In a Virginia courthouse this week, a historic trial will begin that aims to unravel the real motivations of the far-right activists behind the 2017 Charlottesville riot.
There are 24 defendants. Some of them are names you probably know already, like Richard Spencer, president of the white nationalist conspiracy group National Policy Institute, or Charlottesville’s hometown racist, Jason Kessler. Others you may not know by name, but may have heard of their groups: Identity Evropa, League of the South, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. All are accused of organizing a motley collection of white supremacists into a violent mob.
For the entire summer, Charlottesville residents had been threatened and harassed. White supremacists wore swastika symbols and chanted Nazi slogans in streets. Counterprotesters reported getting phone calls from white supremacists and receiving online harassment after their pictures and home addresses were posted on Discord and Twitter. Stores and restaurants that posted signs showing support for diversity were mailed threats: “Death to all black devils” and “Heil Hitler” and “Go Donald Trump!”
When around 600 of them showed up on Aug. 12, the town was primed for an explosion. They yelled Nazi chants and lifted Nazi salutes and insignia. They barked like dogs and made monkey sounds at Black counterprotesters. They marched the streets, many of them armed with guns and wearing body armor. But so many more just dressed not in military cosplay, but as themselves: white men in khakis and white polo shirts.
It doesn’t take much to build a white nationalist. One angry man. Access to social media, maybe a Discord account. The ability to instantaneously connect with other far-right internet dwellers, until he’s replicated himself a thousand times over ― a hunched mass of white nationalists and Nazis, their faces aglow in the light of computer screens.