CHARLOTTESVILLE, Vir. – It began with online organizing among nationalist groups to protest the removal of a Confederate statue from a local park. It ended with street battles, three people dead, and an unknown number injured.
While most Pagans watched the events on the news or through live streams, there were Pagans and Heathens present at the weekend riots.They were protesters who lined the streets around the park, and they also participated in the Unite the Right rally as members of the self-described “alt-right.” And one well-known Pagan even helped organize the rally and was scheduled to speak.
Augustus Invictus, who ran for U.S. Senate in 2015, was scheduled to speak at the rally. Mr. Invictus has been criticized in the past for seeming to openly advocate violence, eugenics, and for participating in animal sacrifice.
Although the planned rally itself was shut down before anyone could speak, Invictus claimed the event was a success.
Invictus and the other rally organizers say the purpose of the event had less to do with protesting the removal of a statue from a park and more to do with uniting various nationalist groups.
The Southern Poverty Law Center says normally groups such as 14/88, Traditionalist Workers Party, the National Socialist Movement, the KKK, Aryan Nation, and the League of the South are more apt to fight each other than to work together.
That changed with Unite the Right. The groups came together for the rally, and Invictus says the violence that they claim to have experienced as being directed toward them has united these rivals against a common enemy.
History teacher and adjunct professor Ryan Denison agrees with the SPLC that the goal was to bring these groups together. In an interview, Denison told The Wild Hunt, “[The organizers] definitely wanted to unite far-right groups that usually don’t mix or, at worse, fight each other. That was their stated goal. It also seems to be to create conflict and chaos in order to recruit.”
Denison, who is a member of the Troth, Heathens of Atlanta, and Red Earth Grove ADF, believes they chose Charlottesville because the rally leaders believe that the South is an area more sympathetic to their message than other regions.
However, Lonnie Murray, a Pagan elected official who works in Charlottesville, told The Wild Hunt that Charlottesville is not a typical southern city.
Murray says, “We have a long history of progressive politics; however, like many Southern cities we still haven’t fully come to terms with the lingering consequences of slavery and segregation.”
Pagan Jennifer Lewis heard about the rally through social media and local television coverage. Lewis works in Charlottesville caring for persons with mental illness.
She decided to attend the rally as a protester because she “wanted to show [her] opposition to everything [the rallying groups] stand for.”
Lewis says, “I am an activist for the protection of our environment, women’s reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights. There was no way I was not going to go and stand up against them targeting my friends, neighbors and loved ones.”
She believes the “alt-right” are a tiny segment of the population and believes it is important to show how little influence they have.
Freda Wood, a Wiccan from Richmond, says that she has become more politically active recently. She heard about the rally through a YouTube channel, and decided to attend the protest in order to “stand up for what’s right.”
Wood says the gods don’t discriminate and people shouldn’t either.
On the other side, Kevin C is a Heathen from southern New England who attended the rally as security for an “alt-right video crew.” He is also a member of the Traditionalist Workers Party and says it’s “great that Pagans and Heathens are supporting their people and traditions” through involvement in Unite the Right.
Rachel Summers, a Teutonic Heathen, traveled from Atlanta to participate in Unite the Right as a medic. She believes white history and culture are “being erased due to false crimes and an implanted but unearned white guilt.”
While they had different reasons for attending and were on different sides, the four people interviewed all agreed on one aspect of the event. They were all critical of the how the police handled the escalating violence.
As was the ACLU of Virginia.
It is not clear who gave the stand down order to police, but Kevin C says police stood right next to people who were being beaten, and they did nothing to intervene.
Lewis says, “I was shocked that the police were behind two barricades and some a block or more away. It was much different from the KKK rally in July where the police had the two sides barricaded from one another. This time, they barricaded us, the two sides, in and [the police] on the outside.”
Police initially set up barricades around the park, where the rally was to take place, to keep the “alt-right” and the protesters separated. However, the rally participants had to walk through the protesters to get into the park.
“As we left the parking garage we could see the road in front of us was blocked by protesters. They were throwing bleach bombs as we walked by,” describes Kevin C.
“Once we got into the park, the police had the entire area around the statue blocked off, so we had to walk all the way around to get to the area where the speakers would talk. While we were walking we were being maced and had things thrown at us.”
