This week marks one year since white supremacists and neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, in the deadly “Unite the Right” rally to protest the city’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. It became the biggest and deadliest white supremacist rally in the United States in decades. We look back at the deadly rally in Charlottesville with a new documentary by Frontline PBS and ProPublica titled “Documenting Hate: Charlottesville.” We speak with A.C. Thompson, the reporter who produced the investigation, which premieres tonight on PBS.
AMY GOODMAN: This week marks one year since white supremacists and neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, in the deadly “Unite the Right” rally to protest Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. It became the biggest and deadliest white supremacist rally in the United States in decades. The violence began on the night of August 11th, when hundreds of white men bearing torches marched on the University of Virginia campus and attacked a small group of anti-racist protesters. Then, on the morning of August 12th, up to a thousand white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville. Many were carrying Nazi flags, other white supremacist paraphernalia, as well. Some wore body armor and carried assault rifles and pistols. They were met by thousands of anti-racist counterdemonstrators. Police did little to intervene, even as the violent street fights broke out.
That afternoon, a white supremacist named James Alex Fields drove his Dodge Charger into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing an anti-racist activist named Heather Heyer. Nineteen other people were injured. Fields has since been charged with first-degree murder, as well as federal hate crimes.
Well, this weekend, white supremacists are planning to mark the first anniversary of Charlottesville by a holding another “Unite the Right” rally, this time in Washington, D.C. Anti-fascist and anti-racist protesters are preparing to stage a counterprotest.
Today we look back at the deadly rally in Charlottesville, the subject of a new documentary by Frontline PBS and ProPublica titled Documenting Hate: Charlottesville. In a few minutes, we’ll be joined by reporter A.C. Thompson, but first an excerpt of his new investigation.
A.C. THOMPSON: I arrived in Charlottesville for what would become the largest gathering of white supremacists in a generation. They called it “Unite the Right,” and it was drawing groups from at least 35 states.
POLICE CHIEF ALFRED THOMAS: Good afternoon. I’m Chief Thomas, Charlottesville Police Department. We will have a significant police presence throughout the weekend – well over a hundred officers from my agency, several hundred officers from the Virginia State Police. We were informed that the National Guard is monitoring this situation.
A.C. THOMPSON: The day before the rally, a few reporters gathered for the police press conference. But I had begun to hear from other sources in Charlottesville.
POLICE CHIEF ALFRED THOMAS: We have time for one more question.
A.C. THOMPSON: Chief, we’re hearing rumors of there being another torchlight march tonight, an unpermitted march. Do you have any information about that?
POLICE CHIEF ALFRED THOMAS: I’ve heard the same rumors, but I don’t have a lot of details. What have you heard? Where is that going to be taking place? In the city or the county?
A.C. THOMPSON: We’ve been hearing 5:00 or 6:00.
POLICE CHIEF ALFRED THOMAS: Where at?
A.C. THOMPSON: Not far from here is what we’ve been hearing.
The police had heard the same rumors I had, but the university grounds were quiet, and it seemed like the march might not be happening after all – until, suddenly, the torches appeared.
WHITE SUPREMACISTS: You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us!
A.C. THOMPSON: In a matter of moments, hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists assembled and marched on the university. The police arrived on the scene, but watched from the sidelines as a small group of anti-racist activists were quickly surrounded.
WHITE SUPREMACISTS: White lives matter! White lives matter! White lives matter!
A.C. THOMPSON: One of them, Emily Gorcenski, was streaming it from her phone.
EMILY GORCENSKI: We are pinned in. We are surrounded on all sides by hundreds of Nazis. We have no way out.
WHITE SUPREMACIST 1: Where are all your friends at, [bleep]? Where are all your friends at, [bleep]?
WHITE SUPREMACIST 2: We outnumber you! We outnumber you! We run this [bleep], not you.
WHITE SUPREMACISTS: White lives matter! White lives matter! White lives matter! White lives matter!
EMILY GORCENSKI: I got punched. I got kicked. I remember getting hit in the head. I thought it was with a torch. I stepped forward at one point, and I got shoved back. I thought I was going to die. The thing that I was thinking as the melee was happening was, I just need to keep the camera going, you know? That was the only thing that I could do. Yeah, it was like a hundred people beating up like a small group of us, a small group of students.
A.C. THOMPSON: Ten or 15 people.
EMILY GORCENSKI: Yeah. You could feel how angry they were, but also how happy they were, you know, to be doing this, to be intimidating people like this.
A.C. THOMPSON: Had you ever seen that displayed before?
EMILY GORCENSKI: No, never in my life. They were cheering. They were running through the streets, yelling at people. And they walked away, and they got away with it. They’re coming in here the next day, ready to do more. I thought, like, here we go. Yeah, here we go.
AMY GOODMAN: The documentary Documenting Hate: Charlottesville will be played tonight across the country. This is another excerpt.
WHITE SUPREMACISTS: You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us!
