Charlottesville, Virginia—The scene at Emancipation Park on August 12 felt every bit like urban civil war: A phalanx of black-helmeted white supremacists—members of the Traditionalist Workers Party, Identity Evropa, Vanguard America, and other hate warriors—commanded the steps at the southeast corner of the park, repelling attempted incursions by Wobblies, communists, and a multiracial cast of irregulars eager to fight back. Water bottles and other projectiles flew in both directions, while police tear-gas canisters thudded into an adjacent parking lot, often times lobbed back into the park by plucky leftists. As the violence boiled over the green rim of the park, the intersection of Market and 2nd Streets became the contested arena, with combatants attacking each other with fists and sticks during brief, intense skirmishes. Leftist partisans frequently assisted comrades overcome by tear gas out of the combat zone and left them to the care of activist medics.
By 11 am, Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, and police ordered demonstrators to disperse, shutting down the Unite the Right rally before its official noontime start. But those who had driven miles to brandish Confederate flags and chant Nazi slogans—who had gathered to rage and brawl and intimidate—weren’t ready to quit. Some limited their aggression to verbal assaults, like the man wearing a Confederate flag headband and carrying a sign denouncing Charlottesville’s African-American vice mayor, Wes Bellamy, whom I witnessed arguing with a black man holding a framed photograph of Barack and Michelle Obama. Daniel Highberger, a patriot militiaman from Roanoke wearing a sidearm and body armor, insisted to a pair of masked leftists and a man wearing an Obama T-shirt that the Civil War could have been averted had President Lincoln respected Southern states’ rights.
But others were committed to more violent means. After they were ousted from Emancipation Park, white supremacists in helmets and body armor marched down Market Street, swinging sticks at leftists who tried to block their path. And a white supremacist named James Alex Fields weaponized his silver Dodge Challenger by ramming it into a peaceful crowd of anti-racist counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal from Charlottesville, and wounding 19 others. A few hours later, two Virginia State police, Trooper-Pilot Berke Bates and Lt. H. Jay Cullen, who had been monitoring the scene from a helicopter, died after their craft fell from the sky.
Amid the soul-searching that has followed, a mix of shock and anguished hashtags, including the earnestly trending #ThisIsNotUs, have been pinging across Internet. Yet it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the escalating political violence in the United States materialized in Charlottesville, a progressive college town ranked as one of the “healthiest and happiest” cities in the country. The number of hate groups has surged in the last few years, their ranks sprinkled across all quadrants of the United States. And the same far-right actors who descended on the Charlottesville—their bigotry uncorked by a president who won the election with overt appeals to white nationalism—have mustered around the battle cry of “free speech” in left-friendly hotspots like Berkeley and Portland, Oregon. Indeed, if there is a lesson to be learned from the extreme right’s day of rage, it is that Charlottesville is America: The white-supremacist politics of Dixie long ago burst their borders and spread throughout the country.