A quick turnout prevents a possible bigoted rally in the middle of downtown. A glimpse at a community response, rumors, debates, citations and the challenges of judging the scope of the racist threat in today’s Asheville
It started with a flier, more precisely, with an image of one. Emblazoned with a Confederate flag and an image of Trump, it called for an impromptu “Unite the Right” rally on the evening of Sept. 2 at the Vance monument.
That the monument was the focus is not surprising. A slaveowner, Vance was one of the architects of Jim Crow, a relentless schemer who devoted his considerable cunning to stripping hundreds of thousands of their civil rights and setting the model for one of the darkest eras in American history. His monument was unveiled during a white supremacist backlash to a multi-racial reform movement trying to undo some of the injustices he helped establish. Its prominence the subject of criticism for years, activists recently renewed their push to take it down, including trying to remove a plaque on a nearby marker to Robert E. Lee.
This was also less than a month after the terrorist attacks at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville by Nazis, KKK and white supremacists, focused around a statue of Lee. With their ability to rally pushed through by the ACLU over local objections, the racists carried out a violent rampage, attacking anti-racist protesters and passerby, dousing some in gasoline, shooting at another. Then, one member of a fascist group killed one anti-racist protester Heather Heyer and injured many more when he attacked the crowd with his car.
I received the image late in the morning Sept. 1. I know for a fact that I wasn’t the only reporter or activist it was sent to. By early that afternoon it was up publicly on social media with locals sharing it widely, many calling for Ashevillians to turn out to deter the racists. The specter of Charlottesville offered a harsh lesson, the discussions went, in what happens when such groups are not checked early and allowed to gather in force. But in dozens of ensuing discussions on social media, there were differences about its authenticity and how best to respond.
Given the source I received it from and the context surrounding it I regarded the flier as real, in the sense of “this is from a person who found this put up by someone else on campus, was disturbed by it and wanted to alert others.” Whether it was real in the sense of “the person who made and distributed the physical flier sincerely wanted other racists to show up at Vance,” that question — as we’ll delve into shortly — was more complicated.
With over a week’s time and looking over a lot of the events that ended up taking place that night, I believe there was an attempt — haphazardly, badly organized — by some of the local far-right bigots to rally in the center of town. Why some locals showed up in response, the differences that ensued over how (or if) to do so and the events of the evening itself all give a revealing glimpse into where the people of our city are as they decide how to mobilize against the threat of violent racism.
Trolls under the bridge
When I first saw the photo, I admit I wasn’t particularly surprised. This came the day after multiple sources at UNCA had sent a heads-up about at least two separate incidents of students expressing outright racist opinions on campus. Racism, of course, takes many forms, but these weren’t racist in the sense of “assumptions that prop up an unjust structure” or “upper-middle class white 18-year-olds often say really stupid things” but “blatantly and publicly advocating the beliefs of Nazis and the KKK.” While UNCA has no shortage of problems with structural racism and a lack of diversity, this particularly open variety was somewhat new.
Given where it was found, there was some speculation that the whole thing might be a student prank, an attempt to troll local leftists or even a school project gone wrong. Maybe a flier was all it was.
But the line between prank and actual organizing isn’t so clear, and the former often provides a convenient cover for the latter. Over the last half-decade, anti-racist and queer activists who monitored bigotry were practically screaming that Nazis and similar groups, especially those that eventually tried to brand themselves the “alt right,” were using trolling subcultures and forums to organize and try to make racism (even more) popularly acceptable.
Overwhelmingly, most mainstream media said people should ignore this, dismissed the activists who warned about it and well, here we are. So “don’t feed the trolls” attracts a bit more skepticism than it once did.
College campuses are also a major focus for these hate groups, one reason why the events in Charlottesville centered around the University of Virginia. WNC is not immune: on Aug. 21, some local members of Identity Evropa, one of the main white supremacist groups involved in the Charlottesville violence, hung a banner from a bridge at Appalachian State University. While it was quickly removed, it was one more reminder that the mountains aren’t — and never have been — immune from these evils.
