodroghkozy

SIX YEARS AGO, on the night of August 11, 2017, hundreds of alt-right marchers, who were in Charlottesville for the following day’s Unite the Right rally, paraded through the grounds of the University of Virginia with tiki torches. Their chant, “You will not replace us” (sometimes with “Jews” substituted for “You”), reverberates down to today. The media images are iconic, coming to signify the rise of an emboldened, fascist-inflected movement of far-right extremism and white male grievance politics in the age of Trump. And for almost six years, none of the participants of that notorious tiki torch parade faced any criminal charges.

The violent mayhem of the following day’s Unite the Right rally led to numerous successful criminal cases—against a group of men using poles to viciously attack a young Black counterprotester whose beating, caught on cell phone video, went viral; against members of the racist and antisemitic Rise Above Movement (RAM), who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to riot; and, of course, against terrorist James Alex Fields Jr., now serving multiple life sentences for accelerating his car into a group of anti-racist counterprotesters, injuring dozens and killing Heather Heyer. Key organizers of the Unite the Right rally were also found liable for conspiracy to commit violence and intimidation in the 2021 Sines v. Kessler civil case. The jury awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to plaintiffs who had been injured, but since it wasn’t a criminal trial, none of the defendants faced prison for their violence.

It was news when, in April 2023, the commonwealth’s attorney for Albemarle County, Virginia, began indicting individuals who had participated in the tiki torch parade on charges of burning objects with the intent to intimidate. By July of this year, five persons have been indicted, two have pleaded guilty, and three appear to be headed for trial. More indictments may still follow. One of the two who pled guilty, Tyler Bradley Dykes, served four months and then, as soon as he got out of jail, found himself indicted again, this time for his actions on January 6, 2021, at the Capitol.

What happened in Charlottesville is familiar to most people, but the reason hundreds of far-right extremists, white supremacists, and gun-rights militia groups decided to congregate in this bucolic college town tends to be misunderstood. Unite the Right rally-goers weren’t coming to protest the removal of a Confederate statue; they were coming to build a movement. Charlottesville was their stage, set with the kind of combustible ingredients that would ensure extensive media attention (from both “legacy” and new media) because they knew they would encounter organized counterprotesters—there would be confrontation. Inevitable media coverage would help recruit new members, with the alt-right goal of rebuilding a lost “white republic” that had disintegrated with the legislative gains of the Civil Rights and other social justice movements, along with the 1965 Immigration Act.

In choosing Charlottesville, Unite the Right organizers, consciously or not, drew their playbook from strategies honed by the very movement responsible for undermining their white republic: the 1960s Black empowerment struggle. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), in particular, perfected a strategy of carefully choosing protest campaign sites with the expectation of confrontation and violence from white supremacists. That violence would draw the media, in particular the new journalistic medium of network television news. The resulting national media attention would, SCLC organizers hoped, draw support to the racial justice movement and compel federal legislation addressing Jim Crow segregation and voting rights. King laid out the strategy bluntly during the 1965 Selma voting rights campaign: “[W]e will no longer let them use clubs on us in the dark corners. We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.” With the beating and gassing of marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, including future Congressman John Lewis, Selma became a worldwide media event. Had social media existed in 1965, it would have trended as #Selma just as #Charlottesville trended in the days and weeks following the white supremacist violence in that Southern town.

The alt-right had largely been an online phenomenon through the 2010s, recruiting disaffected young white males with edgy memes on gamer chat platforms and on 4chan’s political board, which skewed hard-right. The point of the Unite the Right rally was to become a social change movement “in real life.” The tiki torch march provided a powerful and successful start to that effort. If we examine it through the template of the Civil Rights Movement, we can understand why.

Consider the marchers’ dress. Most of the hundreds of young men abided by the alt-right’s unofficial dress code: polo shirts and khaki pants. Avery Trufelman, known for her podcast series on the history of preppy fashion, argues that this uniquely American clothing style appears accessible and legible, a friendly look. When adopted by the alt-right, she suggests, it made them look approachable: “Come on and join us!”

The preppy look was the alt-right’s version of “respectability politics.” Civil rights activists mastered that tactic, whether it was by student protesters sitting peacefully at lunch counters in neat jackets with their textbooks in hand or by marchers at the 1963 March on Washington donning Sunday-best dresses and suits and ties, despite the late August humidity. March organizing materials emphasized the need for discipline and dignity, noting to field staff that the amount of press and television coverage was expected to be massive. Looking respectable and dignified on camera was necessary for Black civil rights activists to counter the stereotyped media images of Black people. The activists and marchers knew they had to appeal to persuadable and sympathetic white people.

