Since Election Day one year ago, culminating in President Donald Trump, white supremacists have held at least a dozen rallies across the United States. Regardless of their location, these rallies nearly always play out the same way: a small group of white supremacists from various hate groups (e.g., the KKK, Identity Europa) unite with members from less explicitly white nationalist groups, who often come together under the banner of the alt-right. They’re invariably met by groups of counter-protesters and police, and things quickly descend into chaos. There are beatings, sometimes shootings, a media circus ensues. Rinse, repeat.
While there’s no way to know just how many events white supremacists held before Trump, it does seem like the 2016 election made them emboldened, more organized, and more violent. Reports of hate crimes have increased by 20 percent since the election, according to one count.
The alt-right and far-right’s rhetorical game has gotten better and better under Donald Trump, too. They make their extremist views seem more palatable by cloaking them in terms like “free speech” and “right-wing unity.” Much of the media and many liberals have gone along for the rhetorical ride, giving sympathetic coverage to neo-Nazis as misunderstood or disaffected patriots just looking to express themselves through marches and rallies.
Most universities wouldn’t allow white supremacists to hold a recruiting convention on their campuses, but have no problem spending millions of dollars protecting openly white supremacist leaders like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos in the name of free speech and open debate. The fact that these events go largely unchallenged by the mainstream press and mainstream liberal institutions, all while the Trump administration gives tacit support to these rallies, mean there’s little reason for them to stop happening.
But the events in Charlottesville seemed like a turning point. Though it was billed as a “Unite the Right” rally, it ended in deadly violence. Afterward, the media roundly criticized the far right, and Trump finally (though inadequately) distanced himself from them. At subsequent white nationalist rallies, the counter-protests were bigger than before. But white nationalism has not disappeared. We seem to be in a lull of protests right now—there aren’t any major marches planned for the next several months—but undoubtedly the alt-right and white nationalists will be back, and perhaps more ready for violence than before.
Here are some of the most high-profile white supremacist rallies since Donald Trump was elected president one year ago.
This wasn’t a white supremacist rally, but it foretold more violence at protests: Just days after the presidential election, anti-Trump protesters took to the streets of Portland, and one was shot by a pro-Trumper in a passing car. Six months later, a man shouting anti-Muslim slurs on a train in Portland stabbed and killed two passengers.
Between the election and the inauguration, there were dozens of pro-Trump rallies, which often included racially charged messages and Confederate flags, but only a few were explicitly white supremacist. KKK members had planned to rally in Pelham, North Carolina, but a large group of counter-protesters scared them off, and so they instead drove through the small town of Roxboro, shouting “White power!”
It wasn’t billed as a white supremacist rally, but many white supremacists showed up to Donald Trump’s inauguration to support the new president, including alt-right darling Richard Spencer. Spencer was punched in the face by an anti-Trump protester, setting off a wave of debate about whether violence against white supremacists is appropriate, and providing the raw material for a million memes. Later that night, another anti-Trump protester was shot, this time outside of a talk given by Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of Washington. Yiannopoulos did not denounce the violence, and instead lied and said it was perpetrated by antifa.
Yiannopoulos drew out thousands of counter demonstrators to his planned talk at UC-Berkeley in February. Some of the protesters caused property damage, prompting a milieu of think pieces about acceptable forms of action when protesting the far-right.
In possibly the largest white nationalist gathering between the election and Charlottesville, about 125 members of various hate groups, including the National Socialist Movement, descended on Pikeville. They were barricaded by police as a similar number of counter-protesters tried to drown out their chants. People feared violence, but nothing happened.
This one didn’t get as much media coverage, but it foreshadowed the outbreak of controversy over Confederate monuments nationally. A few dozen pro-Confederate Louisianans demonstrated at Lee Circle in New Orleans, named after Robert E. Lee. They were met by hundreds of counter protesters from the anti-Confederate monument group Take ‘Em Down NOLA. The statues were successfully removed.
A week after two people were stabbed to death by a bigot on a Portland commuter train, the “Trump Free Speech Rally” drew out thousands of protesters and counter-protesters. Tensions were high, and several people on both sides were beaten, leading to 14 arrests. Antifa and other protest groups accused the Portland police of being too lenient with the Nazis and unfairly targeting the leftists, a charge that would be brought up again a few months later during a similar rally.
There were actually two rallies in Charlottesville before the main one in August: In May, Richard Spencer led a group chanting “White lives matter” around a statue of Robert E. Lee in the middle of the city. Then in July, a more explicitly white supremacist group came to Charlottesville. It wasn’t clear to anyone how big the next rally would be (on my way down to report, we assumed a couple dozen people would show up). The morning of August 12, hundreds of alt-righters, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and other white supremacist groups came to Charlottesville. The City of Charlottesville had revoked the permit for the groups, and just hours before the start of the rally, the ACLU of Virginia, siding with the Nazi groups against the city, successfully argued in court to get it reinstated.
The rally turned into a logistical nightmare, with white supremacists gathered in several different parks throughout the city, some permitted and some not, as a police force seemingly indifferent to stopping their violence watched while they clashed with thousands of protesters. By noon, it seemed as if the counter protesters had won the day, coming together on the streets to celebrate kicking the Nazis out of town. But then James Alex Fields rammed his car into a group of protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring several others. The rally seemed like a turning point in the national dialogue over white supremacy, as nearly every politician rushed to unequivocally denounce the alt-right and other white supremacist groups. (Except, of course, for Trump, who initially blamed “both sides” for the violence.)
A week later, the alt-right attempted to hold a “free speech” rally in Boston, but it was met with thousands of counter-protesters who cornered the demonstrators into a small gazebo. They had to leave with police escort.
Florida declared a state of emergency in order to support Richard Spencer’s speech at the University of Florida. The speech was essentially shut down by counter-protesters, but later three men were arrested for shooting at counter-protesters.
One “White Lives Matter” event in Tennessee drew out paltry crowds and the second was canceled over fears of arrests and violence from counter-protesters. Counter-protesters and antifa supporters cheered at hearing the news, and proclaimed it a victory for their side.
The future of alt-right and white supremacist rallies is unclear, as the mainstream narrative has turned against them since Charlottesville, and since they are consistently met with large groups of counter-demonstrators. A planned “March Against Communism” with neo-Nazi ties in December was cancelled after infighting. But it seems fair to predict that more marches will happen eventually, and possibly intensify around the 2018 and 2020 elections.