The consensus breaks
The tensions weren’t just on campus either. Ashevillians overall lean well to the left, but the racist far-right has plenty of presence in the area too. This is, after all, a notoriously segregated town and while a lot of the forces that keep it that way don’t operate so blatantly, some do. The left-leaning city and the nearby far-right occasionally collide. At a 2015 May Day rally, a man bearing the sign of the National Youth Front, a white supremacist group, showed up (and quickly retreated after being confronted by anti-fascist protesters and losing a brief scuffle).
When locals showed up to oppose Trump supporters (many of whom, not surprisingly, brandished Confederate flags and other racist symbols) last September, some of them burned one of the flags in defiance of the bigotry of the candidate and his followers.
This also comes as a liberal consensus that, while never unanimous, dominated the way many cities deal with these racists has fractured, something Charlottesville rapidly magnified. This was crystal clear when some clergy, even those who disagreed with anti-fascist militants’ tactics, praised them for saving lives.
Dueling ideas about how to deal with fascists, their speech and organizing aren’t new, but right now the clash between two major ones is playing out in cities just like Asheville, so it’s worth spelling out broadly what those schools of thought believe and why.
First, there’s the liberal consensus, which goes something like this: reprehensible groups still have a right to politically organize and espouse their ideas, even to the point of directly displaying their symbols, having meetings, organizing and marching. The thought goes that any attempt to restrict their speech and organizing will inevitably hurt other dissident groups as well, and that peaceful protest and allowing them to have their say will inevitably lead to these group’s marginalization.
This approach is exemplified by the 1977 Skokie, Ill. case, where Nazi groups sought to march through a primarily Jewish town, especially through neighborhoods with Holocaust survivors. The local government tried to block them from displaying Nazi symbols but the ACLU intervened, asserting that the Nazis’ rights were being violated. While the Nazis didn’t end up carrying that march, it established more legal space for their ilk to organize and grow. The liberal belief was that revealing these groups by giving them a platform, countering them through peaceful protest and having the official authorities deal with their more violent actions they would be kept from political power while respecting civil liberties.
This school of thought certainly has defenders still, throughout the mainstream media, in local government, even among some activists. However, it’s on a lot shakier ground than before.
That’s because so far it’s failed to stop a very real rise in far-right violence. We have a president whose appeal is based on white supremacist views, who the usual checks and balances utterly didn’t halt from gaining immense power. White supremacists have infiltrated law enforcement and government practically unchecked, worsening already massive problems. Rather than disinfecting them, there’s a good argument the ACLU approach just gave Nazis and the KKK the soil to organize and grow. In a time of escalating violence, marginalized communities receive not serious help and protection but lectures about how they need to be nicer and more understanding of the people hating them.
In reply, the defenders of the liberal consensus have largely responded to these realities not by adaptation or acknowledgement, but by telling people to stick with it anyway. In the wake of that gap with reality, a political creed will rapidly break.
The other view
Importantly, that view isn’t the only tradition out there. Those willing to fight back forcefully against fascism have as long a history as their enemies. The 1936 Battle of Cable Street saw leftists in the U.K. check the power of the British fascist movement by blocking a major march, rapidly hastening its decline. In 1945, Karl Popper articulated the paradox that to survive, a tolerant society must stop intolerant groups and movements or be overwhelmed by them. The fact he did so in the same year Hitler’s armies finally collapsed and leftist partisans executed the original fascist despot is not a coincidence.
From this view, the liberal attitude is stunningly naive: there’s no clean division between supposedly harmless, “pure” speech and the organizing that enables racist violence. Displays of Confederate and Nazi banners are a threat because they’re both clearly intended to intimidate others due to the groups’ violent history and because any public acceptance of the ideologies behind them or the people wielding them furthers a political project that can only end in the deaths and subjugation of millions.
This argument looks back at things like the Skokie decision and goes “yeah, sunlight failed. You didn’t forcefully stop them and that’s allowed the far-right to grow. The Holocaust survivors were right: fascist movements are either crushed early or they become a danger to millions. Bigots have no right to speak or organize to further that end.”
