The deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. in August 2017 marked the violent maturation of the alt-right movement, which rode the coattails of Donald Trump's 2016 electoral victory.
Despite the downturn in fortunes for many of the event's organizers, it also heralded a new era of right-wing violence in American streets, setting the stage for domestic terrorism attacks in Pittsburgh and El Paso in 2018 and 2019, and white vigilantism against Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, including killings committed by Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wis.
"Looking back at Charlottesville, especially looking back at the deadly January 6th attack on the US Capitol to overturn the 2020 election, it is now clear that Charlottesville was the violent beginning of a new chapter in the attempt to bring white nationalist ideas into the mainstream," said Margaret Huang, the president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "Over the past four years, the horrific events in Charlottesville, anti-democratic and extremist ideas have increasingly infected the mainstream, and white supremacists are more emboldened and vocal about their intentions for the future of our country."
A federal civil trial brought by survivors of the violence meted out by white supremacists at Unite the Right is set to begin later this month in Charlottesville. Huang and others spoke during a Sept. 30 online fundraiser hosted by Integrity First for America, a nonprofit supporting the lawsuit against the Unite the Right organizers. As the two dozen individual leaders and organizations involved in organizing the rally prepare for trial, many have already seen their stature in the far-right movement diminished, with most of the organizations either in shambles or shut down altogether.
James A. Fields Jr., who carried out a car-ramming attack during the rally that took the life of Heather Heyer and caused injuries to seven of the plaintiffs, is serving a life sentence for murder. Christopher Cantwell, a neo-Nazi who helped organize the rally and declared in a Vice documentary that he was "trying to make myself more capable of violence," is currently finishing out a 41-month prison sentence for threatening another white supremacist.
The coalition of alt-right provocateurs, traditional white power activists, neo-Confederates and neo-Nazi accelerationists splintered almost immediately following Fields' horrific car attack, and Kessler's attempt to revive Unite the Right with a one-year anniversary rally in Washington DC the following year drew only a couple dozen supporters, who were vastly outnumbered by antifascist counter-protesters. Following the rally, Kessler was humiliated when his father yelled at him to get out of his room in the middle of a livestream with a fellow white nationalist.
League of the South, one of the constituent organizations in Unite the Right, announced its members would no longer participate in public rallies following a "White Lives Matter" rally in Shelbyville, Tenn. that was pitched as the initial sequel to Unite the Right in October 2017. Michael Hill, the organization's president, and Michael Tubbs, his chief of staff, are defendants in the upcoming civil suit.
Richard Spencer, the dapper figurehead of the alt-right movement, continued a series of appearances at universities that devolved into violence after Unite the Right, including at the University of Florida at Gainesville, and Michigan State University in Lansing, with fellow defendant group Traditionalist Worker Party providing security. Following violent confrontations with antifascists during the Michigan State University in March 2018, Spencer announced on YouTube that he was suspending the tour saying, "When they become violent clashes and pitched battles, they aren't fun. I don't inspire any kind of violence…. Until the situation changes, we are up a creek without a paddle."
After acknowledging defeat to antifascists, Spencer was personally disgraced by revelations of domestic violence — a frequent occurrence among far-right activists also shared by fellow defendants Matthew Heimbach and Augustus Sol Invictus.
In February 2018, Spencer's estranged wife reportedly said that following a mediation session, he "grabbed, pulled and held me by my hair in the car." An affidavit filed in the divorce proceeding includes a transcript of a phone call between the two in which Spencer reportedly asked his wife: "Do you think your parents will attend your funeral?"
Spencer — who appeared ascendant in November 2016 when he declared, "Hail Trump" to a reception of Nazi salutes at a Washington — is largely regarded as a pathetic figure now.
"We've seen Richard Spencer's public presence really decline," said Alexander Reid Ross, a doctoral fellow at the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right. "I think that was as much about the legacy of Unite the Right as due to his sort of scandalous divorce proceedings and revelations of abusing his wife. I think those things diminished his presence."
A significant share of the adversity experienced by the Unite the Right organizers can be attributed to the lawsuit supported by Integrity First for America. Spencer has called the civil suit scheduled for trial later this month "financially crippling," according to Amy Spitalnick, the nonprofit's executive director.
Another defendant, Identity Evropa founder Nathan Damigo, filed for bankruptcy in an unsuccessful bid to protect his assets from an adverse judgment in the upcoming trial.
Shawn Breen, an independent researcher based in Pennsylvania who has been tracking the constituent groups since before the rally and afterwards said he believes the decline of the Unite the Right coalition is the result of a multi-front assault.
"Definitely media coverage has been a big key in slowing down these groups," he said. "The other thing, this lawsuit has been a huge factor — definitely, absolutely. I think different government agencies' scrutiny of these groups has also taken a toll. I'm certain that there are infiltrators, probably some people working for the government, some people maybe handled by the government within these groups. Fear of that has played a large role. And rightfully so."
Breen also said the role of activists directly confronting white supremacists in the should not be underestimated as an effective counterforce. The 10 plaintiffs in the lawsuit include students who faced down torch-bearing Nazis at the University of Virginia on the eve of the rally, a pastor who marched with other clergy members in religious vestments, and a Jewish resident who peacefully stood outside the park where the white supremacists were gathering, along with other residents who were injured by James Fields' car-ramming attack while marching against racism.