Organizing materials sent to marchers before the tiki torch parade oddly echoed instructions to civil rights marchers in 1963. Participants in 2017 were reminded that cameras would be everywhere, and marchers were urged to avoid being “overly edgy for the sake of edginess” and to dispense with “roman salutes.” The point of Unite the Right was to “gain sympathy from whites and the general right wing,” as Eli Mosley, leader of Identity Evropa, counseled in the final “general orders” to marchers uploaded to the Unite the Right’s restricted Discord channel.

But respectability politics went only so far for these marchers. The tiki torch functioned as the essential prop and accessory to the preppy attire. The pairing of the all-American fashion style with torches redolent of the KKK and Nazi Germany, along with the discipline of the marchers as they kept in line and chanted together with deep voices predominating, made for irresistible media imagery. One photo that went viral (and also encouraged a great deal of oppositional meme action) showed a group of marchers in mid-chant, torches held aloft in front of the Rotunda of the University of Virginia, a building in the Greco-Roman style designed by Thomas Jefferson and built by enslaved laborers—architecture originally signifying the dominance of white European power. The tiki torch march was partially about reclaiming the Central Grounds of UVA for whiteness and masculine hegemony, exactly what the World Heritage Site had originally signified before the integration of Black and female students in the wake of the 1960s struggles for equal rights and access.

This brings us back to the commonwealth attorney’s criminal indictments against marchers for intimidation with burning objects. Conservative commentators, both in online forums and in the National Review, assailed the decision: “The Charlottesville racists should be denounced, but prosecuting them for peaceful protest is abusive, unfair, and probably unconstitutional.”

The tiki torch march wasn’t peaceful. It wasn’t supposed to be. Unite the Right organizers knew “hostiles” and “Antifa” would be everywhere in Charlottesville that weekend, and they expected and planned for violent confrontation. That was part of the script. A march with torches one evening and a march with shields, poles, and neo-Nazi flags the next day that didn’t result in clashes with counterprotesters wouldn’t have become a media event. It wouldn’t have been good movement-organizing.

King and the SCLC discovered this in 1962 with their campaign in Albany, Georgia, protesting the town’s segregation. Albany’s police chief cannily made sure his officers treated protesters gently when the cameras were around. The result was that the media, seeing no drama and assuming (wrongly) that both sides were being respectful of each other, packed up and left. The campaign collapsed and Albany remained a Jim Crow stronghold. The situation was different the following year in Birmingham, Alabama, an even more viciously segregated town with a public safety commissioner, Bull Connor, who would not remain nonviolent when the TV cameras were rolling and the photojournalists were snapping away. When Connor finally brought out his police dogs and high-powered fire hoses against youth marchers during the Children’s Crusade almost a month into the SCLC’s campaign, civil rights activists got their media event. Those now-iconic images, especially the photos spread across many pages of Life magazine, shocked national audiences just as the SCLC organizers intended and forced the Kennedy administration to finally move on submitting a strong civil rights bill to Congress.

Adam Fairclough, a historian of the SCLC, explained the media strategy this way:

The propaganda value of violence depended more on the quality of the confrontation and the press’s ability to report it than on the seriousness of the violence itself. Snarling dogs, gushing fire hoses, and club-wielding troopers had more impact than murders and bombings if reporters and film crews were present. […] SCLC sought to evoke dramatic violence rather than deadly violence.

The tiki torch parade culminated in dramatic violence that conservative commentators seem to have forgotten about. As the marchers proceeded around the Rotunda to a large plaza featuring a statue of Thomas Jefferson, they encountered a contingent of about 30 students partially encircling the statue and hoisting a banner that declared: “VA Students Act Against White Supremacy.” As the students chanted “Black lives matter,” alt-right marchers swarmed around them as VICE’s and Frontline/ProPublica’s cameras (and the latter’s drone camera), along with numerous other reporters and citizen journalists, recorded the violent melee as tiki torch marchers began first verbally and then physically intimidating and attacking the nonviolent anti-racist students who remained thoroughly helpless and unprotected by any university or city law enforcement. Police did not show up for over 10 frightening minutes.

The dynamic of the confrontation maps quite similarly onto the way conflicts involving the 1960s sit-in students tended to play out, especially from what we see in famous news films and photos that show contingents of white, mostly young men surrounding small groups of protesters who face away from the menacing racists assaulting them. In both cases, the contrast between the two sides is clear: the racial-justice protesters appear imperiled, relatively passive, and unthreatening while the white racists seem empowered, represented in visually dominant positions. In both situations, the racists likely thought they were prevailing. At the end of the tiki torch confrontation, participants were gleeful. One marcher who had livestreamed the whole march declared “total victory tonight!”

