CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — He came all the way from Tennessee. He took time off from his job as a security guard, time away from his two children. He paid for a plane and a hotel room so he could be present for what he thought would be a profound moment that could shift the nation’s consciousness.
Benji Buckles, 24, wanted to be there for Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally here in a quaint town that is home to the University of Virginia. The posh college was founded by Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of the United States and its third president. It is also the alma mater of Richard Spencer, a white supremacist and one of the leading figures of the alt-right who helped organize the gathering.
The alt-right — an amorphous designation that includes among its ranks an array of white supremacist groups, white nationalists and neo-Nazis — was the cause that motivated Buckles’ trip to join the rally protesting the city’s plans to remove a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park.
Talking in the city’s barren, quiet streets after the day’s chaos, which culminated in a 20-year-old Ohio man ramming a Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others, Buckles said he did not identify himself as a white nationalist or neo-Nazi.
Rather, he said, he was part of the “alt-libertarian” faction of the alt-right, which he could not quite define, but described as opposed to “postmodernism and collectivism.”
But when asked by The Times of Israel if he agreed with some of the central themes and chants of the rally, like whether whites are being oppressed in America, and if he was disturbed by the ubiquitous Nazi regalia throughout the rally, and what he thought of the calls of “Jews will not replace us,” the young man was less than disapproving.
“There’s no issue with self-advocacy, in the form of saying, ‘We will not be replaced.'”
On Friday, the Anti-Defamation League published a report saying the upcoming rally would be the “largest white supremacist gathering in a decade.” On Saturday, it proved to be the bloodiest as well. This bucolic town, which in one week will have thousands of students descend upon its famous Georgian-style campus, will never forget it.
After hundreds of torch-wielding white supremacists marched through the campus Friday night, chanting racist slogans and clashing with groups of counter-protesters, Saturday erupted into more mayhem.
Even before the car ramming, there were tirades of racial taunting and explosions of violence. The Washington Post’s Joe Heim reported on Twitter that white men holding a Confederate flag screamed at a black woman passing them by to “go back to Africa,” and called her a “nigger.” Episodes like this were happening alongside skirmishes of pushing and shoving, as well as outright fighting.
Things quickly got to the point where Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency and asked the National Guard to join local and state police to help clear the area and defuse the situation.
That was before the fatal car-ramming that left a 32-year-old woman dead. Video captured showed a Dodge Challenger driving headlong into a sea of people, and then putting the car into reverse to escape. The alleged assailant was later identified as James Alex Fields Jr.
Opponents of the alt-right across the country also wanted to be present at the historic event, long before the events of the day unfolded.
“I’m down here because I think it’s all of our responsibility to stop fascism that’s happening in America. And I don’t say that ’cause it’s hyperbole,” said Emma Kaplan, who came to Charlottesville from Brooklyn. “I know what that means. I’m a second generation Holocaust survivor. My great grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz.”
The 30-year-old said she saw a resemblance between the rally’s tactics and what her great grandparents experienced in 1930s Europe.
“How it started was targeting different groups. These groups are the enemies. These are the undesirables. And then whipping up of the mobs to go after them. I mean, running over these protesters. I can’t help but think of Kristallnacht. The way they were going to go terrorize people, and the way they came with torchlights last night, outside of a church, a place of worship. This is very, very dangerous.”
Kaplan spoke with The Times of Israel shortly after US President Donald Trump addressed the nation, saying he condemned “in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides, on many sides.”
His words quickly prompted outrage, as many saw them as suggesting an equivalence between the white supremacists and the counter-protesters, while pointedly failing to specify who was in the wrong.
Standing next to a memorial set up in Charlottesville’s McGuffey Park for the person who was killed in the car-ramming, Kaplan noted Trump’s words from an hour earlier and some of his 2016 campaign rhetoric, which alt-right figures cite when they explain their support for the president. She pointed at the display and said, “This is what Trump unleashed.”
“It’s chilling,” she added. “It’s chilling, but it’s reality, and we have to deal with it.”
For the rest of the day, the White House stood by the declaration that “many sides” were to blame for what happened in Charlottesville. It wasn’t until 12:09 p.m. on Sunday, after the controversy dominated headlines and cable news for hours, that an administration spokesperson — not Trump himself — tried to quell the consternation.
“The President said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred,” the official said in an email. “Of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, Neo-Nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.”
Here in Charlottesville, it’s hard to imagine Americans like Bickles and Kaplan — who respond so differently to the sight of Nazi sympathizers and white nationalists marching the streets of an American city — heeding Trump’s appeal.