Last Saturday, legions of torch-waving white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, for a “Unite the Right” march. This coming weekend, conservatives plan to converge on Boston for a “free speech” rally that has police on high alert.
In the interim, the family of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who died when a neo-Nazi sympathizer allegedly drove into a crowd of unsuspecting Charlottesville counter-protesters, is preparing for her funeral.
Heyer’s death, and the raw ugliness that consumed Charlottesville over the weekend, have given new intensity to what’s loosely known as “the resistance” — the protest movement that has flourished in the wake of the election of President Donald Trump.
As it has been forced to do time and again, the country, this time in the wake of Charlottesville, is recalculating the ways and means of protest.
The weekend violence spurred Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to convene an emergency cabinet meeting on Monday. In a statement, McAuliffe said he created a special commission to recommend “executive and legislative solutions to advance our mission of reconciliation, unity, and public safety.”
“While we continue to grieve and support the families of those who lost their lives, we must learn from this tragic event to prevent a recurrence in our community or elsewhere,” the statement read. “In that spirit, I also directed my team to conduct an extensive review that will include how we issue rally permits, law enforcement preparation and response, and coordination at the local, state, and federal level.”
Similarly, in a Monday conference call with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Charlottesville Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy vowed that his city “will become stronger from this.”
The deadly demonstrations in Virginia led in turn to vigils that brought people together in peaceful mourning, but have not halted protests nationwide.
In fact, said Renata Pumarol, deputy director of the social justice group New York Communities for Change and an organizer of this week’s demonstrations at Trump Tower in Manhattan, protesters may actually be more determined to call out the president for what they say is his complicity in right-wing hate-mongering.
Trump did denounce neo-Nazis and white supremacists days after the Charlottesville demonstrations — but promptly sent that narrative into a tailspin at a freewheeling Tuesday press conference at which he blamed the “alt-left” for fomenting violence as well.
“Safety is more of a concern [after Charlottesville], but what I saw yesterday [was that] people are angrier and people are even more driven to speak against the hate that is happening,” Pumarol said in an interview Tuesday, a day after demonstrators hit the streets to rail against Trump during his first stay at his midtown high-rise since his inauguration.
“I think what happened in Charlottesville actually emboldened people,” she said.
In the past, Pumarol said, a classic part of a protest organizer’s role was to appoint a liaison to serve as a contact point with police to keep tensions at bay. That role, she said, has changed.
“Now, we need to think about how to de-escalate with Trump supporters or white supremacists that might show up,” she said, noting the uptick in gun-toting marchers. “It’s pretty scary, but I also have to give it up to people who protest in this hostile environment.”
Policing of protests has changed over the course of decades, whether people marched, chanted or grappled for human rights or against war.
The savage beating of now-Rep. John Lewis by state troopers during the 1965 march that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” became a pivotal point in the Civil Rights movement. Large-scale incidents such as the 1999 rioting that went down in history as the “Battle of Seattle” fixed in the public mind images of police tear gassing protesters and arresting them en masse.
Today’s race-focused divisions and demonstrations, and how they’re handled, are an evolution of what came before — but they’re not an exact replica, says Carole Emberton, an associate professor of history at the University at Buffalo.
“What I do think is kind of unique about this moment is the way that these groups feel particularly emboldened by the current political situation that’s given rise to them really in the last couple of years,” Emberton said of white supremacist organizations during a Tuesday phone interview. “They take the lack of strong condemnation on the part of our highest political leaders, in particular the president, as sort of a tacit consent or tacit approval for what they’re doing.”
Emberton noted that, in the face of bloodshed, the resistance had made some strides over the past few days alone, pointing to the cancellation of a White Lives Matter event set to take place at Texas A&M University. Still, she said, police and permit-issuers aren’t the only ones who have to calculate the risks.
“When you add, in a lot of these places, [the] ability to carry guns legally to these events and the police would have no ability to confiscate them just for being there, it’s really dangerous,” Emberton said.
“I have a lot of support for protesters, and I think protesting can be very effective — but it makes me very fearful because I think it’s a very dangerous game.”
D’atra Jackson, an activist based in Durham, North Carolina, and a leader in several empowerment groups, including Ignite NC and Black Youth Project 100, says the fundamental conflict that led to what happened in Charlottesville is hardly a new development.
“As we continue to get stronger and get louder, the other side is also going to continue to get stronger and get louder,” Jackson said in a Tuesday evening phone interview.
“What we’ve been thinking about here in Durham is a number of things,” she said. “We’re thinking about the political climate. We’re thinking about the safety of our community. We’re thinking about how we are wanting to really engage our community in this current moment.”
Activists in Durham claimed a victory Monday when they toppled a monument to Confederate soldiers — an incident that resulted in at least one arrest.
In the bigger picture, Jackson said, the events of late have been a call for contemplation for activists, not only of what happened in Virginia, but of the state of affairs in North Carolina — which just so happens to be among the handful of states considering bills to legally shield drivers who unintentionally hit traffic-blocking protesters.
“There were lots of people from North Carolina — from Durham, particularly — that went to Charlottesville and learned a lot, and also suffered serious trauma in the wake of all that happened,” Jackson said.
“We’re trying to find time to grieve, while also being very intentional about what it is that we’re really trying to win.”
Aug. 15, 2017, 8:37 p.m.: This story has been updated.