July 2021: The statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee, a putative impetus for the Unite the Right Rally, was quietly removed from its pedestal in Charlottesville. Image credit: Rev Seth Wispelwey
Four years ago, on August 12, 2017, hundreds of far-right extremists descended on Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from the city’s center. “Unite the Right” was the largest and most violent public assembly of white supremacists in decades.
Groups that gathered in Charlottesville have undergone significant changes in the interim years; while some have faded away, others have gained membership and visibility. More on these developments below.
And while the violence and vitriol on display at Unite the Right (UTR) shocked most Americans, the 2017 event was considerably less deadly – and more universally condemned – than the January 6, 2021, insurrection.
UTR and 1/6: Stark Differences and Alarming Similarities
The fourth anniversary of UTR arrives as the country continues to grapple with the fallout from the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. And while the two demonstrations were similar in some ways, there are important distinctions.
Unite the Right participants wanted to show strength in numbers, and ultimately, the event culminated in a violent and celebratory show of force. Those who stormed the U.S. Capitol wanted to interfere with the electoral process, a much more serious intention. In addition, the scope and scale of the January 6 attack, particularly the violence used against law enforcement, far exceeded the violence seen at UTR.
The participants in these events were also different. UTR participants were mostly white supremacists while the January 6 insurrectionists consisted of a small number of white supremacists, an array of anti-government extremists and a huge group of radicalized Trump supporters. Only three individuals have been identified as attendees of both events: Nick Fuentes, a prominent white supremacist pundit, attended the January 6 event but did not enter the Capitol; Tim Gionet, a white supremacist troll known as Baked Alaska who is facing federal charges after he allegedly streamed live video from inside the Capitol; and Gabriel Brown, a Proud Boy supporter and live-streamer who has been charged with destroying media equipment outside the Capitol.
Another distinction lies in the public reaction to the events. UTR participants were condemned by the majority of Americans, but very few faced criminal charges. In contrast, while hundreds of January 6 participants have been charged with criminal activity related to their actions that day, they have the support of many on the far-right. In recent weeks, right-wing media personalities and mainstream GOP officials have characterized those facing federal charges for storming the Capitol as peaceful protesters and “political prisoners,” with some even organizing events to express support for the insurrectionists. In early July, Luis Miguel, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Florida, organized “Free our Patriots” rally in Tallahassee. Look Ahead America, founded by former Trump campaign staffer Matt Braynard, has announced a September 18 rally in Washington D.C. dubbed “JusticeforJ6.”
There is, however, one glaring, alarming similarity between UTR and January 6. In the aftermath of both events, disinformation and far-fetched conspiracy theories proliferated, in attempts to shift blame from those responsible. UTR conspiracies posited that the event was a “false flag” operation designed to discredit the alt right, that participants were hired “crisis actors,” that James Fields, who deliberately drove his vehicle into a crowd of protesters, injuring 19 and killing Heather Heyer, was actually a left-wing anti-fascist activist, and that police were told to stand down. These falsehoods were spread by far-right pundits and agitators such as Alex Jones, Mike Cernovich and Dinesh D’Souza, and amplified by Republican congressmen including Dana Rohrabacher, Paul Gosar and Louis Gohmert.
This same phenomenon occurred in the wake of January 6, 2021.
In the days and weeks following the insurrection, conspiracy theories emerged online blaming the violence on left-wing agitators linked to antifa. Right-wing media outlets promoted this lie, as did U.S. Reps Mo Brooks, Matt Gaetz and Paul Gosar, as well as U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson. In June, a conspiracy theory emerged claiming that the events of January 6 were orchestrated by the FBI, suggesting that the “unindicted co-conspirators” mentioned in some indictments could be undercover agents or informants. Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson reinforced the conspiracy by talking about it on his show, while several Republican lawmakers (including Gosar, Gaetz, Johnson and U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene) promoted the false flag theory and called for answers from the FBI Director. Former President Trump has promoted the conspiracy theory that Ashli Babbitt, the QAnon adherent and insurrectionist who was shot and killed as she stormed the Capitol, was killed by the “head of security for a certain high official, a Democrat.”
