“It wasn’t like I set out to go fight Nazis,” said Emily Gorcenski.

When hate groups came together to rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, Gorcenski was there as a resident and counterprotester. She was attacked by white supremacists and targeted online by some of the most powerful people in their movement.

“I am somebody that believes in justice. And so, you know, I decided to fight back myself,” Gorcenski said.

That’s how she became an anit-facist researcher, drawing connections between white supremacist groups through court cases and public information, and Discord leaks. She’s a data scientist and used her skills to publish these records on a website called First Vigil, which showed journalists and investigators that these were not, in fact, disconnected small groups.

Her extensive research has given her a unique perspective on what happened five years ago in Charlottesville. Like other residents, she has theories about one of the more debated questions in this city: Why did the organizers of Unite the Right choose Charlottesville? The frustrating truth, said Gorcenski and others Charlottesville Tomorrow spoke with, is there is no simple answer. From local racism to national politics, many issues collided in Charlottesville in 2017 leading to one the most brazen and shocking white supremacist terrorist acts in decades.

The one clear reason Unite the Right came here: simple geography. Charlottesville is close to Washington D.C., the East Coast and also accessible to southern cities.

Michael Signer, who was mayor of Charlottesville from 2016 to 2018, said that Charlottesville’s proximity to the East Coast media ecosystem gave the city outsized national attention. As Charlottesville became more progressive in a very red state, he said, it got more attention than other southern college towns. Signer himself called Charlottesville the “capital of resistance” at a rally in January 2017, after Pres. Donald Trump took office. 

“It was basically like a Lollapalooza for the far right,” said Signer. “They wanted a heavily covered social media contagion that would catalyze their entire movement, where all of their different, disparate strands were going to come together and send a national message, an international message. It wasn’t an event about the local people of Charlottesville.”

In many ways, though, the organizing of the Unite the Right rally was very local. Neo-Nazi and white surpemacist Richard Spencer graduated from the University of Virginia in 2001, and groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center have documented that the pseudo-intellectual racist movements that Spencer is affiliated with are based in the state. Rally organizer and white supremacist Jason Kessler also graduated from UVA and lived in town; he and other organizers were found liable for $26 million in damages for the violence of Unite the Right.

“Kessler could have been anywhere, but he happened to be in Charlottesville. And he had delusions of grandeur,” said Gorcenski. “And the simple fact that he was also a UVA alum, and that he was still living in the town, made it an easy target for him to choose it as the place.”

Alexis Gravely, who was a student journalist with the Cavalier Daily at UVA at the time, has also thought a lot about those days in 2017. She wrote about the long-term impact on Black students for The Nation. She said that many things happened in the lead-up to Aug. 11 and 12 that foreshadowed how large that rally would become.

Gravely remembers that hate speech was already on the rise on campus. She reported on seven incidents in fall 2016 alone.

“The founder [of UVA] owned slaves — it’s sort of inherently a racist place,” she said. “You just sort of expect people to write a slur on a dorm room door.”

In those last months of 2016, while Gravely was reporting on hate and bias on campus, Charlottesville city government was preparing to remove statues of Confederate generals — though that wouldn’t happen for four more years. The move caught the attention of white supremacists.

Gorcenski said the debate about the statues gave white supremacists an opportunity.

“It was the first white identity culture war that could be fought in the Trump administration — there had been anti-Muslim policies, anti-immigrant policies for a long time, even during the Obama administration — but this was the first time that white people could create some sort of victimization culture,” said Gorcenski. “And so the timing, I think, was important.”

A person wearing a black Black Lives Matter t-shirt is taking a selfie. She has chalky white material on her face and is sitting on a lawn. There are some people standing behind her, near a brick building.
Emily Gorcenski was pepper sprayed by a white supremacist during the Ku Klux Klan rally in Charlottesville on July 8, 2017. She was treated by other protesters before taking a selfie and sharing it on Twitter. Courtesy of Emily Gorcenski

In Dec. 2016, Kessler, who would later be a main organizer of United the Right, instigated a pitched battle with City Council’s only Black member, Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy, who supported removing Confederate statues. Kessler unearthed racist, homophobic and sexist social media posts Bellamy made before he was elected, and attempted to force his resignation. Bellamy apologized for his words and Kessler’s attempt failed.

“It’s like, okay, all this was happening at UVA in Charlottesville. And we should have known that something like Unite the Right was inevitable,” Gravely said.

In May 2017, Kessler and Spencer organized more than a hundred white nationalists to march at the Lee statue. In July, several dozen Ku Klux Klan members marched at the Confederate Gen. Thomas Jackson statue, but were far outnumbered by counterprotesters.

When hundreds of white supremacists marched with tiki torches reminiscent of 1920s and 1930s Klan parades at the Thomas Jefferson statue on UVA’s campus the night of Aug. 11, Gravely covered the event as a senior associate news editor. She was a second year student and she is Black.

“I was following the rally through Grounds up to the Rotunda, and then we got to the Rotunda and they started circling the Jefferson statue,” she said. “I was on the steps, live streaming. And I remember at one point, I was looking up and the police were above me standing on the steps. And I was thinking, ‘Why are you all up here instead of down there trying to stop this?’ It just felt like they were just watching. And no one was really there to keep the students safe, to keep Grounds safe, to keep me safe.”

Charlottesville, the home of Thomas Jefferson, was and is a place that has symbolic value for white nationalists, Gorcenski said.

“It’s the birthplace of our democracy. And if you want to assault the ideals of democracy, you go to where it started. It’s as simple as that,” she said. “The high watermark for the far right in America was Aug. 11, 2017. And there’s always a risk that they will try to recapture that energy.

Residents of Charlottesville cannot change history, nor stop white supremacists from targeting the city. But former Mayor Signer and Gorcenski said that we can address the problems caused by white supremacy.

“I do think that one really productive part of all this is an invigorated and totally needed focus on social equity and racial justice. And that has led to a pretty wide set of policies that are really good for our city,” Signer said, pointing to funding for affordable housing and rent relief as examples.

Still, after Aug. 12. Charlottesville City Council meetings were marked by protest and anger.

Signer said that the conduct of those who attended —  “people resisting being removed who were disrupting and shouting and not allowing us to take votes or speak” — along with the tactics of the far left concerned him.

“I worry a lot about the collapse of the kind of governing center or middle and the increasingly violent extremes across the spectrum. And I think that is getting worse, not better,” he said.

White supremacists have continued to threaten Gorcenski and she now lives in Berlin for her safety and mental health. After all that happened, and the struggles still ahead, Gorcenski said Charlottesville is still home, too. It is where her wife and house is, where she wants to live and die. It’s a place she loves.

But, for her, one of the biggest threats to her hometown is the white supremacy of liberals.

“Put frankly, they value civility and bipartisanship over justice. And they will always do that,” she said. “And that is also a form of oppression. And that is a much, much, much harder form of oppression to fight back against.”

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Angilee Shah

Hi, I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's Editor-in-Chief. I’d love to know more about want you want from local news. Let’s find a time to talk. And keep up with our work by subscribing to our free email newsletter!