Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other far-right agitators circle counterprotesters at a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 11, 2017. Credit: Shay Horse/NurPhoto via AP Images

In this week’s Hate Report: In the aftermath of the deadly white supremacist Unite the Right rally, we’re digging into the roots of the violence and tracking how everyone from tech companies to Nazi-shaming social media vigilantes and the president reacted to the carnage in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Some “very fine people” were among the crowds of racists and neo-Nazis who descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend, President Donald Trump told a crowd of reporters Tuesday at Trump Tower in New York.

“You had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest,” he said.

While probably not every conservative who showed up to the deadly rally in Charlottesville had violent intentions, it is hard to understand why “very fine people” would choose to stand side by side with avowed white supremacists at the Unite the Right rally.

Charlottesville rally organizers never hid their goal: gathering America’s racists in one place on one day. The rally was always meant to be a show of force and solidarity for the country’s most radical and despised groups, including notorious neo-Nazis.

Perhaps nobody put this more succinctly than Robert Ray, a writer for the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, who told a “Vice News Tonight” reporter on the day of the rally:

“As you can see, we are stepping off the internet in a big way. For instance, last night at the torch walk, there were hundreds and hundreds of us. People realize that they’re not atomized individuals, they’re part of a larger whole.”

For months before Saturday’s rally, figureheads of the so-called “alt-right” movement crowed on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere about how spectacular the event was going to be, while neo-Nazi bloggers raved about it.

“This is going to be really, really fun,” Richard Spencer, who advocates for a white ethnostate and coined the “alt-right” term, said in a YouTube video a few days before the protest.

In private, the rhetoric was more disturbing.

For weeks before the Charlottesville rally, New York Times columnist Kevin Roose eavesdropped on racist activist message boards on Discord, a group chat app that the far-right movement had taken to using. He published his observations in a column three days after the deadly protest:

They posted swastikas and praised Hitler in chat rooms with names like “National Socialist Army” and “Führer’s Gas Chamber.” They organized last weekend’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., connecting several major white supremacy groups for an intimidating display of force.

For anybody who thinks Saturday’s rally was about anything other than American race politics, here is a poster for the event tweeted by Spencer back in June:

Credit: Richard Spencer/Twitter

Putting aside the obvious Nazi and Confederate symbology, the list of speakers is a who’s who of American racists, including Johnny Monoxide, an anti-Semitic podcaster; Matt Heimbach, who also believes in carving up the United States into racial ethnostates; and unapologetic fascist activist Christopher Cantwell.

You might recognize Cantwell from the viral Vice video on the Charlottesville protests in which he wishes for a “more racist” version of Trump “who does not give his daughter to a Jew.”

Another name on the poster is Jason Kessler, the Charlottesville provocateur largely credited with organizing the rally. Despite penning articles on white genocide, Kessler has tried to paint himself in interviews as a “moderate” in the vein of Spencer, and he insists that the intended focus of the rally was “free speech” and protesting the removal of a public monument.

But on June 9, two days before the first torch was lit in Charlottesville, Cantwell wrote on his website that he had just enjoyed dinner with Kessler. He posted audio of an interview he recorded with Kessler for his podcast, “Radical Agenda.”

“It’s a shame that white people have to do this in a country they founded,” Kessler tells Cantwell in the recording. “But if that’s what it comes down to, that we can start getting some of our rights back and take our country back, then I think it should definitely be done.”

The evidence is clear: Anybody who was paying attention to the motive, tenor or imagery of the Unite the Right march should have had no illusions about what the event was about. It was a racist rally, organized by the country’s best-known racists and neo-Nazis, endorsed by racist publications and featuring the celebrities of racism.

It’s hard to fathom how any “very fine people” could have missed that.

The dox is on

The carnage in Charlottesville engendered nationwide backlash against Unite the Right and its white supremacist participants. One Twitter account, @YesYoureRacist, has scoured photos of the event, identifying attendees by name.

The account, operated by North Carolina-based progressive activist Logan Smith, has used crowdsourcing to identify at least 10 rally participants. Consequences for many of the people identified have been severe.

Cole White, photographed participating in a torch-lit march across the University of Virginia campus, no longer has a job at Berkeley, California, hot dog purveyor Top Dog.