This was the Civil Rights Movement media template: dramatic violence, with the opposing sides clearly marked, the viciousness of white supremacy caught in the glaring light of media representation. The alt-right flipped the script because, with the tiki torch march, it was the white supremacists building a movement, asserting themselves as the unjustly persecuted minority, and attempting to stage a media event for maximum visibility.

Had the Unite the Right rally the following day continued to follow this script of dramatic violence with clear demarcations between sides, the alt-right might have achieved their goal of bringing their movement-organizing to the streets and enticing more disaffected young men to their ranks. The alt-right “brand,” which had been expanding and garnering mainstream media framing since Donald Trump’s presidential election, might have strengthened further.

However, the discipline and gestures towards respectability politics of August 11 disappeared on August 12. Chaos and disorder ensued. Neofascist flags, poles, and crash helmets, even when paired with polo shirts, were the opposite of friendly, approachable fashion style. Violent confrontations erupted almost immediately that morning. And with Antifa fighters also sporting helmets (and serving as shock troops to protect the much larger contingents of nonviolent counterprotesters—like the author of this article), it was often hard to discern which side was which in early media coverage. With all the street fighting, and with counterprotesters attempting to block alt-right marchers from congregating in the park for their permitted event, Unite the Right never actually managed to hold their rally. After an hour of street battles, Virginia State Police, who, along with local law enforcement, had hung back and mostly let the violence happen, finally declared an unlawful assembly.

It was only when dramatic conflict turned into deadly violence with the car attack that legibility returned. It was very clear, from the horrific cell phone video of the muscle car accelerating down a small side street and right into a suddenly screaming crowd of counterprotesters, who was the villain and who were the victims. The alt-right as a burgeoning movement disintegrated in the streets of Charlottesville that day.

But legal consequences were crucial in keeping the movement from quickly reemerging. The United States has a long history of right-wing extremism, with white supremacist groups shape-shifting over time (as historian D. J. Mulloy helpfully surveys in his 2021 book Years of Rage: White Supremacy in the United States from the Klan to the Alt-Right). In the Civil Rights era, justice in the wake of deadly white supremacist violence was either denied or long delayed (think of the famous “Mississippi Burning” cold cases that came to successful trial only many decades after the murders of Medgar Evers, the four little girls in the Birmingham church bombing, and Freedom Summer’s Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner). With the exception of the obvious cases, such as James Fields and a handful of other Unite the Right perpetrators, criminal justice has been long in coming in Charlottesville. The alt-right marchers appeared, for a bunch of years, to share a politics of impunity with most of their racist forebears in the Civil Rights era.

Compare that to the rather swift action against the January 6 Capitol insurrectionists, who included veterans of the Unite the Right rally—Oath Keepers and individual Proud Boys in particular. Both groups survived Unite the Right, with the Proud Boys especially strengthened in the years following. Convictions for seditious conspiracy for their actions at the Capitol appear to have dealt death blows to both groups.

While media attention helped to amplify these groups and their white supremacist and neofascist inclinations, courts of law helped to destroy them. All of the major groups that sought to unite in Charlottesville have become defunct, such as Identity Evropa and the Traditionalist Worker Party. Alt-right superstar and co-organizer of Unite the Right Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” and is the only one of the Sines v. Kessler defendants with actual personal wealth, recently declared himself a “moderate” and claimed to be financially crippled by the case.

The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville served as a portent for the rise of a new generation of neofascist white supremacy with savvy media skills. Even though better-late-than-never legal action has been useful in halting the movement’s growth, the threat remains very much alive. It is now clear that Donald Trump (who infamously claimed that there were “very fine people” among the Unite the Right marchers) has largely embraced the alt-right’s platform. Few have better media skills than he has. And like them, he is finally facing the justice system.


Aniko Bodroghkozy is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of the recent book Making #Charlottesville: Media from Civil Rights to Unite the Right.

LARB Contributor

Aniko Bodroghkozy is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of the recent book Making #Charlottesville: Media from Civil Rights to Unite the Right. A media historian focused on the 1960s, she has also written Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement (2013) and Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion (2001). Her non-scholarly articles have appeared in The Conversation, Slate, The Emancipator/Boston Globe, and The Washington Post’s Made by History section.


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