As Charlottesville anxiously approaches the date of a massive rally that could turn violent, two local conservative activists are now distancing themselves from the right-wing provocateur who invited anti-Semitic and white nationalist speakers to headline the event.
In interviews last week, David Caron and Isaac Smith expressed concerns about Jason Kessler’s decision to invite inflammatory personalities to speak at his Aug. 12 Unite the Right rally in Emancipation Park, which until recently was named Lee Park.
Many of those selected to speak at the event were involved in a provocative torch-lit demonstration last May to protest the planned removal of the city’s Robert E. Lee statue.
In a Daily Caller report, Kessler, who considers himself a pro-white activist-journalist, described the protests as “two flash mobs led by white nationalists Richard Spencer and Sam Dickson.” Kessler also spoke at the rally, praising the event organizers and describing a cultural, “second American Civil War.”
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Spencer is commonly cited as a founder of the so-called alt-right, a loose political movement rooted in white nationalism and populism. Until recently, the movement included a broader swath of conservatives, but it’s seeing its former supporters disavowing the label over its overtly racist and anti-Semitic elements.
In recent months, Caron and Smith have shifted their attention to supporting Kenny Jackson, an outspoken independent candidate for City Council who ran as a Republican in 2004. Jackson, who is African-American, also has been critical of the council’s decision to remove the Lee statue, which is being contested in court.
According to Smith, Kessler’s continued associations with far-right activists such as Spencer, Dickson and groups like the Traditionalist Worker Party and the Warlocks Motorcycle Club is getting “out of control.”
“He’s affiliated himself with people who are — to put it mildly — ideologically distasteful,” Smith said. “And now he’s associated with people involved with organized crime. It’s turning into a rabbit hole. And I want nothing to do with that.”
With Spencer’s previous calls for the creation of a “white ethno-state” and the TWP’s association with the “neo-Nazi” National Socialist Movement, Caron said: “I’m not trying to work with people like that.”
Similarly to Spencer, Dickson has advocated for “a White Ethno-State on the North American continent, a project analogous to the creation of Israel in the first half of the 20th century,” according to Spencer’s National Policy Institute. At a 2013 American Renaissance conference, Spencer suggested that a “peaceful ethnic-cleansing” could be carried out to realize those ends.
Formerly the secretary of Kessler’s conservative group, Unity and Security for America — which advocates for tighter restrictions on immigration from “non-Western” nations — Smith said he was not involved in the May 13 alt-right rally and quit working with Kessler shortly thereafter.
Caron said he’s wary of Kessler becoming more embroiled in “identity politics.” He also said he was not aware that the May 13 rally was being planned.
“Obviously, the way that Jason’s been lately, he’s made it more about race,” Caron said. “Unfortunately, that’s why I’ve had to distance myself. I’m not into identity politics.”
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By seeking Wes Bellamy’s removal from City Council last fall after he discovered and publicized a litany of racist and misogynistic tweets the African-American councilman had written several years before he was elected, Kessler caught the attention of Smith, an aspiring political operative, and Caron, one of Kessler’s lifelong friends.
In a blog post at the time, Kessler said he targeted Bellamy for being a “black supremacist” in his seeking the removal of the Lee statue and calling for a boycott against Bella’s, an Italian restaurant whose owner, University of Virginia lecturer Doug Muir, criticized the Black Lives Matter movement in a Facebook post.
Kessler and his associates received a great deal of notoriety and enemies in the ultimately unsuccessful effort to unseat Bellamy. Left-wing social justice activists challenged Kessler and his colleagues, accusing them of running a racially motivated campaign to oust Bellamy.
Several weeks ago, “Know Your Local Nazi” fliers featuring the personal information of Kessler, Caron, Smith and several others were anonymously distributed in the downtown area. The fliers were created by Showing Up for Racial Justice Charlottesville activists, according to a source involved with the group.
Recently, another business owner has alleged that he’s been targeted by the left-wing activists.
“I’m being threatened, I’m getting phone calls from people saying they’re going to kill me and shoot me,” said Lacy Weeks, owner of Mystic Tattoo and Body Piercing and a member of the Warlocks Motorcycle Club.