“The actions of those in Charlottesville are not supported by Top Dog,” read a note posted to the front door of the store, known locally for slinging libertarian ideology along with its bratwurst. “We believe in individual freedom and voluntary association for everyone.”

University of Nevada, Reno student Peter Cvjetanovic faced fierce backlash after he was identified in a photo showing him yelling, carrying a torch and wearing a shirt bearing the logo of the white supremacist group Identity Evropa.

More than 35,000 people have signed an online petition calling on the school to expel Cvjetanovic, which doesn’t appear to be happening.

“I did not expect the photo to be shared as much as it was. I understand the photo has a very negative connotation,” he told the local CBS affiliate. “But I hope that the people sharing the photo are willing to listen that I’m not the angry racist they see in that photo.”

Pearce Tefft, whose son Peter attended the event and was identified by @YesYoureRacist, wrote an open letter to his local newspaper disowning his son.

“(He) is not welcome at our family gatherings any longer,” Tefft wrote. “I pray my prodigal son will renounce his hateful beliefs and return home. Then and only then will I lay out the feast.”

A leaked internal planning document (more on this leak later) showed the rally’s organizers were cognizant of the risks of participants being exposed publicly. The guide suggests that attendees shut down their social media accounts during the event, use cash instead of traceable credit or debit cards for local transactions and avoid using their real names in public conversations that could be taped.

What’s interesting about all this is what allowed these people to be identified in the first place. America’s most infamous vehicle for white supremacy, the Ku Klux Klan, historically has been associated with white hooded robes that obscure the faces of its members.

Writing in The Atlantic, Matt Thompson breaks down why marching uncovered in Charlottesville was a deeply political statement:

The images we saw in Charlottesville today and yesterday convey an entirely different sort of threat. They draw their menace not from what is there – mostly, young white men in polos and T-shirts goofily brandishing tiki torches – but from what isn’t: the masks, the hoods, the secrecy that could at least imply a sort of shame. We used to whisper these thoughts, the new white supremacists suggest. But now we can say them out loud. The “Unite the Right” rally wasn’t intended to be a Klan rally at all. It was a pride march.

Even without hoods, matching faces to names is an imperfect art. Armchair detectives initially identified University of Arkansas professor Kyle Quinn, who runs a lab researching technology to improve wound healing, based on a picture of a demonstrator with a torch. But Quinn was nowhere near Charlottesville at the time. The online sleuths had gotten it wrong and blasted Quinn with a wave of hate on social media.  

The response was frightening enough that he and his wife fled their home and stayed with friends for the night.

“You have celebrities and hundreds of people doing no research online, not checking facts,” Quinn told The New York Times. “I’ve dedicated my life to helping all people, trying to improve health care and train the next generation of scientists, and this is potentially throwing a wrench in that.”

Even when the identifications are on point, Smith’s neo-Nazi hunt has proved controversial. Since Charlottesville vaulted the account into public consciousness, he’s received death threats and had his crowdfunding account shuttered by Patreon.

Tech hits the delete key

Anger over the events in Charlottesville wasn’t confined to the people who attended the event. For years, advocacy groups such as the Anti-Defamation League have lobbied tech companies to take action against white supremacist groups that leverage their platforms to promote hate. As those calls reached a fever pitch this week, tech firms began to take decisive action.

GoDaddy, which had served as the domain name registrar for the prominent neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer, announced that it would sever ties after the site posted an article attacking Heather Heyer, the woman killed when a car plowed into counterprotesters. The Daily Stormer moved its domain name registry to a service operated by Google the next morning, only to get booted again. Google also deleted The Daily Stormer’s YouTube channel.

The site soon reappeared on the Russian .ru domain, but a spokesman for the organization that manages .ru told Reveal that the dailystormer.ru domain had been taken down – following a request from Russian authorities – for illegally spreading extremist content.

Other online platforms joined in pushing back against racism. Among them:

  • Email marketing service MailChimp announced that it had updated its terms of service “to make it more clear that we don’t allow sending hateful content through MailChimp.”
  • Jeff Lawson, co-founder of the cloud communications platform Twilio, announced that his firm would be amending its Acceptable Use Policy to include “an explicit prohibition of hate speech.”
  • Music streaming service Spotify embarked on a fresh effort to remove racist “hate bands” from its platform.
  • The website building and hosting platform Squarespace removed a number of white nationalist sites from its platform, including the website of Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute.

