The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fear of ‘violent left’ preceded events in Charlottesville

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) on Aug. 13 said Charlottesville is “stronger” a day after violence erupted in the city. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

On Saturday afternoon, shortly before her camera captured a car plowing through left-wing activists in Charlottesville, killing one and injuring more than a dozen others, Faith Goldy warned that the left was spinning out of control.

“Hundreds and hundreds of antifa, weird BLM, idiots dressed like clowns,” said Goldy, a reporter for the Canadian alt-right news site The Rebel. “This is okay, as long as you’re not the alt-right. The alt-right wasn’t allowed to demonstrate any show of force.”

As if on cue, activists began chanting “black lives matter” in the background of Goldy’s shot.

“Chant BLM, and all of a sudden the cops don’t care!” she said. “Where are the riot police now?”

Goldy’s report, which transformed into police evidence after James Alex Fields Jr. allegedly plowed his car into counterprotesters, was representative of a theme that had risen from far-right media to the mainstream since President Trump’s inauguration. The growth of “antifa,” a loose and often ad hoc network of left-wing “antifascist” groups, has been covered as a rising danger to law and order, a justification for alt-right organizations to organize armed rallies — and for ordinary Americans to arm themselves, too.

White nationalists were met by counterprotesters in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. A car plowed into crowds, killing one person and injuring 19 others. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post, Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post)

The “antifa” concept has existed for almost as long as fascism itself, but in the wake of Trump’s victory, organizers claimed to be seeing an influx of new energy and new recruits. In the lead-up to Inauguration Day, conservative undercover sting artist James O’Keefe released video of D.C. antifascist organizers plotting Jan. 20 disruptions. Even as they faced questions from law enforcement, antifa allies used “black bloc” tactics to rage across the area just outside of the inaugural parade, donning masks, smashing windows and burning cars.

The Inauguration Day actions included an assault on white nationalist leader Richard Spencer, footage of which went viral. But video of the property damage took on greater import, as some conservatives began using it to portray an out-of-control left. Weeks after the inauguration, antifa activists committed $100,000 in property damage and several assaults in protests that shut down a University of California at Berkeley speech by then-Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. In a Feb. 24 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the National Rifle Assocation’s Wayne LaPierre linked those events with incidents of people being attacked if they supported the president.

“Right now, we face a gathering of forces that are willing to use violence against us,” warned LaPierre. “If the violent left brings their terror to our communities, our neighborhoods, or into our homes, they will be met with the resolve and the strength and the full force of American freedom in the hands of the American people. Among them and behind them are some of the most radical political elements there are. Anarchists, Marxists, communists and the whole rest of the left-wing Socialist brigade.”

On March 31, the footage of the inaugural rioting appeared for the first time in a political TV ad. In “Extremists,” a commercial produced by the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC to defeat Georgia congressional candidate Jon Ossoff, footage of peaceful Women’s March events — one of which Ossoff attended — was blended with footage of anarchists smashing windows and starting fires.

“Liberal extremists will stop at nothing to push their radical agenda,” said a narrator. “Ossoff is one of them.”

A political ad against Georgia congressional candidate Jon Ossoff blended footage of peaceful Women's March events with video of inaugural rioting. (Video: Congressional Leadership Fund Super PAC)

In reality, antifa actions were relatively isolated, focused on disrupting white nationalist rallies — which, in turn, fed off the idea that the violent left needed to be stopped in the streets. Several high-profile rallies transformed into brawls between black-clad antifa and conservatives who sometimes claimed membership in new anti-antifa organizations, such as the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, a wing of the Proud Boys, itself a group founded by Rebel commentator Gavin McInnes.

“I’ve heard rumors the mayor of Portland is going to tell his police to stand down at some forthcoming alt-right events in his city,” wrote McInnes in a June column at the right-wing site Taki’s Magazine. “By allowing these sociopaths to shut down free speech with violence you are all but demanding a war. Okay, fine, you got it. It’s official. This is a war.”

In the hours after the Charlottesville disaster, President Trump’s pointed condemnation of “many sides” for the violence baffled some Republicans; on Twitter, frequent Trump critics such as Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) asked why the president could not specifically condemn white supremacists or neo-Nazis, making clear who had allegedly committed murder at the protest.

But this morning, hours before a revised White House statement that did mention “neo-nazis,” Trump allies inside and outside the White House were careful to say that the left shared blame for Charlottesville. On CNN’s “State of the Union,” former Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo asked why the media was not condemning antifa, insisting without evidence that “they tried to kill people” who showed up at the planned alt-right rally.

“America is being moved into chaos by people on both sides who think that they’re better than anyone else on the other side,” said Caputo. “The rhetoric gets heightened, you know, turns violent, and eventually you have racist KKK fighting the fascist antifa in the streets of Charlottesville. Both sides showed up with helmets and weapons.”

On the same show, homeland security adviser Tom Bossert tried to make a similar point, and was repeatedly interrupted by host Jake Tapper.

“I’m sure there were good people in the group that had various opinions on the removal or maintenance of the statue,” Bossert said. “But what they found when they showed up were groups from outside that showed up on both sides looking for trouble, dressed in riot gear, prepared for violence.”

“How many people did the counterprotesters kill yesterday, Mr. Bossert?” asked Tapper.

“Well, I will tell you, one death is too many, Jake,” said Bossert.

“That wasn’t by the counterprotesters,” said Tapper.

And in some of the pro-Trump media that had been warning of antifa violence, the conversation was just as fraught. On Saturday, McInnes and InfoWars host Alex Jones streamed their reaction to what had happened, decrying the violence but placing the blame on the left. McInnes said that he had stayed far from Charlottesville after he “saw that thing going white nationalist, white power.”

Jones, meanwhile, worried that the events in Charlottesville represented a successful long-term strategy by the left to foment violence.

“We know [liberal megadonor George] Soros has been planning this, trying to create provocative events,” said Jones. “We’re winning, but I think demonstrating in any Democratic-controlled city now…”

He trailed off. “Just like they do at these events at Berkeley, they beat you up, then they lie about what happened,” he said.