No need for a slippery slope, this argument goes: our society’s proven itself perfectly capable of giving leeway to Nazis and the KKK while restricting left-wing organizing and speech. They point to the fact that far-right violence claims far more lives than any other terrorist movement in the U.S. while receiving the least government response, or that civil rights movements from Selma to Ferguson have been met with officially-sanctioned repression every step of the way.
They can also point to plenty of recent cases where law enforcement or governments have cracked down on leftist and anti-racist protests through selective enforcement and retaliation. Indeed, that happened in Asheville last year and our progressive Council didn’t seriously oppose it.
This strain of thought has its own role in American history too. The collapse of Reconstruction and the racist violence that ensued was partly enabled by the leeway given to “redemption” groups to organize, despite the fact they were clearly working hand-in-hand with the KKK and other terrorists. Indeed, despite the mythology that’s grown up around it, even the non-violent parts of the civil rights movement, for example, also involved a complicated back-and-forth over the use of force, especially in self-defense and in relation to political protest. In plenty of cases, non-violent protest groups like SNCC were protected by, and cooperated with, armed groups like the Deacons for Defense and Justice. As former SNCC organizer and journalist Charles Cobb elaborated at book length, this drew upon a tradition of forceful self-defense going back to before the Civil War, one that intertwined — not always comfortably — with a tradition of protest and civic engagement.
Then there’s antifascist militants, or antifa, a strain of this resistance on whom so much invective has recently been spilled that you’d think they were the ones that killed people in Charlottesville rather than, well, the fascists they were fighting. Antifa are a broadly leftist subculture with roots in the punk, anarchist and socialist communities dedicated to directly confronting fascists.
The vast majority of antifa activities are non-violent — monitoring hate groups, trying to use public pressure to get blatant racists fired, showing up to deter a far-right rally by sheer numbers before it turns violent — but they do fight, on the argument that force is justified self-defense against fascists to prevent them from carrying out further violence.
Importantly — and this can’t be emphasized enough — antifa’s a subculture, not a single group or coalition. Tactics and approaches vary widely from place to place and incident to incident. That adds a further wrinkle: people who may counter the liberal consensus, who may approve of the “it’s important to stop fascists early” argument generally — or even antifa specifically — may end up utterly disagreeing with a particular action at a particular time. The debates over how antifa should coordinate with other anti-racism groups are old and lasting, and those divisions too can shift rapidly depending on circumstances on the ground.
For many years, the “don’t tolerate the intolerant” school of thought didn’t get as much mainstream traction as the liberal consensus. Antifa was largely regarded as political fringe, though it ended up organizing in some surprising places where locals were under direct threat from fascist groups. The history of the civil rights movement was popularly portrayed as purely non-violent (breaking this myth was one reason Cobb decided to write his book). But that’s changed recently, especially in left-leaning cities. That’s put this debate on a collision course with the liberal consensus that, despite its decline, still has a fair amount of pull.
It’s also left that consensus a lot weaker than it was. Notably, the video of fascist leader Richard Spencer getting decked in the face by an antifa marcher in D.C. this January drew not finger-wagging condemnation but widespread, enthusiastic approval from plenty of left-of-center locals who’d also just come from the massive and more mainstream women’s march protests.
More recently some established groups have defended and thanked antifa for deterring fascist violence from Charlottesville to the Bay Area, even when they note that they will continue to push for non-violence as their preferred tactic. Indeed, it is beyond doubt that the actions of antifa saved lives in Charlottesville when police and the local government had largely failed to stop white supremacists from running violently through the streets.
At the same time a new wave of condemnation from liberal government officials and pundits has targeted them or even claimed they’re equivalent to the people they’re fighting (which is absurd whatever particular tactics one endorses).
Asheville, with a dominant (but not quite like it used to be) liberal political culture, plenty of grassroots leftist activism often fed up with that culture, and nearby far-right groups, is ripe for these differences to play out.
