As the sun began to set on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, VA, the tone of the evening quickly changed. I went from sharing boisterous laughs with a group of colleagues to end our day to encountering a large crowd gathered outside of the iconic Miller’s Bar and Restaurant, chanting and waving signs. Known as the bar where the Dave Matthews Band had its start, one could imagine it could attract large crowds. These were not fans surrounding rock stars, however. These were protesters denouncing a famous blogger of the alt right and local Charlottesville resident – Jason Kessler.
Kessler, like other internet personalities of the alt right, immediately decided to record the event on Periscope (through Twitter), denouncing the protesters who were labeling him as a Nazi and a fascist for his views. “These people have come up and have been harassing me, they’ve been out here for half an hour,” complained Kessler, who recently was sentenced for disorderly conduct and ordered to complete fifty hours of community service after having punched an area man while collecting signatures back in January. He also has been in attendance at recent alt right demonstrations in Charlottesville, including the Lee Park torch rally that went viral on social media.
As I stood face-to-face with the protesters, the police, and the alt right, I saw that there was dissonance and no dialogue. Protesters were chanting “Nazis go home,” but the reaction of the alt right members (who claim they do not represent Nazi/fascist views, yet still have not found a way to prove this…) was to record, to ask questions, to troll and taunt, and eventually after the social media post was made, to go home. The only interaction they had with their opposition was mockery.
For the alt right online following it was a perfect storm: Kessler could post ideal content – a video of himself surrounded by a mob of angry protesters – to fuel the fires of other social media followers of the alt right. Though protesters were also using their devices to record the situation, their mission was clear. When I spoke with them, they were upset that such a figure of the alt right lived in Belmont – near the Downtown Mall – an area where “families live and children grow up.”
Knowing that the alt right could use this footage as evidence for whatever future actions they wanted without even addressing the fact that they were being denounced as “Nazis” in a public space was not satisfying for me, particularly as a WWII researcher. So I decided to ask the tough question directly to the alt right, to see if they could respond.
“I hear these chants and I see these signs from your opposition, but I don’t hear you. Can you explain to me how you are NOT in fact, Nazis?”
Kessler’s friend seemed surprised by my question, and very willing to answer. Their claim was that they felt stifled by the left, that they could not voice their opinion without receiving shouts in return – stifle tactics that did not give them access to their First Amendment rights.
Granted, I replied, but they were evading the question. How then is the alt right not Nazi or fascist for the views it maintains? “Just like Richard Spencer, I don’t agree with everything Kessler says or does,” said his friend, “but I’m here to support him.” What did that mean? To support what exactly? As an academic, I felt like I needed to pry the sources, the evidence, the research – but all I was receiving in response was rhetoric and non-answers. Were they in fact conscious of the similarities and simply afraid to expose themselves, or was it that no one had ever asked them such a question monotonously?
I didn’t receive any concrete answers to my question. The claim was made that they were trying to disassociate themselves with violent right-wing movements, but how could they say that when I was walking close to an online personality who had physically punched an opponent? All that was there was instigation devoid of ideology.
Knowing conflicts like these continue to erupt in my new home every week or so is jarring. Though Charlottesville is a positive community by nature, the striking political disharmony that currently exists resonates long after both sides have gone home.