Shifting Leadership, Tactics Within Groups That Attended UTR
In August 2019, two years after UTR, ADL published a report on the lingering repercussions for many of the event’s participants. Four years after the deadly rally, Sines vs Kessler, the case filed against key organizers and participants of the deadly rally on behalf of Charlottesville-area residents, is finally slated to begin trial on October 25.
ADL’s Center on Extremism reviewed the extremist groups that participated and their paths to the present.
- American Guard (AG): The self-described “constitutional nationalists” led by one-time racist skinhead leader and UTR alum Brien James, currently claim chapters in 22 states. Since 2017, AG members have participated in several events, many organized by right-wing groups, including a so-called “Straight Pride Parade” in Boston, a demonstration against the Illinois State’s Attorney over her decision to drop charges against Jussie Smollett, various anti-lock down events in 2020, as well as a “Stop the Steal” event on January 6, 2021, in Indianapolis, Indiana. Over the years, several members of the American Guard have claimed dual membership in both AG and the ideologically similar Proud Boys.
- Daily Stormer Book Clubs (SBC): The small, local crews of young white men who followed and supported Andrew Anglin and his neo-Nazi website, were responsible for 82 propaganda distributions in 2019 and 80 in 2018, but are currently inactive. Daily Stormer contributor Robert Warren Ray, aka Azzmador, remains on the lam from felony charges related to his alleged use of pepper spray on counter protesters during the tiki torch-lit march through the University of Virginia campus the night before UTR. In September 2020, a federal judge issued a bench warrant for Ray’s arrest after finding him in contempt of court for his repeated failure to appear for depositions related to the UTR lawsuit against him. Anglin, who remains in hiding after several judges awarded punitive damages to victims of his various trolling campaigns, continues to post bigoted and racist commentary on current events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 presidential election and the January 6 insurrection.
- Identity Evropa (IE): The white supremacist group, which focused on the preservation of “white American identity” and promoting white European culture, underwent a leadership change after UTR when founder Nathan Damigo abruptly resigned and appointed Elliot Kline, a prominent UTR leader and organizer, as the group’s new leader. Kline’s leadership was brief, as he went on to form Operation Homeland with white supremacist Richard Spencer, which created a rift between IE and Spencer. Meanwhile, Patrick Casey took the leadership position of IE. In March 2019, Casey rebranded IE as the American Identity Movement (AIM) in an effort to distance the group from IE’s participation in UTR. AIM failed to gain traction and disbanded in November 2020, at which point Casey began to collaborate with Nick Fuentes and his Groyper Army. That relationship was short-lived, and they parted ways in February 2021.
- Hammerskins: Once a large racist skinhead crew with members around the world, the Hammerskins, like the rest of the racist skinhead movement, have been in decline. Since UTR, members and associates of the Hammerskins have left the group for a variety of reasons. In December 2018, Hammerskin associate and UTR participant Travis David Condor was arrested along with a group of racist skinheads for allegedly assaulting and shouting racial slurs at a Black man in Lynnwood, Washington. UTR alum John Kopko, a long-time Confederate Hammerskin, left to form his own racist skinhead crew, United Skinhead Nation. Meanwhile, former Hammerskin Chester Doles formed “American Patriots USA,” a Three Percenter group that presents itself as pro-American, pro-Trump and pro-police. Doles is currently a candidate for the Lumpkin County Board of Commissioners.
- Hiwaymen: This far-right group’s philosophy combines the ideology of Three Percenters with that of the neo-Confederate movement, which portrays the South’s role in the American Civil War in a positive light. Since UTR, Hiwaymen have organized and attended pro-Confederate, pro-Second Amendment and “free speech” events organized by far-right organizations all over the country, including a March 2019 pro-Second Amendment and anti-abortion rally at the Arkansas Capitol alongside members of the neo-Nazi Shield Wall Network.
- League of the South (LoS): The white supremacist group, which advocates for southern secession and an independent, white dominated South, participated in UTR as part of the Nationalist Front (see below). After UTR, the LoS continued to participate in events alongside other groups that were part of the Nationalist Front, but withdrew from the alliance in August 2018. In 2019, the LoS met privately and held several flash demonstrations around the South but fell quiet in 2020. They plan to hold their first national conference since 2019 in September 2021.
