Although we didn’t know it at the time, the incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 12, 2017 would soon develop into a narrative for the left to repeat and then recycle in the summer riots of 2020 and eventually the events at the U.S. Capitol in January 2021. Anne Wilson Smith unpacks this narrative in her recent book, Charlottesville Untold, providing needed historical details for those exploring the broader implications of what transpired that fateful day.

Smith writes as someone from within the right. As a result, she does not deal with leftist demonstrators as empathetically as she does the protest participants from Unite the Right, along with their organizer Jason Kessler. But this book is of high value because it underscores the growing sense of being overwhelmed by events that Unite the Right leaders experienced. Smith puts their experience of helplessness into relief since her book includes interviews with her subjects and statements they made while the protest was unfolding.

Kessler, a recent graduate of the University of Virginia, was stirred into action by the plan of leftist city officials, including Mayor Mike Signer and vice-mayor Wes Bellamy, to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from downtown Charlottesville. The city council, particularly its black members, had been pushing this action, and it seemed only a matter of time before Lee’s equestrian statue would come down from where it had stood majestically since 1924, a deed which finally happened on July 10, 2021. Kessler petitioned the city council for the right to assemble with likeminded comrades in a central location to protest the statue’s removal. Initially he enjoyed the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, which later withdrew its assistance for explicitly ideological reasons.  

Kessler’s petition explained that he had been born in Charlottesville and was descended from Confederate veterans. His request was granted after numerous delays, and the demonstration took place as a Unite the Right rally, which, to complicate matters, also attracted vocal white nationalists and neo-Nazis. The rally became mixed with a Ku Klux Klan gathering that took place nearby, whose members hoped to use the Unite the Right demonstration for their own ends.

Network news treatment of Kessler as a “white nationalist” or “Nazi,” as Smith points out, was a shameful smear. But once Kessler announced in an interview with Katie Couric that his defense of the statue was a defense of “Western Civilization and European peoples” whose history “is being torn down,” leftist attacks were bound to follow.

My own interest is less in defending Kessler’s position (which may be a justified reaction to the antiwhite, Talibanesque left) or the unpleasant allies that he attracted than in noting the uses to which the organized left and its political and media allies turned the demonstration. Leftist activists—more numerous than their opponents—prevented Unite the Right demonstrators from entering Lee Park, despite their permit. Armed Antifa, Antiracist Action, and other leftist activist groups applied physical force to keep their right-wing enemies from carrying out what was truly intended as a peaceful protest;  The police who were on hand made no attempt to separate the demonstrators and counterdemonstrators—they were clearly ordered to stand down as the inevitable clashes broke out.

Most of the initial violence came from the leftists, the 2017 Heaphy Report, commissioned by the city of Charlottesville, explains. Yet the media blatantly lied about the peacefulness of the militant left and focused on the killing of a leftist activist by a supposed demonstrator, James Alex Fields, who ran his car into his victim. Fields was a diagnosed schizophrenic and was properly prosecuted with second-degree murder. But his victim, Heather Heyer, was a left-wing activist, not a detached bystander, and she was part of the militant counterdemonstration. Nor did Fields, a loner who wandered in from Maumee, Ohio, belong to the group organized by Kessler.

The media also distorted remarks made by those on the right about the incident. Donald Trump’s comments were twisted by Jake Tapper of CNN to mean that the president was referring to neo-Nazis as “very fine people.” Although this distortion was later exposed, I am still hearing people repeat the falsehood that Trump praised Nazis after the Charlottesville incident. Trump was saying something perfectly anodyne, namely that those who were demonstrating for or against the statue included decent people.

The sound and fury in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017 provided the left with a dress rehearsal for bigger confrontations, e.g., the summer of violent protests following the death of George Floyd and the depiction of the January 2021 Capitol break-in as an aborted “white supremacist” insurrection. Like the received explanation of what happened in Charlottesville, the media emphasized in these other cases the need to act decisively against those alleged white supremacists who were creating turmoil.

In the summer of “peaceful protests,” the left supposedly rose up spontaneously to strike back at “systemic racism.” According to the mainstream media and prominent Democrats, reports about organized leftist violence were entirely false. Because Antifa, we are assured, does not exist except as scattered groups of antiracist activists who were driven into action by the murderous right, they could not have wrought the havoc ascribed to them. The Jan. 6 incident was cited as further proof of right-wing mischief, and the leftists, who came to protest in Charlottesville against a white racist gathering, were allegedly just trying to forestall the horrors such as those that later occurred at the Capitol.  

Smith’s quotations from Kessler, Michael Hill of the League of the South, and other Unite the Right protesters confirm my impression that these people discovered they had walked into a trap. The lack of police protection, the presence of left activists carrying clubs, flamethrowers, and other menacing weapons as they approached Lee Park, and the one-sidedness with which the media reported what happened, all indicate that Unite the Right made a self-destructive move that the left would take advantage of in the years to come.