One year ago this weekend, Nazis marched in America. They wore no hoods or masks, but marched proudly with Tiki torches through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. They chanted: “Jews shall not replace us.”
When they were met with counter-protesters, they responded with violence. A 32-year-old woman called Heather Heyer was killed after a car ploughed into a group of counter-protesters.
On Sunday, as Heyer’s mother laid a wreath at a memorial on the site her daughter was killed, and others around the world gathered to remember her, Washington DC was gearing up for another rally organised by the same group that came to Charlottesville. There were to be no torches this time; the brand that made them strongly condemned their use by the white supremacist marchers.
But nonetheless, the group, Unite the Right, planned a triumphant march through the streets of America’s capital to end at Lafayette Square, right outside the White House. They were a motley bunch: internet-era Nazism is a Frankenstein-esque medley of ethno-nationalism and memes, Nazi iconography and wild conspiracy theories. But they are no less dangerous for their incoherence.
That route was no accident. It is devastatingly clear that under President Donald Trump, underground movements of white supremacists and neo-Nazis have felt publicly emboldened like at no other time in modern American history. After Charlottesville, despite Heyer’s death, Trump had shamefully vacillated that there were “fine people on both sides” of the march.
Whether he made those comments out of sheer incompetence or whether he intended them as a dog-whistle signalling approval to the marchers is moot. Certainly, the white supremacists interpreted it that way, and the Trump administration has made no real effort to condemn them, sticking to platitudes so bland that it is nearly impossible for the neo-Nazis of America’s underground to not get the message: you can come out now, we will not stand in your way.
Instead, the administration has focused its ire on journalists. They are the “enemy of the people”. Neo-nazis, though? Some of them are “fine people”.
In the year since Heyer’s death, America has been in a hand-wringing conversation about whether it is “ok” to punch Nazis. As I wrote after Charlottesville, that is not a moral quandary that my grandfather and his generation, who fought Nazis both on the beaches of Normandy and in the streets of East London at the battle of Cable Street, would have struggled with.
Remember, that this is an administration that cried foul at the supposed lack of “civility” shown by the staff at the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia, who quietly and politely asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave, but which refused to publicly condemn Heather Heyer’s murderers.
Instead it has chosen to focus its ire on the Antifa movement, which aims to respond to neo-Nazi violence in kind, with sticks and fists. This tactic may be unseemly, but when the instruments of the state fail to clamp down on rising far-right agitators, it is unsurprising that a grassroots movement would rise up to fill the vacuum.
Whether the violent tactics of Antifa are the most moral option in the face of emboldened Nazi marchers is also one for debate by future historians. On one hand, their violent attacks against the Nazis marching in Charlottesville and at other white supremacist rallies like one in Berkeley just two weeks later gave Trump cover to pretend moral equilibrium between the two sides.
But on the other hand, those who said that stooping to their level would in some way undermine the counter-movement do not yet seem to have been proven right.
In the end, in Washington DC, the outer bands of a torrential rainstorm to the north of the city dampened this weekend’s Unite the Right rally. Two dozen soggy white supremacists arrived at the White House flanked by rows of police officers, allocated for their protection from the masses of counter-protesters who gathered to show that they were not welcome, and from the black-clad Antifa in their midst.
The message seems to have gone out that, at least as far as the American people are concerned, Nazis will not be allowed to march through the streets with impunity.
At least, not yet.