Weeks said he’s been the target of a harassment campaign and has received many poor online reviews of his tattoo shop. A similar incident played out earlier this year when right-wing sympathizers targeted Cinema Taco for refusing service one night to a group of alleged neo-Nazis.
Earlier this month, Kessler asked Weeks to help organize a security detail for a news conference he held outside the Charlottesville Police Department to discuss his upcoming rally.
Kessler introduced the assembled group of bikers as members of the Warlocks, a “3-percent biker group.” Kessler later corrected that assertion in an email, clarifying that the Warlocks are actually a “1-percent motorcycle club,” and adding that members of a philanthropic-focused biker club, known as “The Wrecking Crew,” also were present at the news conference.
The “3-percent” label is sometimes used to describe the right-wing, constitutionalist “patriot movement.” “One-percent” groups are generally outlaw gangs.
The email also included a statement from the bikers: “Neither club affiliates as a white supremacist organization as individuals or clubs in whole. Nor do we support their beliefs.” In interviews last week, Weeks vehemently denied harboring any kind of racist feelings.
And despite the historical connotation 1-percent or 3-percent biker clubs have with outlaw biker gangs, Weeks said neither he nor the club is involved in criminal activity. Weeks said only two members of the club attended the news conference, and that the 1-percent moniker is a reference to the club’s prestige among other motorcycle clubs.
Earlier this year, state law enforcement and the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control started an effort to crack down on outlaw motorcycle gang activity in Central Virginia-area restaurants.
In March, town of Louisa Police Chief Ronnie Roberts told NBC29: “Those 1-percenters, the ones that create the problems for us in law enforcement and the criminal activity, is the area we need to focus on.”
Weeks said the head of the club’s mother chapter in Orlando, Florida, recently contacted him about attracting media attention to the club following Kessler’s news conference. He said the club’s chief threatened to revoke his status in the group.
“Our club … we’re trying to get rid of that tarnished image,” Weeks said. “My national boss, he jumped my ass, man. I came this close to losing my center patch.”
Weeks said he’s sympathetic to Kessler and the cause to save the Lee statue, and that he agreed to arrange a security detail for Kessler’s news conference to protect his right to free speech.
“It’s grossly unfair. Jason will sit there and say he’s not with the KKK or a white supremacist,” Weeks said. “I did research and talked to him … Jason is me. He’s guilty by the media.”
In a tweet to an anonymous Twitter account that has attempted to expose many of the extreme neo-Nazi and white supremacist ties to Kessler’s upcoming rally, Twitter user @primitivexaoc said, “Jason’s thing isn’t an ethno-state.”
Kessler has denied being a white nationalist, but his claims that there is a “white genocide” under the guise of multiculturalism and refugee resettlement from Muslim-majority countries has made it difficult for him to evade that label.
Anonymous Twitter user @Don_Chump, who goes by the nom de guerre Robert Lee and runs the blog restoringthehonor.blogspot.com, has been critical of Kessler associating with explicitly racist and white nationalist groups.
He said Kessler cannot say he is not a bigot while promoting groups whose leaders are attempting to “make their views palatable” to the public while their supporters openly espouse racist rhetoric and use Nazi imagery, such as the swastika and the “Sieg Heil” salute.
Alluding to the vitriolic and aggressive reactions to Kessler and those groups, “Lee” said anti-fascists and anti-racists need to realize they’re waging a “public relations war.”
Lee said the left-wing activists are “bringing a gun to a knife fight, while the other side is using civil rights as a shield.”
“It’s a brilliant strategy,” he said about the alt-right. “But their end game is a segregated society.”
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Last week, the Anti-Defamation League labeled Kessler a “white supremacist” in a list of alt-right and “alt-lite” personalities.
The alt-lite moniker represents right-wing activists who have rejected the overtly racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric of the alt-right, but they nonetheless “embrace misogyny and xenophobia, and abhor ‘political correctness’ and the left,” according to the ADL.
The report described the alt-right as a “loose network of racists and anti-Semites who reject mainstream conservatism in favor of politics that embrace implicit or explicit racist, anti-Semitic and white supremacist ideology.