Lewis says she witnessed extreme, unprovoked violence from both sides.”I heard unimaginable slurs from the Nazi side, I was chanting Black Lives Matter and a older man got so mad and started yelling at me, calling me a whore and how my dad should have taught me better.”
She also noted that it was hard to tell who was on what side, and it made her suspicious of everyone around her.
“It was like walking into an Orwellian hate minute that lasted several hours,” relates Rachel Summer. She said rocks and other objects were thrown at them by the crowd while they were attempting to walking to the park. She also treated some of her group after they were sprayed with pepper spray.
Freda Wood says she was with protesters marching down Market Street alongside anarchists. “As we got closer to Emancipation Park, we were greeted by a roar and surrounded by heavily armed self-proclaimed militia on both sides of the street. They were stoic, staring straight ahead, holding their rifles. I felt exposed and vulnerable.”
Ms. Wood says she traded insults with rally participants in the park, but felt trapped in by the press of the crowd, so she moved back toward an intersection where she and her group met more rally attendees.
“They barreled through the barricades. There were fist fights. Pepper spray, mace, colored smoke bombs and paint balloons were deployed. The street medics were treating the injured.”
Lewis says it was a sad day for the city of Charlottesville and for America. “It was really difficult to see the various Nazi and white supremacy groups just march down the street and into the park, like they were invading our city.”
It was at this point that police declared the rally an unlawful assembly and shut it down. Then, the police formed a line on one side of the park and pushed the rally participants into the streets.
The two sides, which up until that point had only traded minor blows, were now forced into direct contact with one another. Local police, state troopers, and National Guard stood behind the barricades. That’s when fighting increased and was strung out over several miles surrounding the park.
Kevin C says when the order to clear the park came, he grabbed the person he was assigned to protect and headed out of the park.
“The police blocked the only safe exit out of the park and pushed us into the protesters. We saw 100 to 150 Red Block marching up the street toward us. Luckily I got my person out before the commies arrived.”
Wood, thinking she was now outside of the main action, unexpectedly found herself right back in the middle of it. “Suddenly, someone said ‘look!’ Hundreds of guys in their white polo shirts and khaki pants started walking down the street toward us. They were being paraded between two lines of counter protesters down the street to get them far away from the park.”
Kevin C says he was part of the group that exited with alt-right speaker Richard Spencer. Neither Kevin or Wood knew it, but they were about to confront one another.
Wood remembers that group walking by. “We taunted them. We saw Richard Spencer be rushed through the crowd by his people. He looked disheveled and frightened.”
Summers was with a different group, exiting the park. “We were marched back through hostile protesters for two miles or more and again, no police protection despite our permit. I have the uneasy feeling that the city’s leadership wanted things to escalate.”
Wood describes the scene as a “war zone” and “complete chaos.”
As ProPublica reported, state police and National Guardsmen mostly stood aside and watched as the violence get worse.
Summers looks back at events and is unhappy with the media portrayal of the rally as racist. “Allegations of white supremacy are everywhere, but there were very few people there who explicitly supported that. Most were trying to stop the erasure of history and the infringement on our Constitution and Bill of Rights. This was not about racism.”
Reflecting back, Wood says that she’s profoundly changed by her experiences in Charlottesville, “I have a more determined fierceness now. My state was invaded by terrorists, and attacked one of our tribe, left us with mental scars.”
“I may be extra grouchy or sullen, and I will not apologize for it,” she adds. “You hurt my family. I’m pissed!” She also says she is dealing with survivor’s guilt.
Minority Pagans react
While the events of the day deeply impacted those Pagans who live in the city and who attended the rally and protest, many other Pagans across the country were also deeply affected as news spread of Saturday’s events.
Pagans of color and Jewish Pagans listened to “alt-right” rally participants chanting phrases like “White Lives Matter” and “Jews won’t replace me,” while KKK and Nazi symbols were openly displayed and celebrated.
Dianne Daniels, a Connecticut-based Witch and Unitarian Universalist Pagan said, “The events of Charlottesville hurt me to my very soul. The thought that someone could intentionally drive their car into another car to force the vehicles to injure and in this case kill another human being…the unrepentant anger and vitriol being aimed at those who were marching in support of their principles is unconscionable and unnecessary.”