Indeed, these multi-faceted divisions were on display in the wake of Charlottesville. At a vigil in Asheville the next day, there were serious arguments over some activists chanting “cops and Klan go hand in hand.” At its next meeting, Asheville City Council passed a resolution condemning the white supremacist groups and violence there and calling for peace. But Nicole Townsend, one activist arrested attempting to remove the Lee plaque, called it lip service, asserting that “good intentions and liberalism are both modern-day nooses, except their victims don’t hang from trees.” The city needed to not just remove the monuments, she said, but seriously work to identify and stop local white supremacists.
How best to do that also remains a major question, one that plenty of activists who reject the liberal consensus have differing views on as well. That’s the context the flier showed up in.
Conflict and fog
Following these debates is far different from a Council debate, with clearly-delineated speakers and arguments. The discussions relayed in this piece are the summary of dozens of social media threads and interactions I witnessed, ranging from those involving long-time local activists to Ashevillians who just became more aware of these topics recently.
The discussions kept revolving around a few key points. By their nature, judging the scope and severity of given efforts by hate groups and their sympathizers isn’t easy. “Test the waters” tactics are extremely common among groups like Nazis and the KKK, to the point that “the KKK calls a rally and never shows up” is a running trope.
The idea behind that particular hate group tactic goes something like this: a hate group (or more often, just a smaller group that sympathizes with it) calls for a rally, either through online channels or hastily put-out fliers or other media. If anti-racist protesters show up in force, leave (these are cowards, after all). If they don’t, escalate and intimidate.
After all it’s not like there’s an Official Office of Fascists to go “oh yes, that’s one of ours, that’s a rally we’re actually planning in pursuit of our goals of eventually exterminating most of you, that other one’s just a prank.” The racist right is plenty splintered in its own way, and a lot of its recruiting intentionally takes place behind the scenes. As a matter of fact, some of its main figures have specifically pushed to take a quieter approach post-Charlottesville.
Part of this is because the vast majority of what even the most militant anti-fascist activists do is largely research, and it’s not uncommon for such efforts to get Nazi and KKK types outed and fired from their jobs.
As pictures of the flier were repeatedly shared and discussed debates, some of them vehement, ramped up. Was the flier real? What was the intent? Should locals show up or ignore it? How should they respond? What was the level of danger? The context described above shaped all of these. Some said that no real attempt at a far-right rally was behind the flier, and that locals were better off staying home and not taking the bait.
But in the end, enough locals decided that it was worth showing up, reasoning that if no one touting battle flags did, if a flier did turn out to be the end of it, an anti-racist demonstration in the middle of the Labor Day weekend was a good idea anyway.
From their end, the rationale went: if violent racists do end up showing up, a lot of people are at risk. Even if it’s just 10 or 15, they’ll be emboldened, any one of the many groups they target will be at risk, and next time they’ll show up in more numbers and pose an even greater danger.
Observers and anti-racist protesters, some from existing groups, some individuals, gathered around 6 p.m. Sept. 2 and more steadily moved in as the next three hours wore on. At the height of the protest, about 50 people. Some held “Love Trumps Hate” signs, others had messages like “no quarter for Nazis,” “Resist Fascism” and “Fuck the KKK.” Clergy wore “Stand Against Racism” pins from the YWCA, other protesters had bandanas with the antifa symbol. A group of anti-racist pagans brandished a “heathens against hate” poster and held Viking-style shields with messages against bigotry on them.
Police presence wasn’t massive but was definitely there, with about three to five officers in plain view throughout the demonstration.
At around 7:30 p.m., a man in a World War I-style German army cap showed up across the street and loudly shouted “go to hell” at the anti-racist protesters before storming off. Shortly after, several people told the protesters that they’d seen “several” people walking around with Confederate flags. A white SUV with no license plate repeatedly circled the area (driven by one Justin Scott Ryan, 22, of Canton, according to a later APD citation for failure to register the vehicle).
Later, pictures on social media showed the flag-bearers, especially two who were lingering nearby the monument but never directly approached it.