A.C. THOMPSON: Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12th, 2017. I had been tracking hate crimes since the 2016 presidential election, and I could see that something was happening in this country. The Charlottesville rally was supposed to be about a Confederate monument, but anyone who was paying attention could see that it was about more than a single statue. It felt like a national reckoning around race was coming. And being here would help me understand it. I came here to ask questions, but as the day unraveled into chaos around me, one thing became clear: This was not a place to listen or understand; Charlottesville was a crime scene.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from A.C. Thompson’s Frontline/ProPublica documentary Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, which is premiering tonight on PBS stations around the country.
A.C. Thompson, joining us here in New York, welcome back to Democracy Now!
A.C. THOMPSON: Thanks for having me on.
AMY GOODMAN: What a critical documentary this is, as the “Unite the Right” rally plans again – is planned again for Washington, D.C., this weekend. Talk about this journey you took, starting in Charlottesville. You were there on that day a year ago, on those days, August 11th and 12th.
A.C. THOMPSON: You know, we went down there, and we went to the event, myself and my colleagues, because I had seen this resurgence of white power, white supremacist activity, that I hadn’t seen in decades. I had reported on these people in the ’90s, and they had sort of faded away. And then, in the last two years, they had really come back with a vengeance. There were all these new groups, all these new activists, all these new leaders. And they sort of seemed to be piggybacking on the Trump moment and trying to build their movement again. We went down there. We were expecting it to be possibly bloody, possibly violent, but we did not expect it to be what it turned out to be, which was lethal.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we see you in the documentary questioning the police chief the day before. As you said, you were among a handful of reporters who were at this police news conference announcing what the plans were. And you asked this last question. Explain what it was that you asked and what information you had.
A.C. THOMPSON: You know, I wanted to know if they were going to do anything about the torch march that we were hearing would happen that night on the campus of the University of Virginia. And the chief was kind of coy and didn’t really say much about it. And it turned out that really nobody was ready for that. The university police weren’t ready for that. The local police, the Charlottesville and county sheriffs, were not ready for that. And it turned into basically a bloodbath. When you go back and you look at the video in our film, what you see are white supremacists attacking mostly anti-racist student group over and over again with flaming torches and hitting them in the heads with them. Police were late to the scene and basically intervened very, very late.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you say to the police chief, “You’ve talked about plans for tomorrow, but what about tonight?” you said.
A.C. THOMPSON: Right, right. And –
AMY GOODMAN: That was the tiki torch-holding – and I hate to say tiki torch, because it sort of minimizes – yes, it ridicules them, but it also takes away the violence of what happened.
A.C. THOMPSON: Right. And later what would happen, with both that night and the next day, is the city commissioned an exhaustive investigative report about police failures. And it said, look, the UVA, the university police, they didn’t really understand what they were dealing with; they thought this was just going to be a typical protest march, not a volatile, violent situation. And they were out of place and unprepared. The next day, more of the same.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we get to the next day, Democracy Now! spoke with Cornel West last year, the Harvard, Princeton University, Union Theological professor, who was in Charlottesville that weekend for the counterdemonstrations with members of clergy, students, Black Lives Matter activists, protesters with the anti-fascist movement known as “antifa.” And I asked him about the reports that the counterprotesters were attacked with torches, pepper spray and lighter fluid.
CORNEL WEST: Absolutely. You had a number of the courageous students, of all colors, at the University of Virginia who were protesting against the neofascists themselves. The neofascists had their own ammunition. And this is very important to keep in mind, because the police, for the most part, pulled back. The next day, for example, those 20 of us who were standing, many of them clergy, we would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists who approached, over 300, 350 anti-fascists. We just had 20. And we’re singing “This Little light of Mine,” you know what I mean? So that the –
AMY GOODMAN: “Antifa” meaning anti-fascist.
CORNEL WEST: The anti-fascists, and then, crucial, the anarchists, because they saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that.
AMY GOODMAN: Talking about the events of August 11th and 12th in Charlottesville. And you have in your documentary the image of Cornel West and other religious leaders arm in arm, just walking.
A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah, we followed them from the sunrise ceremony they had at a nearby church to the park, where the main “Unite the Right” rally occurred. And I think, to me, one of the images that I have, early on that morning, being with that group of clergy is I remember there was a white man wearing a Nazi swastika T-shirt, and within the first five minutes of being there, he was shoving around an African-American photographer. And that sort of was the tone for the day, that it was going to be violent, it was going to be aggressive, and really nobody was going to stop the violence.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to our discussion with A.C. Thompson, correspondent for Frontline PBS, a reporter with ProPublica. His investigation, Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, premieres tonight 10 p.m. Eastern on PBS stations and online at PBS.org/Frontline. We’ll continue what he did next, going to Charlottesville, across the country, to track the “Unite the Right” activists, who it seemed like the federal government was not exactly investigating. And we’ll begin with what President Trump had to say after that rally. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.