by Ray Collins, Virginia Writers Club

Unite the Right Rally

Charlottesville, Virginia was host to a rally August 11-12, 2017 that engulfed this historic city in controversy and violence, including three fatalities and numerous other injuries. Noteworthy among the event’s organizers were Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler, Christopher Cantwell, and Matthew Heimbach—each of whom was held responsible for punitive damages totaling $2,800,000 in the trial held four years later. The largest award was against James Fields, who drove a Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protestors, judged guilty of killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and imprisoned with multiple life sentences.

The rally brought together white supremacists from across the nation, variously described as the alt-right (alternative right), far-right, white nationalists, Klan members, neo-Nazis, neo-fascists, and right-wing militias. With a focus on attacks on Blacks and Jewish people, the demonstrators wore, carried signs, and chanted messages that echoed far-right, anti-Semitic (“You will not replace us”), and Nazi (“Sieg Heil”) themes.

In a statement following the rally, then President Donald Trump referred to “very fine people on both sides.” His remarks drew criticism for implying moral equivalence between white supremacists who advocated and practiced violence and counter-protestors who stood against prejudice and racial bigotry.

White Supremacists Emerge as a Major Menace

Within three years after the Unite the Right rally, the role of the far-right was identified as the most serious domestic terrorist threat, surpassing that posed by US citizens and residents inspired by ISIS or other foreign entities. One month prior to the 2020 presidential election, the Department of Homeland Security reported: “Ideologically motivated lone offenders and small groups pose the most likely terrorist threat to the Homeland, with Domestic Violent Extremists presenting the most persistent and lethal threat.” Among that group, “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists—specifically white supremacist extremists—will remain the most persistent and lethal threat to the Homeland.”

While the influence of Richard Spencer and a few early leaders of the alt-right movement declined, others took their place on the national level. More importantly, local militias mushroomed throughout the United States. Noteworthy are the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys who recruited former police, members of the military, and others familiar with armed conflict.

The January 6 Insurrection

Amid controversy surrounding the 2020 presidential election, the Congress met January 6 to formally decide the election outcome. While the Congress was convening, President Trump was speaking at a rally near the White House. At 1:10 pm, the President concluded his remarks with the following exhortation to the crowd: “We fight. We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore. So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.” In fact, the President did not accompany those who proceeded to the Capitol; he went instead to the White House dining room where he followed the day’s events on TV.

By 2:11 pm, rioters broke into the Capitol. The violence of the Unite the Right rally, smoldering for nearly three and a half years, exploded in the assault on the Capitol by over 2,000 supporters of President Donald Trump. 

Seven people died as a result of the attack. Ashley Babbitt, a female demonstrator leading the mob breaking into the House of Representatives, was fatally shot by Capitol Police Lieutenant Michael Byrd, who was trying to protect Members of Congress and staffers. An estimated 140 Capitol Police officers were injured during the aggression.

Gallows were built west of the Capitol. Rioters chanted “Hang Mike Pence.” The Secret Service escorted the Vice President to safety. 

Although the focus of the violence was the Capitol, other areas of Washington, DC were also threatened. Pipe bombs were found in buildings housing the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee.

Appeals for help from the National Guard by the Capitol Police were ignored by the President and the Pentagon. After 4:00 pm, the Secretary of Defense approved deployment of the Guard who began arriving at 5:40 pm.

Shortly before 6:00 pm, the Capitol was cleared. After four hours, the insurrection was stopped. The Capitol suffered its greatest damage since the arson by British troops in 1814.

Despite pressure from elements within his own political party, Vice President Mike Pence certified the election. Joe Biden was elected the 46th President, to be inaugurated on January 20, 2021.

House Investigation of January 6

After efforts failed to form an independent bipartisan commission on the insurrection, the House voted to establish a select committee to investigate the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The committee is composed of nine members of the House of Representatives—seven Democrats and two Republicans (Liz Cheney from Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger from Illinois). The Committee report is due in Fall 2022, with an interim report expected Summer 2022.

The Republican National Committee voted to censure Cheney and Kinzinger on February 4, 2022, highlighting the lack of bipartisan support for the investigation.

What’s Happening to the Rioters?

More than a year after the January 6 insurrection, over 700 people have been arrested based on their role that day. This includes persons charged with obstructing Congress’s duty to certify the election, attacking or interfering with the police, and petty crimes (trespassing and disorderly conduct). While members of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys have been prominent among those charged with the most serious crimes, most defendants were not affiliated with organized white supremacist groups. The common denominator of those arrested was a belief in the Big Lie that the Presidential election of November 2020 was stolen. The mob was composed of true believers who sought to stop the Congress from certifying the election results.

No Evidence to Support the Big Lie

Investigations at the state level have uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud. State and Federal judges, including those appointed by President Trump, have consistently ruled against the Big Lie. The US Supreme Court has blocked Republican-led legal efforts to overturn results of the 2020 election.

Reality is Joe Biden won 306 Electoral College votes, Donald Trump won 232. That was the foundation, based on the US Constitution, for Vice President Mike Pence certifying the election, despite the chaos caused by insurrectionists on January 6.