"Because when people stand up and oppose them, they're not ceding the streets or the public square to them, so they can spread their message unopposed," Breen said. "It's very difficult for them to spread their message when they are opposed. And I think the opposition has been a huge key. Just the pressure that they're under by knowing they can't show up and just say whatever they want, however they want to, whenever they want to is a huge deterrent."
While Spencer signaled he was ending his public appearances as a result opposition from antifascists at Michigan State University six months after Unite the Right, his allies in Traditionalist Worker Party imploded shortly afterwards. In the saga dubbed "night of the wrong wives,"
Less than two weeks after the group provided security for Spencer in Lansing, Traditionalist Worker Party spokesman Matt Parrott announced the group's dissolution as a result of a sordid drama that came to be known as "night of the wrong wives" in which leader Heimbach was caught having an affair with Parrott's wife. In addition to being Heimbach's second-in-command in the Traditionalist Worker Party, Parrott also happened to be Heimbach's father-in-law.
Breen said he suspects the publicly aired infidelity "was a fake cover story to destroy evidence" to insulate Heimbach and Parrott, who are both defendants in the civil suit, from liability.
"They said the wife destroyed the computer," Breen said. "It's a great excuse: Blame it on a woman."
The tanking of the National Socialist Movement — which anchored the Nationalist Front coalition, along with Traditionalist Worker Party and League of the South — is an even more bizarre story that directly stems from the lawsuit.
James Stern, a Black community activist, persuaded National Socialist Movement leader Jeff Schoep to sign over control of the organization to him, presenting it as a strategy for evading liability in the civil suit. Schoep and Stern had forged an unlikely friendship after participating in a 2014 race summit in southern California, and Stern presented Schoep with a plan to deal with the fact that he was broke and his organization was fracturing
But as the Washington Post reported, when Schoep and Stern joined a conference call with a judge and the plaintiffs' lawyers in March 2019, Scheop realized he'd been double-crossed. "Stern — now in charge — agreed to hand over the National Socialist Movement's data," the Post reported. "He asked the judge to find the National Socialist Movement liable for the violence at Unite the Right and told the victims' lawyers he would help expedite discovery."
Schoep and his onetime coalition partner Heimbach have both renounced white supremacy, but there is reason to doubt each man's sincerity.
In court filings in the civil suit, Burt Collucci, the new leader of the National Socialist Movement, said Schoep's girlfriend remained involved with the organization and managed its website, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Hatewatch reported. The same story noted that only months before publicly disavowing white supremacy, Heimbach and Parrott formed a charity to raise money for Fields, along with Daniel Patrick Borden, who was part of a mob that beat a Black man in a parking garage during Unite the Right; and Tyler Tenbrink, a neo-Nazi who was prosecuted for firing a gun during Spencer's appearance at the University of Florida in October 2017.
Also belying Schoep and Heimbach's claims to have broken with the white supremacist movement, Spitalnick has said neither man had cooperated with requirements to turn over documents in the lawsuit.
"The most important point is this case has nothing to do with what Heimbach and Schoep believe in 2021; it's about what Heimbach and Schoep and their co-conspirators did in 2017," Spitalnick told Raw Story. "If individuals are truly reformed, they would take responsibility for the racist violence they caused in Charlottesville. Which has been sorely lacking.
Heimbach announced plans for reform Traditionalist Worker Party in July in an interview with Newsy. Heimbach explicitly called for violence in the interview, while shifting the target from racial minorities to capitalists. He told Newsy: "These people have names and addresses. Their kids have names and addresses, and the capitalist class, by hook or by crook, has to be liquidated."
Ross at the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right told Raw Story that Heimbach's efforts to build bridges with the left has been "broadly rejected because of the work people have put in to show these talking points are often just entry tickets for fascists."
But a recent analysis by the Soufan Center suggested there still may be reason for concern.
"Whether Heimbach's embrace of National Bolshevism — an ideology that takes inspiration from both Marxism and China, and targets global elites — is genuine remains unclear, but it is evident that he is willing to weaponize a veritable 'salad bar' of extremist ideologies (and issues) to remain relevant," a brief from the center states.
Among the Charlottesville defendants, Mike Peinovich — a podcaster who promoted white supremacy through The Right Stuff and organized in-person meetings among Nazis through so-called "pool parties — has maintained the most consistent course since Unite the Right. Last year, Peinovich helped found the National Justice Party, which enshrines antisemitism and the false claim that white people are being deliberately replaced.
The model for the Charlottesville lawsuit is the Southern Poverty Law Center's 1987 legal victory against the United Klans of America that resulted in a $7 million judgment to Beaulah Mae McDonald, whose son Michael McDonald was lynched in Mobile, Ala. six years earlier.
"This landmark lawsuit, along with other successful cases against hate groups by the SPLC, put an effective end to the Klan in America," Margaret Huang said in her remarks during the Sept. 30 fundraiser. "It was a moment in history never to be forgotten. IFA's Charlottesville case builds on that history, ensuring that the extremists that led the violence of 2017 face real financial and legal accountability."