Along with being a seminary student and member of the Temple of Witchcraft, Daniels is also the president of the NAACP Norwich chapter. She attended a rally Sunday to support “those fighting against hate in Charlottesville.”
“One of my favorite tenets of my [UU] faith is that everyone has worth and dignity. Though I find it very hard to imagine the worth and dignity of people who scream hateful slogans and threaten other beloved human beings with injury and death because they disagree with them on philosophy, I still try.”
Daniels went on to say that she does not “deign to speak for all African-Americans, all women, or all Unitarian Universalist Pagans,” but she encourages everyone to “raise their voices and speak their truth, especially if it is not denigrating others.”
When asked what she is doing to cope with the news, Daniels said, “I have been spending more time in prayer and sending healing, positive energy to the communities that are faced with these incidents and the rise of hate groups coming into their communities. I believe that energy can be directed, and I would encourage all who believe that energy has an effect to direct positive energy toward those who have to respond to these incidents. Keep those first responders and law enforcement officers who are doing their jobs safe and whole.”
Jonathan Korman, a Jewish Pagan from the Bay Area, said the events reminded him of a Jewish ritual story. It’s about the act of eating matzoh as a way to remind them that when it’s time to run, you shouldn’t wait long enough for the bread to rise.
“I think all American Jews, whether consciously or not, read the news asking themselves if it means that they don’t have time for the bread to rise.”
“Despite this I am letting the bread that will nourish me and my community rise, because several years ago I swore an oath to another god, the Morrígan, that I would fight fascism in my nation,” Korman added. “As is so often true of the important oaths, I did not know the implications of what I swore.”
He closed is comment with “Hold fast. Love the gods and each other. And fuck fascism.” His full statement can be found here.
Pagans and Heathens around the country have been taking part in protests and demonstrations since the violence ended. Well-known Pagans, such as Starhawk, are writing about the event and Pagan organizations are putting out official statements. Here are a few: ADF, Cherry Hill Seminary, Solar Cross Temple, Circle Sanctuary, and The Troth.
Author and speaker Bryan Wilton says that, due to Saturday’s rally and protest, his speaking events are now being targeted as “alt-right” events.
Mr. Wilton believes that individual activists and Heathens United Against Racism (HUAR) called the venue, demanding that his event be cancelled. Wilton says people are carelessly throwing around the label “alt-right.”
Wilton told The Wild Hunt that he doesn’t identify as “alt-right,” although he has friends who do and were at the rally.
“I’m not having an alt-right event, everyone is welcome at my event.” He says the event is not political and relates to material from his books.
When asked about Wilton’s claims, HUAR admin Ryan Smith says that the organization is responding in support of local activists who feel “the white nationalist group supporting, promoting, and attending the event are a clear and present danger to the safety of their communities.”
Smith adds, “Many, such as the Proud Boys, have a proven history of violence and local residents are fearful this will be used as a recruiting platform by such groups.” He noted that hate crimes can follow such events, as was the case in Charlottesville.
Wilton says that he does support the right of the “alt-right” to speak freely. However, he also spoke against the weekend’s violence, “We have three people dead and that is unacceptable.”
The ripple effects stemming from the weekend’s violence in Charlottesville has not subsided. More rallies and demonstrations are planned on both sides, as the country comes to terms with what was just witnessed and where it will lead.
Looking forward, Dianne Daniels notes, “My NAACP members will be hearing from me specifically on this issue (beyond my postings on social media) on Thursday when we have our monthly meeting. I’m going to do a special statement before the meeting starts, and incorporate the situation into the prayer we normally do to open our meetings. I have a statement from our current national interim president/CEO regarding the events that I will read.
“I’m encouraging people to be careful of watching the news – so much triggering information,” she adds. “And I refuse to repost things (like the video of the car striking people) that could be triggering.”
Looking at Saturday’s event through a lens of history, Ryan Denison adds, “I always think that liberty and freedom are on a precipice and we must always be on guard. By being good citizens and good to each other. Hitler and the Nazis rose to power not in a night, but slowly over a number of years. Much like boiling live crabs, just turn the heat up slow.”
“My best advice is to stay vigilant and call out hate, call out lies, call it out to the light,” he says, “As I quoted Edmund Burke earlier today on social media, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ “