When hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists held a rally a year ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, the demonstration turned into a riot that left one woman dead and shocked the nation.
For the August anniversary, the torch-carrying, swastika-bearing protesters want to repeat their demonstration in Charlottesville and in Washington, D.C.
But those who are part of the increasingly visible far-right sentiment in America now face divisions within their own movement and seem unlikely to rally in the same large numbers as last year.
Jason Kessler, who organized last year’s event under the banner “Unite the Right,” was denied a permit to gather in Charlottesville this year, but he will fight that decision in a court hearing Tuesday. In Washington, Kessler’s permit application for an Aug. 12 rally received initial approval and details are being worked out.
Kessler said this year’s rally will focus on “white civil rights” – what he sees as limited rights for white people, particularly surrounding free speech. Only American and Confederate flags will be allowed at the D.C. event, Kessler said; no neo-Nazi paraphernalia.
“What I’m really trying to do is start a new movement,” Kessler said. “I feel like the ‘alt-right’ has been a symbol for neo-Nazism.” Although the theme is white rights, he said the rally is “open to everybody.”
Kessler said he expects fewer people this year because of concerns about possible violence.
“I think it’s definitely going to be different in terms of attendance,” he said. “A lot of people are going to be very scared for their safety.”
The group also faces internal divisions and struggles to turn an Internet-focused movement into a viable political force.
“I think the hope was that they would step away from their computers and enter into real politics,” said George Hawley, a University of Alabama professor who has written a book about the alt-right. “And that was not the result.”
Facebook chats between Kessler and other white nationalists — obtained by ThinkProgress, a left-wing website — show the difficulty of planning the August rallies. According to the chats, organizers struggled to agree on speakers and logistics and grew frustrated with neo-Nazis who did not support the white civil rights-only theme.
“The Alt-Right is poor, disorganized and lacking in conviction,” Kessler wrote in a May 13 message.
Last August’s demonstrations rocked Charlottesville for two days. On the evening of Aug. 11, hundreds of torch-bearing protesters marched through the University of Virginia campus, chanting white supremacist slogans such as “Blood and Soil” and “Jews Will Not Replace Us.”
The next day, the group swamped downtown Charlottesville – along with several armed, uniformed paramilitary groups – and were met by counterprotesters.
Rioting broke out, several people were injured, and one woman, Heather Heyer, 32, died after a protester associated with the neo-Nazi groups backed his car through a throng of counterprotesters and struck her.
“The American public was appalled,” said Lawrence Rosenthal, who chairs Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies. Americans “no longer saw these people as pranksters, especially after the death.”
A group of counter-protesters injured during the rally have filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against Kessler and other leaders, alleging the demonstrators were responsible for the violence and the injuries. That case is still ongoing.
Another lawsuit, filed by Georgetown’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, alleged that the armed paramilitary groups at the rally were unlawful. Kessler and several of those groups recently agreed to a settlement, which stipulates that Kessler must “actively discourage” that sort of activity.
Mary McCord, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in that lawsuit, said she hopes the settlement will discourage some protesters from attending a potential rally in Charlottesville next month.
“My hope is that this is sufficient deterrent to the individuals and defendants who are sued,” she said. “Maybe they just won’t come back at all – that would be great.”