But unlike the massive, melee-filled marches of August, no one died Saturday night. There was little spectacle at all.
Instead, a neat formation of men in uniform khakis walked quietly to a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, which the city covered in a tarp after a counterprotester was killed at the previous rally. Spencer made a speech, they live-streamed themselves, and they left the city about 30 minutes after they arrived.
Unlike the last time, Charlottesville 3.0 had been organized in private. It came with no warning and ended with a promise:
“We will be back,” the men beneath the statue chanted. “We will be back, we will be back.”
Faced with the prospect of Charlottesvilles 4.0 and 5.0, and 6 and 7 — perhaps an infinite series of unannounced visits from white nationalists — Mayor Mike Signer (D) wrote this the same night:
“All our legal options,” Signer promised. But does his city have any at all?
“It’s a joke,” Spencer told The Washington Post on Sunday. “He has no authority to prevent lawful protests like what we did last night. … He currently thinks the city of Charlottesville is a sovereign nation or something.”
When Spencer comes back to Charlottesville — and he will, he promised — he said he will have lawyers at his call, ready to fight any challenge the city might throw up.
And while the mayor has not elaborated on his “options,” history and law experts can point to little he might do to prevent another sequel.
In fact, the city has already tried.
The first white nationalist rally in Charlottesville took place in May. Like those to come, it involved torches, chants and Spencer — all beneath Lee’s statue, which the city wants to remove.
While nothing like the spectacles to come, the spring event horrified the local public, drawing public condemnations from the mayor, residents and business leaders in the weeks and months ahead.
In August, a few days before a follow-up rally was set to take place in the same park, the city abruptly revoked the organizers’ permit.
Arguing that the march and expected counterprotests would be too large for police to protect, Charlottesville told the torch wielders to gather more than a mile from Lee’s statue.
“The First Amendment prohibits the government from blocking a protest based on its content or viewpoint, or based on how the government anticipates others will respond to the protest,” the group argued in federal court.
So Charlottesville 2.0 took place as planned Aug. 12 in Emancipation Park, a day after the traditional torchlight march. And as feared, thousands yelled and screamed and fought, and a car rammed a crowd of counterprotesters and killed a woman.
In a sense, though, the turmoil never ended.
Several days later, a college student put on a Confederate uniform and drove to Charlottesville to stand in the park, saluting Lee while residents berated him.
When the city covered the statue in a tarp, a protester promptly tried to cut it down.
Nor was the furor limited to Virginia.
In Los Angeles, City Attorney Mike Feuer urged officials to consider restricting or denying permits to “hate groups” in the wake of Charlottesville, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“Obviously, we are a nation where we value as one of the most high ideals freedom of expression,” Feuer told reporters. “But even the ACLU leadership … is saying today that has its limits. When people are coming to incite violence … that’s where we draw the line.”
Easier said than done.
In Berkeley, the scene of violent protests long before Charlottesville’s infamy, the City Council passed an “urgency ordinance” in late August.
The law didn’t do much, as reported by the East Bay Times. It gave the city authority to “preserve public health, public safety and property” on streets and sidewalks during rallies held without a permit — specifically by banning makeshift weapons.
Even that measure, the Times reported, was protested by many who worried it would threaten free speech.
And in Richmond the next month, Police Chief Alfred Durham stood in a church before 300 unhappy residents and told them he could do nothing to stop a Confederate heritage group from rallying that weekend, or even from bringing guns.
“A lot of folks ask: Why is the Richmond Police Department allowing folks to protest?” Durham said, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Ladies and gentleman, the right to assemble is a constitutional right. You don’t need a permit.”
Spencer knows this well. By keeping his rally relatively small and surprising the public, he told The Post, he avoided the risk of violent clashes — and any need to check in with the city.
“We clearly cannot trust the authorities of Charlottesville and Virginia to do their jobs, so we’re going to do these other tactics,” Spencer said.
‘These other tactics’
And as long as his flash protests don’t get too large, they’ll probably remain immune from regulations and permit requirements, said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.
“Mini-demonstrations that are small enough, a city has to deal with,” said Volokh, who often writes about constitutional rights for The Post. What Spencer organized Saturday, he said, was legally no different from a group of residents who spontaneously gather in front of a city hall to protest some council vote.
Cities “certainly do not have the option of saying, ‘We do not like this person’s views,’ ” Volokh said. “Nor do they have the option of saying … ‘He’s likely to draw a hostile crowd of counterprotesters, and therefore we’re going to suppress.’ ”
Local authorities do have a few unofficial options to quash free speech, according to Michael Heaney, a political sociologist at the University of Michigan who studies protest movements — old and new.
“Elected officials feel the need to pander to the majority,” Heaney said. “Whether they’re anti-Trump protesters or white supremacists, [officials think] their voices should be suppressed, and the public is supportive of that.”
Often, he said, authorities use mass arrests to dissuade protesters, like at the GOP conventions in 2008. “Even most serious activists don’t want to spend their time dealing with the legal system,” he said. “It’s expensive.”
But mass arrests don’t work when — as happened Saturday in Charlottesville — there are no masses to arrest.
And governments have no chance to intimidate protesters if the protest is never announced.
“That’s a pretty well-planned action,” Heaney said of the night. “It’s impressive because it’s strategic. They can probably get a fair amount of attention, and it doesn’t have the same cost.”
“For all intents and purposes,” he said, “all you really need to do is put it up as a video and share it.”
Which is exactly what Spencer did.