According to the APD’s account, “officers spoke with two individuals – one holding a confederate flag and one holding a Gadsden flag. Although we respect their right to practice their first amendment rights, we were concerned about one of the flags being mounted to a metal fence post. We requested that they put the flag mounted on the fence post back in their vehicle. The individuals complied with no incident and both left the area.”
These two, specifically
I never saw those two directly approach the protesters themselves or cross the street. But around 7:40 one of the police officers came over and talked to one of the ministers briefly. The minister got up and declared that a group with Confederate flags was coming by, that those with the flags had a right to display them (there were scattered boos and hisses from some of the protesters at that statement) and that the police had instructed them to stay on the other side of the street and keep the demonstration peaceful. Periodically throughout the protests, APD officers did ask some of the anti-racism demonstrators to pull down their bandana masks.
A few minutes later, this truck, with at least one of the racists in question, it sped by. The people inside it shouted at the protesters and were met with replies of “you lost, get over it” and, later, a chant of “love trumps hate.”
About 10 minutes later a man on a motorcycle sped by, extending his arm in a Nazi salute and shouting “white power.” Shortly after that two Trump supporters (they declared themselves as such), showed up and started to voice some disagreements directly to the protesters. After some brief discussion, they left. As the sky started to darken another truck went by — its occupants shouting at the protesters — brandishing a thin blue line flag. That banner has been embraced by some fascists, especially post-Charlottesville, as an alternative to their more widely-recognized symbols.
In the week after, as I delved into more details about what had happened, I asked the APD why they’d decided to tell some of the protesters to stop wearing masks. The statute they invoked to do so is pretty broad, and interpreted strictly would also seem to ban Halloween or cyclists wearing face coverings in winter. Notably, masked protesters aren’t new in Asheville and I’ve almost never seen one told to take theirs off by the police before. So why enforce it at this particular protest?
Rather than answer that question, spokesperson Christina Hallingse instead replied that the APD “has been and will continue enforcing this law. If an event has an organizer we reach out to them before hand to educate them on the law in order to allow them the opportunity to comply. If we see people wearing masks/hoods during events we approach them and ask them to remove it and explain the law to them.”
Throughout the protest was peaceful, and the ire directed at those brandishing racist symbols was verbal. Passerby were overwhelmingly supportive and overall the mood was even nearly celebratory at some points.
Did it avert a (small) potential rally by white supremacists? Yes, I believe it did. Take this with whatever share of salt you will. As I detailed above sussing out exactly what happened at events like this is tricky.
But in the midst of it and analyzing the evidence afterwards, this has the hallmarks of an attempt — albeit a haphazard one — by some of the racist far-right to rally downtown, averted by the number of anti-racist protesters there. People showing up with a variety of blatant far-right symbols — both those used by fascists and by groups like the KKK — in a fairly short span of time points pretty heavily in that direction, as does the SUV without tags coming all the way from Canton (something that takes time and intent) and the Confederate flag waver putting it on a metal post.
Indeed, the next Monday offered an example that racist intimidation was alive and well. Greeted by a row of trucks with Confederate flags in the gathering ground for the Canton Labor Day parade, local NAACP President Carmen Ramos-Kennedy left in protest (Canton’s mayor later condemned the display and noted the flags wouldn’t be allowed in future parades).
So these battles aren’t going anywhere. Segregationist monuments are flashpoints because they tap into a whole structure of bigotry that these groups are particularly blatant about wanting to brutally reinforce or restore. As more than one racial justice activist pointed out in the discussions before and after the protest, they and their defenders are one of the more extreme manifestations of racism that also extends into who can live in what neighborhood, who can get a job, who occupies positions of power both within government and without.
Indeed, the monument at this center of this incident offers a stark lesson. Vance’s white supremacist regime paired both violent KKK terrorism with damage — often just as lethal — enacted through more quiet and official channels. They were not separable; each one fed off the power of the other.
To finally defeat that legacy anti-racist movements have to confront both. It is not a new struggle, and this is not the last time we will see it — in ways large and small — in the center of our city.