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Did Charlottesville Violence Shift How White Supremacists Operate?


The violence in Charlottesville and the president's response to it has many people wondering if the lines are shifting for what is tolerated in the public sphere. Consider this chant from torch carrying white supremacists who marched on the University of Virginia's campus.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) You will not replace us.

MARTIN: They went on to chant, Jews will not replace us, and the Nazi-era slogan, blood and soil. UVA presidential studies professor and author Nicole Hemmer was there. She tracks right-wing groups. And she joins us this morning via Skype. Professor Hemmer, thanks for being with us.

NICOLE HEMMER: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: You were there during the protests on Saturday. I mean, how did you see them? The president said there were good people on both sides. Did you see any people who could have just been caught in these protests by happenstance?

HEMMER: Well, the people who were down in Charlottesville were - who came on behalf of the white nationalists were not good people. I mean, these were people who came to hear speakers who represent both the alt-right and neo-Nazi groups. So the things that had drawn people to that rally - people who wanted to participate in that rally - were coming there to celebrate white nationalism. There were certainly people down in the park and on the mall who were there to kind of see what was happening. But there were also counter-protesters, as well. And I think among the counter-protesters, there were plenty of good people but not among the white nationalists who were gathering there.

MARTIN: I want to play a clip from this VICE News documentary that's been circulating. It's really powerful. This is - a reporter was embedded with members of the alt-right during the Charlottesville rally. And the reporter interviewed a neo-Nazi - self-described neo-Nazi, Daily Stormer website writer - his name is Robert Ray. This is what he said.


ROBERT RAY: I believe, as you can see, we are stepping off the internet in a big way. For instance, last night at the torch walk, there were hundreds and hundreds of us. People realize they're not atomized individuals. They're part of a larger whole because we have been spreading our memes. We've been organizing on the internet. And so now they're coming out.

MARTIN: Do you agree with that? I mean, you've been tracking these groups for a long time?

HEMMER: I do agree with that. I think that he is describing what is really the new media strategy for white nationalists and the alt-right. Prior to the election, they were largely online. And they were gathering media attention as online activists. And they've changed that strategy. Now they're moving out into the world having these physical gatherings in order to both generate media attention but also looking for confrontation. It's a way of amplifying their message.

MARTIN: And clearly, it's about a recruitment strategy, as well.

HEMMER: Absolutely. I mean, they still do quite a lot of recruiting online. But a very visible rally like this in which you can see hundreds of people and see the kinds of activities they are engaged in - that will draw new recruits.

MARTIN: The president this morning has weighed in on Twitter saying that he did not draw a moral equivalency between members of the alt-right and what he described as members of the alt-left, which were the counter-protesters, the anti-hate protesters. But the fact of the matter remains that the president's messaging on all this has been mixed. And in the first day and the subsequent days, he did not name the KKK or Neo-Nazis - did not call those names - those groups out specifically. Do you think leaders of these racist groups have felt emboldened by President Trump?

HEMMER: They absolutely have. And they've been quite open about that. And I think that in particular his messaging on Charlottesville has been very important for them. There was a real sense among the alt-right that in talking about Charlottesville the media had covered it unfairly, that the left was the real source of violence. And President Trump's initial statement and then again his statements at his press conference a few days ago really fit right into that view. Both - his both sides language and his attacks on the media.

MARTIN: There's a rally planned in Boston on Saturday, I understand. It's being called a free speech rally. The organizer met with Boston officials yesterday. They say it's not affiliated with the same organizations behind last weekend's rally in Charlottesville. But what would you say to Boston residents based on what you saw in Charlottesville?

HEMMER: I would say to be prepared for violence and to know that that's what you're getting into because these events are about intimidation and confrontation and people just need to be aware that violence is a high possibility.

MARTIN: Nicole Hemmer - she's the author of "Messages Of The Right" and a professor at UVA. She joined us via Skype. Thanks so much.

HEMMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.