On the evening of August 11, white supremacists, nationalists, neo-Nazis and racist demonstrators marched through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Virginia. Many carried burning tiki torches while chanting “white lives matter,” “you will not replace us,” and the Nazi-associated phrase “blood and soil.”
The vast majority of the demonstrators were from out of town, having traveled from all over the country to protest the removal of a statue depicting Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who once said he never wanted a monument erected in his name. And yet Charlottesville philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire commissioned a statue in Lee’s likeness in 1917 and later dedicated the memorial in the whites-only Lee Park.
The commemoration took place when Ku Klux Klan membership was at its peak, and McIntire invited the Confederate Veterans, Sons of the Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy to participate in the statue’s unveiling. A century later, on Saturday, August 12, 2017, members of once isolated and separated fringe hate groups rallied together under the “Unite the Right” banner, perhaps for the first time in public, to protest the statue’s removal.
They now collectively call themselves the alternative right — shortened to “alt-right” — and you have probably heard the media and news commentators refer to them as such. They are white supremacists, racists and nationalists who seek to unite under a term that doesn’t sound so, well, hateful.
The term has become a catch-all for many types of hate groups and is evocative more of an edgy alternative rock band than the KKK. The phrase “alt right” itself is credited to Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, a white supremacist think tank, and famous for celebrating Trump’s presidential victory with a Nazi salute, in an attempt to soften their image in the public eye.
Even so, the torch-filled scene of August 11 evoked images of hooded Klansmen in white sheets, except now they wore white polos and did not bother to conceal their faces and identities. And yet some of these protesters were surprised to find themselves compared to and persecuted as hateful racists.
University of Nevada history and politics student Peter Cvjetanovic, 20, attended the nighttime march as a member of Identity Evropa, a white supremacy group. A photo was taken of him, bathed in torchlight and wearing a polo with Identity Evropa’s embroidered logo, giving his full voice to the protest, and this photo spread through social media like wildfire. Soon, many were comparing and forever associating Cvjetanovic with the infamous Hazel Bryan, who screamed obscenities at black students during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Despite this, Cvjetanovic told a local news station, “I’m not the angry racist they see in that photo.”
The Unite the Right rally protesters clashed with counter-protesters, and in the wake of the violence and death that ensued the following day, both the media and the public were quick to generalize those deemed responsible. The discrepant protesters from various hate groups, now self-branded by the all-encompassing label of alt-right, were backed into a corner, identified and exposed on social media, and persecuted upon return to their homes.
Radicalized and clumped together in the trenches, besieged by an America they do not want, one that is otherwise inclusive and diverse culturally and ethnically, members of the alt-right recognize in each other a common struggle and a common enemy. This makes them stronger. With the public’s allowance of their singular identity through the term “alt-right,” it is possible their hate has been even more unified.
And perhaps that is what they wanted all along.