The Legacy of Charlottesville
Four years ago, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville brought public scrutiny to the evolution of the hate movement, something I experienced first-hand.
I joined my first white power crew in 2007, at the age of 17. Back then, the movement was mainly underground, dominated by young skinheads in combat fatigues. Like them, I’d sported hate-themed tattoos and Doc Marten boots while living on the streets and in youth shelters. We spent a lot of time online spouting racist rhetoric and trying to recruit new members, committed targeted acts of vandalism, and looked for fights, most of which ended up being among ourselves. I was usually the only woman, and I was proud of my role as an enforcer.
Occasionally, we would be asked to help the “suit Nazis”—charismatic guys at the top who worked to make white supremacy socially acceptable. We left flyers under doorways to recruit new members, helped organize rallies ostensibly about immigration and free speech, and did whatever else we were asked. I helped one high-profile neo-Nazi run for mayor; he finished tenth in a field of fifteen.
Eventually, I was invited to join the Hammerskins, an “elite” group that prided itself on being better organized and more effective than the street crews I was familiar with. Hammerskins have jobs and families, essential to their goal of infiltrating the mainstream. Members are expected to attend university or learn a trade so they can obtain positions of influence. Most carefully positioned their tattoos so they can be covered by dress shirts and suit jackets, and many enroll their children in Catholic schools to avoid acceptance of LGBTQ people.
Even women, traditionally relegated to secondary roles, are expected to contribute. In addition to having babies to perpetuate the white race—still their primary responsibility—they are encouraged to pursue culturally influential careers. One woman I knew wanted to become a teacher so she could encourage children to think “the white power way.” Another was studying to be a psychologist and planned to recruit her future patients.
None of this means the Hammerskins are less violent; the illusion of power and an “all means necessary” attitude is inherent to white power. That won’t change. What did change was the level of coordination among groups. The street crews I had belonged to were aware of their counterparts in other cities, modeling themselves after those they admired, but generally operated independently. The Hammerskins have a rigid hierarchy, complete with a feeder system of junior affiliates and a network of alliances with other groups across North America. Because every hate group has the same goal—to fight and win the coming race war—they make sure they know who’ll be fighting beside them when the time comes.
All of this became public during the Unite the Right rally. Ironically, what was intended as a show of strength resulted in a significant backlash as individual attendees were identified and condemned, and key social media platforms were discontinued. White supremacists were forced to change tactics yet again.
For me, the events in Charlottesville were life changing. I had left extremism behind two years before, a protracted process that began with the murder of a close friend, but the death of Heather Heyer on August 12 made it clear that I needed to make amends. I turned to Life After Hate, a non-profit organization that helps individuals disengage from extremist violence, where I now work helping others leave white supremacy behind.
The ultimate legacy of the Charlottesville riot remains uncertain. Will it be remembered as the moment white supremacy first obtained a foothold in mainstream political discourse? Or will it prove to be the moment engaged citizens recognized an existential threat and acted to defeat it? My list of new clients grows each week and that, for me, is a sign of hope.