How White Nationalist Violence Works

For jury deliberation to finish in six hours there had to be consensus from the start. James Alex Fields had become the object of universal public hatred when he drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of antifascist protesters in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer. He was pronounced guilty on six counts, including first degree murder, earning him life in prison. In the nearly year and a half since Fields plowed his car down Main Street, he has remained almost catatonically silent in his cell, awaiting trial while every Alt Right personality screamed to every media outlet that would listen.

Antiracist protesters, including Heyer’s mother, packed the courtroom every day. After the verdict was announced, local organizer Rosie Parker led a public chant of “you will not replace us,” employing the white nationalist refrain made famous at Charlottesville, a reference to “white genocide” conspiracy theories about “white replacement.” Other survivors of the attack, like Marcus Martin, who had his leg shattered when the car sped into the demonstration, were there, using the trial as a moment of collective accountability for the city.

Fields had no one there. This was not surprising for a non-celebrity racist, a person who knows no one and who no one knows. While he remained silent, white nationalists used him as pundit fodder, nearly placing a cross on his back as he became the image of their victimization by liberal society. After trashing Heather Heyer in every conceivable way, from claiming her weight was responsible for her death to simply applauding murder, they focused on the claims of self-defense that Fields’ attorneys proffered to the jury.

Their logic works like this: with protesters all around, and emotions high, Fields had an explosive reaction and slammed on the gas as a way of getting out of the situation. White nationalist websites like Red Ice Creations have gone to painstaking lengths to prove this, including sifting through available video footage frame-by-frame and offering conjecture about Fields’s motives.

When the guilty verdict came down the Alt Right commentary continued, not so much out of empathy with Fields, but rather with concern about how it will affect them as a movement.

“There does not seem to be any reasonable evidence put forward that he engaged in murderous intent,” said Alt Right founder Richard Spencer to the Associated Press. A bold statement for someone who neither witnessed the murder nor was present when the evidence was delivered in the courtroom. The reporter of the story later claimed she did not know who Spencer was.

Christopher Cantwell, who became famous for his frothing racism during a Vice documentary on Charlottesville, only later to be caught sobbing into his camera phone when he discovered he was facing charges, went into a rage on the white-nationalist social media website Gab.

“The show trial and CONviction of James Fields is merely a symbolic victory for you, which you’ll forget in short order,” said Cantwell. “Knowing that any of us could be next, it will drive us toward your complete and total destruction, as a matter of necessity for our very survival.”

Across the white nationalist blog and podcast universe, there is a central narrative, that Fields was railroaded by “antifa” in the streets and the courtroom. No white nationalist will get a fair trial because of Field’s act, which was not coordinated, not representative of the movement, and not his fault.

In the case of Fields’s crash, the first point that the white nationalists who organized Unite the Right pivot to is that, of course, this was not sanctioned behavior. They wanted to hold a rally, hear a few speeches. It’s as simple as that. Even if they were to take responsibility for the sprawling street fights that followed, the kind of blatant bloodthirst that Fields is accused of is totally counterproductive for their movement. While the white nationalist leadership will live and die by this talking point, Discord chat logs revealed by Unicorn Riot show that those involved in the actual planning of the event were ready and prepared for possibly lethal violence against counter-protesters.

As white nationalist leaders like Richard Spencer have maintained for decades, public acts of extreme violence, often taken in isolation and with little control by formal organizations, set the racialist movement back. And it did, in catastrophic ways, as was seen with the radical decline of the Alt Right following Charlottesville. They want a movement that can transform their militancy into mass struggle, with a focus on conversation, culture, and meeting their target demographics where they are at. Plowing a car into a crowd of people does a lot of things, but it rarely moves the unconverted.

The Alt Right then shifted to focus on Fields himself, who he was, and whether he really was representative of their growing ranks. Fields, for his part, played the outsider well. With few connections to movement leadership, or with friends or anyone else for that matter, his history was one of violent aggression against his mother and what teachers refer to as a fascination with the Third Reich. In place of focus on white supremacy, they draw attention to his alienation, painting him as another socially awkward trigger-man lingering in the back of the classroom. It is the conditions of the modern world that dictate this behavior, rendering his violence essentially “apolitical.” After all, ideas never have sway over such a deviant mind.

More than that, his actions may even have been justified, they imply. A common rhetorical tactic on the right has been to blame violence, from Proud Boy gang assaults to Patriot militia armed standoffs, on their leftist opposition. Responsibility rests with the protesters who surrounded Fields’s car, or were even just near his car, which more or less indicts just about all protests that do anything other than yell at flag-waving neo-Nazis from yards away. In such comments, we glimpse how how the Alt Right views itself: beset on all sides by tyranny, about to be destroyed unless someone chooses to act.

A Man Against Time

On October 27, Robert Bowers headed into the L’Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh ready to kill. He stated openly on Gab that he was motivated by perceived Jewish involvement in refugee resettlement. While this is a sober statement directly in line with the anti-Semitic conspiracies that are at the foundation of the white nationalist worldview, he was again disowned by the Alt Right media as a person out of step with their movement. And besides, they scoffed, the refugees the Jews are bringing in are even worse than the Jews themselves.

On June 17th, 2015 when Dylann Roof opened fire in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, white nationalist leaders like James Edwards and Jared Taylor went to great lengths to point out both that he was out of his mind and that he was lucid enough to be reacting to the threat of non-white people in the U.S. Roof was clear in his manifesto that he was inspired by the “race realist” rantings and misleading race and crime statistics put forward by the Council of Conservative Citizens.

A fringe member of an already fringe white-nationalist movement commits an act of seemingly random mass violence, which, because it is non-programmatic and not a part of a larger movement project, is disowned by the white nationalist movement and described as completely out of character for their community. The problem is that no matter what their leadership says, no matter what their organizing priorities actually are, it is the most reliable form of action that the white nationalist movement produces.

