‘I saw the bodies of my fellow protesters – the brave, smiling, resolute comrades…fly through the air like shrapnel’.
Public outrage in the wake of a white supremacist rally turned deadly in Charlottesville, Virginia, has left far-right groups facing a wave of cancellations across the United States as they plan their next moves.
Security concerns have prompted at several universities to block alt-right events, while cities across the country are reconsidering rally permits.
With students, faculty and community members organising for protests and marches, the University of Florida (UF) and Texas A&M University both blocked speaking events for Richard Spencer, a leader in the alt-right movement, a loose coalition of neo-Nazi, far-right and white supremacist groups.
Most recently, Louisiana State University president F King Alexander, citing safety concerns, told New Orleans newspaper The Advocate that Spencer, whose representatives had been requesting a campus visit, is “not welcome”.
“The likelihood of violence and potential injury – not the words or ideas – has caused us to take this action,” W Kent Fuchs, president of UF, said in a statement, alluding to promises by alt-right groups to turn Florida into the next “battleground” after Charlottesville.
The move came just two days after Texas A&M announced the cancellation of a “White Lives Matter” rally scheduled for September 11, and as several cities across the US are reconsidering permits for far-right events.
Mitch Emerson, a community organiser from Orlando, Florida, had been planning a protest to oppose Spencer’s speech at UF before the alt-right event was denied a permit.
“Richard Spencer isn’t advocating different ideas,” Emerson told Al Jazeera. “He’s saying that white people have to join together and rid this country of non-European heritage. That is an inherently violent statement…It’s meant to incite violence.”
The news first broke that Spencer’s think-tank, the National Policy Institute (NPI), had applied for a permit to hold an event at UF on the same weekend as the “Unite the Right” rally. The NPI has said it plans to sue the university.
Unite the Right, the largest white supremacist rally in the country’s recent history, was called to protest the city’s decision to remove a Confederate statue.
On August 11, the night before Unite the Right, hundreds of far-right marchers flooded the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville. They marched with lit torches and chanted “white lives matter”.
Others screamed: “Jews will not replace us.”
The following day, hordes of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members descended on Charlottesville and clashed with community members, anti-racist activists and anti-fascists. Spencer was one of the keynote speakers at the rally.
By the end of the day, 20-year-old James Alex Fields, a resident of Ohio, was charged with second-degree murder and a swath of other charges after he allegedly ploughed his car into a crowd of anti-racist marchers, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 people.
Fields had been photographed marching with Vanguard America, a self-described fascist organisation that advocates a white ethnostate, earlier in the day.
Angela Nagle, author of Kill All Normies, a book about far-right online subcultures and the rise of the alt-right, said Heyer’s killing and the violence in Charlottesville have firmly positioned public opinion against the alt-right and its allies.
“Charlottesville has backfired hugely for them because, after stripping away all the parts of their milieu that had softened their image and isolating themselves from the rest of the right, the armed militiamen and swastika-tattooed attendees started to appear for all to see,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The nature of the tragic death of Heather Meyer also reminded the public of ISIL-style car attacks and reintroduced the spectre of the right-wing domestic terrorism America experienced in the past,” Nagle added, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) armed group.
A “White Lives Matter” rally at Texas A&M, located in College Station, was cancelled after public uproar and promises of counter-protests.
On the same day as the Charlottesville violence, white supremacist activist Preston Wiginton announced the rally for September 11. He said in a statement at the time: “Today Charlottesville, tomorrow Texas A&M.”
In addition to Spencer, other speakers included Ken Reed, an organiser with the neo-Nazi-linked White Lives Matter group, and Sacco Vandal, a white supremacist radio host.
Texas A&M announced the cancellation in a statement on August 14, explaining that the event created “concerns about the safety of… students, faculty and the public”.
Wiginton has vowed to take the case to court and hold a rally at or near the university campus. Community members, students and anti-racist activists are preparing to hold counter-protests if the rally is reinstated.
Elsewhere, far-right rallies and speaking events remain shrouded in uncertainty.
Spencer’s NPI has also applied for an event permit at Michigan State University. Describing the violence in Charlottesville as “deplorable”, the university administration has said it is reviewing the request and had not made a decision, a Detroit-affiliate of ABC reported.
In San Francisco, California, the city is reconsidering a permit for an August 26 rally by Patriot Prayer, a group that has held joint protests in Portland and Seattle with white supremacist organisations.
In Boston, a free speech rally slated for Saturday has been widely criticised by local officials, including Mayor Marty Walsh.
“We don’t need this type of hate,” said Walsh, as reported by local media. “So my message is clear to this group. We don’t want you in Boston. We don’t want you on Boston Common. We don’t want you spewing the hate that we saw yesterday, and the loss of life.”
Speakers drop out
The group organising the Boston event said on Facebook that the rally would take place, but a string of speakers have pulled out or been dropped.
The Boston Globe reported on Monday that the event’s organisers cancelled a speech by Augustus Sol Invictus. Formerly a Libertarian, he announced his second bid for US Senate – this time as a Republican – after the Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally.
Invictus, a Holocaust denier who is most famous for claiming he drank goat blood as a sacrifice, was reportedly cancelled because concerns over his participation in Unite the Right and his rhetoric, including comments he made calling for another civil war in the US.
Cassandra Fairbanks, a far-right online personality, announced her cancellation on Twitter, citing unspecified threats.
Gavin McInnes, a host at the far-right Rebel Media news outlet, announced that he would not be attending the Boston rally either.
McInnes is the founder of the Proud Boys, a self-described “Western chauvinist” group that engages in street fights with anti-fascists. His group is often classified as part of the “alt-light”, a swath of pro-Trump and nationalist groups that eschew the open racism of the alt-right.
Speaking to Boston Herald Radio, McInnes accused Mayor Walsh of putting speakers and attendees in harm’s way by unfairly associating his group with the type of white supremacist and neo-Nazi organisations that emerged in Charlottesville.
“He is going to let a riot happen and tell the police to stand down. I can tell the mayor is going to make sure we are endangered…it is a common political tactic,” he said.
Activists and community members have organised a handful of counter-demonstrations in Boston.
US President Donald Trump’s condemnation of far-right groups after the Charlottesville violence was reserved, and many of those white supremacist factions openly lauded the president dubbing anti-racist protesters the “alt-left”. Even so, since public perception of the alt-right has been hugely impacted.
Before last weekend, the alt-right was largely able to deflect accusations of violent intent with claims of tongue-in-cheek irony and hyperbole, Nagle said.
“The footage emerging from the march – as well as the details that have emerged about its attendees – shows that this movement has now stripped away all other elements and is simply the far right,” she said, “whose goal is a white ethnostate… which would necessitate war and possibly genocidal violence.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_