One year ago, hundreds of torch-wielding white supremacists gathered on the campus of the University of Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us!" The following day, the streets of Charlottesville exploded in violence, as neo-Nazis, Klansmen and alt-right agitators clashed with counter-protestors. As the National Guard was being called in, a young counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was killed in a tragedy that should have never happened.
Charlottesville was a wake-up call to America. It was a reminder that the racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry that we thought had been pushed to the fringes of society can find a foothold if given the right conditions for revival. The far-right rally also reminded us that the hate movement is inherently violent. While people may disagree on many factors that led to Charlottesville, there’s no disputing the outcome: it was one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists in modern times, drawing more than 600 white supremacists from at least 35 states.
Though the “Unite the Right” rally never got fully off the ground because the day’s violence derailed the organizers’ plans, high-profile white supremacists like Richard Spencer and David Duke declared it a victory. But the question remains: How do we prevent another Charlottesville?
There are steps to take against hate
As we approach the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville, from my perspective as a leader of an anti-hate organization that has been fighting hate groups for more than 100 years, here are five critically important takeaways from Charlottesville:
► Technology is the hate amplifier. White supremacists embrace it in virtually every format imaginable. Social media sites, gaming, 4chan, 8chan and other platforms have given extremists unimagined and unprecedented power to recruit, gather, organize and incite hatred in this borderless online universe. Once white supremacists handed out fliers from paper bags on street corners; when the internet was nascent, they used online bulletin boards. Today, they can reach hundreds of thousands of people instantly on social media. Charlottesville could not have happened if they hadn’t used the online world. This poses a serious challenge to society, and especially to Silicon Valley, which continues to grapple with the problem of hate speech and harassment on their platforms. This problem cannot be solved by tech firms alone; government, the tech industry and nonprofit groups need to work together to find solutions to prevent hate from spreading online.
► All public officials, from the president on down, have a responsibility to speak out clearly and loudly when they encounter hatred in society. There’s no excuse for equivocation or lack of moral clarity, such as the regrettable “both sides” statement from President Trump. When facing hate and bigotry, the single most important thing for all people in positions of leadership to do is to use their bully pulpit to condemn the hate. Leaders lead. And a willingness to confront hate and bigotry is essential to maintaining a free and fair society based on democracy and the rule of law.
Take way the attention and confrontation
► White supremacists thrive on two things: Attention and confrontation. With Charlottesville, they had both in spades. How can we push back against the growth of hate and hate groups without inadvertently helping their cause? As white supremacists plan public events in Washington, D.C. and potentially another reprise in Charlottesville this weekend, the public response to these hate events will determine whether these rallies are a success or a failure. Rather than directly confront, communities, coalitions, schools and congregations of all faiths should counter messages of hate and violence, making clear that all people are welcome in our society. Some D.C.-area churches, for example are holding a United to Love Rally on Sunday. Law enforcement and local government officials also play a crucial role in defusing tensions that could lead to confrontation and reduce the potential for violence.
► Data proves that far-right extremist groups are a more serious threat to America than other groups, including left-wing and Islamist extremists. Federal resources should be devoted to preventing all forms of ideologically motivated violence. The number of murders committed by U.S. white supremacists more than doubled in 2017. From 2008-2017, white supremacists and other far-right extremists were responsible for 71 percent of all extremist-related fatalities in the U.S., compared to 26 percent linked to Islamist extremism and 3 percent linked to left-wing extremism. Federal and state officials should not only investigate and prosecute hate crimes and violent hate group activity, but also set aside funds for anti-bias education, training, and outreach programs that can deter and help encourage people to leave the hate movement.
Beating hate is a community effort
► White supremacist hate groups are not going away any time soon. The reports of their demise are premature. We see signs of this all around us. There are nine white supremacists running for elected office this year and we’ve seen a big increase in their use of fliers to deliver their messages on college campuses. We’ve also seen racist banners being hung on highway overpasses and in federal parks, and neighborhoods targeted with white supremacist literature. White supremacists may have become more divided over the past year, but what we saw in Charlottesville should shock us into action. These were young men, not wearing hoods, but wearing khaki pants and polo shirts. Confronting this resurgence of hate will require our best community building and coalition efforts.
There are many more good people in America than bad — the haters are vastly outnumbered. We should be under no illusions that we are seeing a return to a racist America of our past. If we can harness the powers afforded by new technologies, and inspire a grassroots movement across America to spark conversations and dialogue around issues of racism and bigotry, there’s a possibility that Charlottesville will go down in history as the haters’ last gasp.