There exists a reliable pattern inside of American white nationalism. Rising to visibility through hot-button issues, fascists will see a moment of skyrocketing influence and use it to latch onto a slightly more moderate right-wing movement so as to gain influence and recruit. During the Civil Rights Movement, explicit racialists and the Ku Klux Klan used the pro-segregationist movement and the White Citizens Councils to gain respectability with Jim Crow Southerners and to expand the “Overton Window” with regards to race. In the 1980s, it was paleoconservatism, a more “Old Right” version of Republicanism that rejected the internationalist and neoliberal Neoconservatism, that gave the extreme right access to the conservative base, particularly through figures like Pat Buchanan. More recently, it has been the internet-celebrity cadre of Civic Nationalists, often referred to as the Alt Light, consisting of people like Jack Posobiec, Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, and Lauren Southern. Open fascism is generally seen as contemptible by most of the public when presented on its own. With a friendlier partner, however, fascists can slowly normalize their politics and grow their ranks.

Inevitably, the moderates reject the radicals, and the fascists lose their access to the mainstream. This process leads the movement to collapse much of its public-facing infrastructure, devolving into desperation as infighting reconfigures the once hopeful core. It is then that individuals, usually isolated both in their personal life and from positions of leadership and respect in the white nationalist movement, decide to take desperate action. The rhetoric of white dispossession is so extreme that recruits are driven to an evangelical frenzy, and when the movement loses its political viability there are few places for these ideologues to put their burning rage. When electoralism, mass movements, and above-ground action fails, there is always a gun. This is the time for monsters.

They Want a Lone Gunman

White nationalist organizations prepare people, sometimes members and sometimes their periphery, for violence, but will never take responsibility for it. By creating a narrative of persecution and survival, by depicting insurrection as the only viable option, and by nursing impulsive brutality, they intentionally foster an internal fire, the only logical consequence of which is violence. This is, in part, because of the unwillingness of their leadership to reckon with the actual consequences of their work. When Richard Spencer talks about “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and then stands in utter shock that his words inspire counter-demonstrations, that his neighbors in Virginia or Montana want him out, he refuses to see what is plain for the rest of us. This is also a result of their tribalism and ideology. They simply don’t understand how their ideas lead to violence since they are simply so rational, their community so logical.

When a member of the white nationalist movement then puts thoughts into action, their fringe status is employed as defense. Fields may not have taken action if it was not for the crushing loneliness of his life, a void that allowed for his white identity to be activated by nationalists reaching out from a message board. That quest for identity has always been their strongest selling point, just as the most distraught have always been their most ardent actors. It is certainly easier to be the Last Rhodesian than a mere part of a lost generation.

Their disavowal of violence rests almost solely, then, on the fact that it is “unsanctioned,” that it did not come down by command through the organizational ranks. The problem with this is that, through the history of white supremacist terrorist organization, rarely did the violence of the membership result from official dictum. Much of the historic Klan violence throughout the South, particularly from the Civil Rights Movement on, was technically not a part of official Klan activity, but simply its members working together based on relationships and ideas forged in the Klan. In the pogroms that hit New York City and Boston in 1942–43, the Catholic teens involved were largely inspired by the Christian Front organized by Father Charles Coughlin, but they were self-organized, only following out the logical results of what was argued for in private meetings and radio addresses. The Aryan Nations National Congress made it clear that their movement was peaceful, all while helping The Order to begin bank robberies and assassinations, mobilizing the Aryan Brotherhood in prisons, and training paramilitaries who would later take action against communities of color and law enforcement alike.

While these organizations will publicly commit to non-violence, and sometimes even privately urge a different style of organizing, in their rhetoric, behavior, and personal affinity, they encourage this type of autonomous violence. This creates a model of extra-judicial violence, tied to the members but not the organization, allowing for a sort of plausible deniability.

There is nothing abnormal about James Alex Field’s decision to hit the gas and end the life of Heather Heyer. This is how it works. While Richard Spencer may think that Fields has been railroaded, Spencer himself is responsible for creating the conditions and molding the actions that took place since it was the logical conclusion of the Alt Right’s rhetoric and vision. There is no aberration at play since spontaneous acts of extreme terror are an organic feature of their movements, no matter how peaceful their public face. With the increasing number of these moments of explosive ferocity, it should be apparent that the Alt Right is no less violent than earlier generations brandishing a robe or swastika. Their violence lies in their ability to sway the fringe, to create conditions, and to mobilize the public rather than just formal members, and with the Alt Right they were able to get rid of formal organizations (for the most part) in favor of a radicalized multitude. Without the barriers of organizations and optics, they can do anything, and now they are.

If it wasn’t Fields then it would have been somebody else. Their movement has been punctuated by failed men seeking martyrdom each time their organizing work implodes. This is not a flaw in their system; their model works perfectly. Fields sacrificed himself in an emotive explosion, spurred to action by the movement which will no longer provide him support, and Richard Spencer will use his name to gain donations for the next public rally. There is no end for this process: it has followed the peaks and troughs of the white nationalist movement since its infancy.

White nationalist violence has to be understood within the complicated social framework in which it exists, a framework intended to manipulate the fringes of the movement to take on the dirty work and carry out its underlying methodology. The fact that Fields may not have been a formal member of one of its coalition organizations, or even a part of a tangible friendship circle, does not take away from his membership in a movement. Instead, he is the perfect image of what their movement creates, the clearest example of who they are and what they do.

So Fields is guilty. They are all guilty.

Originally published at on December 23, 2018.

Filmmaker and author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It. His work is featured at Jacobin, In These Times, Salon, Truthout, etc. @Shane_Burley1

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