The popular chat app Discord also shut down a number of accounts associated with planning the events in Charlottesville, as well as a prominent alt-right server. Discord initially was designed for video gamers but quickly developed a strong following among the alt-right.

“Discord’s mission is to bring people together around gaming. We’re about positivity and inclusivity. Not hate. Not violence,” the company wrote in a message on Twitter. “We will continue to take action against white supremacy, nazi ideology, and all forms of hate.”

Cloudflare, the content delivery network The Daily Stormer uses to protect itself from cyberattack and obscure the identity of the company hosting the site, emailed Reveal a statement on Monday indicating that it hadn’t changed its mind about doing business with the site. However, by Wednesday, even Cloudflare had cut off The Daily Stormer.

The site’s sole remaining social media presence is on the Russian social network VK. A VK spokesman told Reveal that the social network has no plans to block The Daily Stormer: “VK does not block communities only because of the fact that other services have blocked pages with similar names.”

Inside the chat room where hate organizes

On Monday, the citizen journalist organization Unicorn Riot released a video with screen shots leaked from the Discord chat room where organizers planned the Unite the Right rally.

According to screen names that appeared, the chat room was being used by people such as Unite the Right organizer Kessler; Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin, who may or may not be hiding in Nigeria to duck a lawsuit; and members of the white supremacist groups Identity Evropa, Vanguard America and the Traditionalist Worker Party.

The video showed users posting memes encouraging violence against black people and mocking the victims of the car attack. Screen shots from before the event show the organizers were hoping it would devolve into violence.

“It will escalate into gunplay immediately,” one user wrote.

“Holding this event is only gonna be half the fun,” another wrote. “The other half comes from watching the city tear itself apart in a mass reeing (sic) after we leave.”

“Looks like open carry is on order for next time. Fuck the cops,” a third wrote.

A leaked internal planning document shared by Unicorn Riot discussed the issue of attendees bringing firearms. The guide said people were welcome to bring guns as long as the weapons were carried legally, but highlighted the consequences of actually using them.

“Essentially, if you use your weapon it will become the highlight of the rally and the movement as a whole,” it reads. “They will go through your social media and attempt to charge you with a hate crime regardless of how in the right you are to self-defense.”

While the chat room was replete with offensive content, the planning document advised the event’s organizers to moderate their conduct to avoid antagonizing the broader public – advice that clearly was rejected from the first moments of the unrest.

“We would like to keep this rally as open and friendly as possible with the ‘Unite the Right’ message which means we should refrain from being overly edgy for the sake of edginess,” the document states. “There will be no speech police on our side, but realize that we are trying to gain sympathy from whites and the general right wing. Please refrain from roman salutes during the rally and understand that cameras are all over the place at all times.”

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Have something to add? Contact The Hate Report team: Aaron Sankin can be reached at asankin@revealnews.org, and Will Carless can be reached at wcarless@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter: @asankin and @willcarless.

Aaron Sankin is a reporter for Reveal covering online extremism, election administration and technology policy. Before joining Reveal, he was a founding editor of The Huffington Post's San Francisco vertical and a senior staff writer on The Daily Dot's politics team. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Time, The Motley Fool, Mashable, Business Insider, San Francisco magazine and The Onion. A San Francisco Bay Area native, Sankin studied history and sociology at Rice University. His work at The Daily Dot was a finalist in Digiday's 2015 publisher of the year award, and a story he wrote about a Midwestern family being terrorized by a teenage hacker was labeled by The Atlantic as an essential piece of journalism for 2015. Sankin is based in Seattle.

Will Carless was a correspondent for Reveal covering extremism. He has worked as a foreign correspondent in Asia and South America. Prior to joining Reveal, he was a senior correspondent for Public Radio International’s Global Post team based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Before that, Will spent eight years at the Voice of San Diego, where he worked as an investigative reporter and head of investigations. During his tenure in San Diego, Will was awarded several prizes, including a national award from Investigative Reporters and Editors. He has been a finalist for the Livingston Awards for young journalists twice in the last five years. He surfs, spends time with his family, travels to silly places and pretends he’s writing a novel.