- Nationalist Justice Party (NJP): Formed in August 2020 by a group of white supremacists including UTR attendees Mike Peinovich, aka Mike Enoch, Joseph Jordan, aka Erik Striker, Tony Hovater and Warren Balogh. As chairman of NJP, Peinovich delivered the group’s inaugural speech in which he asserted that Charlottesville was “one of the most important political events in the last several years…because it laid bare every issue that we are dealing with now,” and “because it was unprecedented how many men came out for the cause of white people.” He went on to conclude, “Well, there’s only one solution, that’s struggle. That’s the fight.” On July 24, 2021, NJP held their fifth meeting in which the speakers focused on “the crisis of American democracy and Biden administration’s declaration of war on white citizens.”
- Nationalist Front: The umbrella organization formed in 2016 by the National Socialist Movement (NSM) to help bolster their numbers at public events and unite various facets of the white supremacist movement, including League of the South, Traditionalist Worker Party and Vanguard America. The coalition fell apart in early 2018.
- Nationalist Socialist Movement (NSM), once the largest and most prominent neo-Nazi group in the United States, led the Nationalist Front phalanx into Charlottesville. Under the leadership of Burt Colucci, who took power in March 2019 when longtime leader Jeff Schoep stepped down, the group has failed to hold an event attended by more than 10-15 participants. In April 2021, Colucci was arrested in Chandler, Arizona, for aggravated assault after he allegedly pointed a gun at a Black man during an argument. Colucci and approximately nine other NSM members were in Arizona to participate in the NSM’s annual event, which coincides each year with Adolf Hitler’s birth week.
- The group of militia members that attended the UTR as a self-designated security force for free speech included members of the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia (PLFM), the New York Light Foot Militia (NYLFM) and the Virginia Minutemen Militia (VMM). Of the three, the PLFM has been most active since UTR. In 2020, members attended a “Black Lives Matter” protest in Manheim, Pennsylvania, traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in response to rumors that a group would be there to burn the flag and desecrate Confederate monuments, and attended the Lobby Day event in Richmond to oppose gun legislation. In May 2021, PALFM shared a post on its website announcing that it was under new management and that the former PALFM members who attended UTR were no longer members of the group. Christian Yingling, the group’s former leader and UTR participant, left PALFM to form another militia, Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia. NYLFM and VMM appear to be inactive.
- Proud Boys are a far-right extremist group with misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration views. Several dozen Proud Boys, including the group’s current leader, Enrique Tarrio, participated in UTR, although founder Gavin McInnes denounced the event and warned members that they would be banned from the group if they attended. The Proud Boys were particularly active in 2020, with strong participation in MAGA rallies and anti-lockdown protests, often clashing with Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters. They also had a notable presence at “Stop the Steal” events held around the country in November and December 2020
- Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP), a neo-Nazi group which formed in 2015 and grew substantially in 2017, played a significant role in UTR by using its alliances with other segments of the white supremacist movement including neo-Nazis, traditional white supremacists, racist skinheads and alt right leader Richard Spencer. TWP remained active through early 2018, when the group dissolved into chaos after co-founder and leader Matthew Heimbach was arrested for domestic battery for allegedly assaulting his wife and father-in-law. In February 2021, Heimbach supposedly renounced his white supremacist beliefs, but reversed course in July 2021, returning as a “white socialist” and host of “National Bolshevik Public Radio.”
- Vanguard America (VA) splintered shortly after UTR and has shown very few signs of life in the years that followed. Meanwhile, Patriot Front, the VA splinter group formed by UTR participant Thomas Rousseau, is one of the country’s most visible white supremacist groups. In an effort to move away from VA’s neo-Nazi roots, Patriot Front avoids traditional white supremacist language and symbols, presenting their blend of white supremacist and neo-fascist ideology as “patriotism.” In 2020, Patriot Front was responsible for approximately 80% of the white supremacist propaganda distributions recorded by ADL’s Center on Extremism.