“Many seek to re-inject such bigoted ideas into the conservative movement in the United States.”
According to the ADL report, Kessler last month spoke at an alt-right rally in Washington, and “told the crowd that America would be better off if the South had won the Civil War, and advanced conspiracy theories about Jews controlling Hollywood and the media and promoting ‘filthy propaganda.’”
The list included Spencer and several other alt-right figures, some of whom will be featured speakers at the Aug. 12 rally in Charlottesville.
The Unite the Right speakers on the ADL list include Traditionalist Worker Party co-founder and Nationalist Front co-chairman Matthew Heimbach.
The Nationalist Front is an umbrella organization for about a dozen nationalist organizations, including the National Socialist Movement, the tenants of which include the creation of an American state where only "those of pure white blood" can be citizens.
Last week, a Louisville court gave Heimbach a suspended jail sentence on charges stemming from an incident last year in which he allegedly physically harassed a woman protesting a Donald Trump campaign rally.
Responding to the publication of the list, Kessler used his Twitter account to accuse the ADL of being a “Jewish supremacist group” instigating a “harassment and blackmail campaign against prominent white activists.”
Kessler did not respond to requests for an interview.
The alt-lite figures in the ADL list included Republican Senate candidate Corey Stewart, who visited Charlottesville several times during his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign to support Kessler and protest the removal of the Lee statue, and Gavin McInnes, a conservative commentator and founder of the Proud Boys, a self-described “Western chauvinist” group.
The Proud Boys gained local attention last month after Kessler publicly invited the state chapter of the Fred Perry polo shirt-wearing group for a meeting downtown. Recently, McInnes has tried to distance his group from the alt-right label. Last week, he tweeted: “ProudBoys VA are not alt-right … If you are a VA PB who is AR, you’re not a VA PB.”
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McInnes’ rejection of the “alt-right” title, and previous reports that he and other key figures with the Proud Boys requested that its members not represent the group at the Aug. 12 rally, parallel Caron and Smith attempting to distance themselves from Kessler. But their conservative views and opposition to Democratic politics remain.
Alluding to the involvement of anarcho-communist and anti-capitalist Antifa, or anti-fascist groups protesting the alt-right, Caron said he’s worried that moderate liberals are ceding ground to far-left ideologies.
“It’s concerning to me that we don’t have the same level of apprehension to communists that we do to Nazis,” he said.
“I am concerned that these people would prefer for me and Jason to not even exist,” he added. “They don’t want us to even go out in public. They don’t want us to leave the house. I don’t know what their end goal is — I believe it’s beyond politics. And that’s how communists operate.”
Although some see the response to a campaign to have the Aug. 12 rally’s permit be revoked as totalitarian, social justice activists, such as Marc Mazique, think the city is sanctioning a rally where the speakers are hoping to “incite and even commit acts of violence and sow racial hatred.”
“Acts of speech are exactly that — acts,” Mazique said at last week’s City Council meeting. “When we treat all acts of speech as effectively neutral, we help normalize oppressive speech, and further oppressive acts.”
“People of color are continually expected to sacrifice their emotions, their hurt, their very humanity in the service of white comfort, which becomes abstracted out into the community at large under the label ‘public order,’” he said. “Instead of being empowered to draw on righteous anger and indignation at injustice, we are told to be smaller, calmer, quieter — or just plain quiet.”
While Caron, Smith and others are equally skeptical of both alt-right and leftist ideologues, a writer for Occidental Dissent, a Southern nationalist blog that’s supporting the Aug. 12 rally, wrote Friday that it could be an opportunity to turn more moderate right-wingers on to their brand of nationalism.
The blog post predicted the Unite the Right rally could be the largest gathering of nationalists since George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party, rallied supporters in Chicago in the 1960s.
“I encourage everyone who may be undecided to travel up to Charlottesville, and spend the weekend mingling with those who in spirit are already essentially our friends,” the post read.
“Talk to them, bond over common beliefs, and use the time given to you to educate others on issues such as the Jewish Problem, the Homosexual Problem, and the inherent evils that exist when the masses are granted overwhelming freedom and individualism.”