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Nazi slogans and violence at a right-wing march in Charlottesville on Friday night

What happened at a torchlit rally on the UVA campus.

Zack D. Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty

A group of some 100 white nationalists marched on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, VA, Friday night carrying tiki torches and chanting Nazi slogans including “Sieg heil” and “blood and soil” and giving the Nazi salute.

The march was a prelude to a larger planned “Unite the Right” rally on Saturday to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in a park in Charlottesville. Leaders of the “alt-right” are scheduled to speak before an audience of hundreds of right-wing activists.

At one point during Friday night’s rally, a brawl broke out when demonstrators — nearly all white men — surrounded a small group of counterprotesters who were peacefully surrounding a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the center of campus. Counterprotesters reported being hit with pepper spray by marchers; according to the Washington Post, one counterprotester also used a “chemical spray” against marchers. “They completely surrounded us and wouldn’t let us out,” local activist Emily Gorcenski told the Guardian.

The police eventually declared an “unlawful assembly” and separated the groups.

“You will not replace us!”

Organized by “pro-white” activist Jason Kessler, the march was the most explicitly fascist moment in the short history of the “alt-right” — a movement associated with a rejection of “diversity” and identity politics and a questionably-ironic willingness to engage in white nationalist, fascist and Nazi trope.

Participants chanted slogans — “White Lives Matter,” “You will not replace us,” “blood and soil” — that alluded to the white-nationalist idea that ethnic and religious diversity is “white genocide.”

Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer issued a statement on Friday in response to the march:

Plans to remove a Robert E. Lee statue have made Charlottesville a national flashpoint for right-wing activism

Charlottesville, like many cities in the South, still has public spaces and monuments celebrating heroes of the Confederacy — many of which weren’t erected until the 20th century, as the civil-rights movement began to pick up steam and Jim Crow laws started to come under attack.

In the wake of the 2015 massacre of several worshipers at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston by a white supremacist, there’s been a renewed push to remove some of these Confederate monuments and rename streets and squares named after them. But where those campaigns have succeeded, there’s often been a backlash from conservatives concerned about attempts to erase history; Southerners who consider the Confederacy part of their “heritage,” and outright white nationalists.

In Charlottesville, advocates targeted a statue of Robert E. Lee in a park called Lee Square — City Council members pointed out that Lee had no connection to Charlottesville, implying that commemorating him was just an indirect way to celebrate the Confederacy, while a high-school student collected 600 signatures on a petition to rename the statue. (A counterpetition collected 2,000 signatures.)

In February, the city council voted to sell the statue and rename the park. (The statue is still in place.)

The decision made the city a target for right-wing activism and shows of strength — and for activists keen to stand up to them and demonstrate that their ideas weren’t welcome. On July 8, about 30 Ku Klux Klan members held a small rally in Charlottesville, which was dwarfed by a massive counterprotest number in the hundreds.

Figures from the online “alt-right” planned a larger “Unite the Right” rally for Saturday in Charlottesville. Political researcher Spencer Sunshine of the firm Political Research Associates told the Guardian’s Jason Wilson that while the rally was originally intended to attract a broad coalition of “patriot” groups, it had become “increasingly Nazified” — with some “patriot” groups refusing to sign on, and explicitly fascist groups like the National Socialist Movement getting on board instead.

Friday’s march reflected the “Nazified” tone.

There’s been an ongoing debate about whether it’s fair to call the “alt-right” a white-nationalist movement — a debate alt-right activists appear to court, by engaging in “ironic” use of white-nationalist tropes. Many on the right believe that the left has been overly aggressive in labeling opposition to immigration and believe the Black Lives Matter movement to be “racist.” Some have responded to that by deliberately blurring the distinction between their beliefs and movements, like Naziism and the Confederacy.

That all of this has unfolded under the candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump, who is enthusiastically supported by some white nationalists and has been much more reluctant to criticize Islamophobic hate crimes than attacks against white Americans, has made it all the more important for leading political figures to try to distinguish between defensible political ideas and those that should be shunned — and between “free speech,” “hate speech,” and violence.

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