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Charlottesville was a wake-up call for many about the white supremacy movement


It's been five years since a violent and deadly white nationalist rally shocked Charlottesville, Va. One woman was killed and dozens of people were injured when a white supremacist drove his car through a crowd that was resisting the show of hate. Two state police officers who were responding that day were also killed in a helicopter crash. Racial justice activists say the events in Charlottesville marked a turning point that emboldened far-right political violence in the U.S., including the January 6 attack on the Capitol. NPR's Debbie Elliott has this report.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Organizers targeted Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally after the city voted to take down a Confederate statue, part of the town's reckoning with a fraught racial history. On Friday night, August 11, 2017, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and other white supremacists marched on the University of Virginia campus carrying torches and terrorizing students.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) You will not replace us. You will not replace us.

ELLIOTT: The next day, they rallied around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in a downtown park but were met with resistance from hundreds of residents who rejected racism.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Nazi scum off our streets.

ELLIOTT: Violent clashes ensued. The governor declared a state of emergency, and state police shut down the rally.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In the name of the commonwealth, you are commanded to immediately disperse.

ELLIOTT: The move angered alt-right leader and rally organizer Richard Spencer.


RICHARD SPENCER: This is an absolute outrage. You're going to have to drag us out of here.

ELLIOTT: As demonstrators were pushed from the park, they dispersed through town, leading to pockets of violence and, ultimately, the deadly attack on a group of anti-racists. Neo-Nazi James Fields rammed his car into the crowd, injuring dozens of people and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Today there's a memorial to Heyer next to the spot where she was killed. Her mother, Susan Bro, visits from time to time.

SUSAN BRO: I do. I come to remove dead flowers and make sure that the sidewalk's clear.

ELLIOTT: And to blow kisses, she says. She takes solace in all the messages posted on the brick walls, including gone but not forgotten and don't let hate be louder than love.

BRO: Yeah, and to see that people still interact with this tells me that the events of the day still matters.

ELLIOTT: Coming up on the five-year mark since Heather was killed is hard.

BRO: You know, the moods go up and down. And that's part of this, is now I know that this will come, this will go, and I'll be OK.

ELLIOTT: She started an educational foundation in Heather's name and has connected with other families across the country who are victims of hate crimes. They successfully lobbied Congress to pass a hate crime act that calls for stiffer penalties and provides incentives to better track hate crimes. Bro says that's a sign of progress, but she thinks more work is needed to combat a well-organized white supremacist movement, a movement she says she wasn't really aware of until her daughter was murdered for standing up to it. Bro says seeing the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 last year confirmed that reality.

BRO: You don't have to guess so much who's racist, who's white supremacist, although there are some people who think, well, that was an isolated incident, and it died down, but it's amazing how often that isolated incidents keeps happening.

ELLIOTT: Many activists see the terror here as a turning point for the nation.

APRIL MUNIZ: I think Charlottesville really was a catalyst for much of the white supremist chaos that has ensued since.

ELLIOTT: April Muniz was in the crowd when the neo-Nazi drove his car into counterprotesters.

MUNIZ: What I witnessed is something that just broke me, basically.

ELLIOTT: She suffered PTSD and panic attacks and was unable to work for a time, and she grew increasingly frustrated that James Fields was the only person arrested in the immediate aftermath of the Unite the Right violence.

MUNIZ: Everybody left town. Who's going to be held responsible? And I just kept asking myself over and over as I was watching the days unfold and nothing was happening, and it kind of astounded me.

ELLIOTT: James Fields was convicted on state murder and federal hate crime charges. When no criminal charges were brought against event organizers, some victims of the violence filed a civil lawsuit against about two dozen white nationalist leaders, including Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler. A jury awarded more than $25 million in damages to the plaintiffs - among them, April Muniz. Holding organizers to account is an important step, says Ian Solomon, dean of the University of Virginia's School of Leadership and Public Policy. But he says it's unclear which direction the country will take.

IAN SOLOMON: Are the pro-democratic forces and pro-democracy movements going to prevail or not? There's no inevitability to this democratic experiment.

ELLIOTT: Solomon, a former Obama administration official, says what happened in Charlottesville was a warning.

SOLOMON: One of the things about that weekend of 2017 was it revealed, it reenergized, it revived in many people's minds the reality that anti-democratic forces are ascendant in this country, that hate is quite brazen, to show its face proudly, confidently, with encouragement from elected officials.

ELLIOTT: At the time, President Trump drew criticism when he talked about, quote, "very fine people on both sides," seemingly equating neo-Nazis and white nationalists to the anti-racist demonstrators. Solomon says while the racial violence in Charlottesville was shocking for some, it was really a familiar refrain.

SOLOMON: We have a long rhythm in America of progress followed by backsliding or backlash to that progress. So for many, racial violence is nothing new. Racial intimidation is nothing new. It has a long thread through American history, and yet for many, it was perceived as a wake-up call.

ELLIOTT: It was certainly a wake-up call for Susan Bro, who was forced, in the most painful way imaginable, to understand the consequences of hate. She's not sure how she'll mark five years since her daughter's murder, but she knows how she'd like the rest of the country to honor Heather's memory.

BRO: We've got to find a way to get along and have justice. People say we should just go back to getting along. No, because people were not getting treated right in that process. We need to find a way to do both.

ELLIOTT: Community events Friday include a walking vigil of remembrance and an interfaith service called Unite the Light.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Charlottesville, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.