By: Sara Sirota, Columnist
Photo Credit: Newsweek
Until this year, many of us have had the privilege of assuming violent white ethno-nationalist groups spout hateful ideologies but lack the organization and appeal to pose a real threat. Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally in August and Richard Spencer’s appearance at the University of Florida shattered that fantasy. Spencer’s alt-right movement, a loose amalgam of groups and individuals united in their vision of a white ethno-state, not only instills fear in local communities but attracts and provides a venue for individuals who commit acts of violence.
Spencer directs the National Policy Institute, “an independent organization dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States and around the world,” according to its website.[i] Calling himself a “dissident intellectual,” Spencer dons a suit and tie, is clean-cut, and uses relatively sophisticated rhetoric to attract and unify the white European masses.[ii] During his “Hail Trump” speech that went viral in November 2016, Spencer said:
To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror. We build, we produce, we go upward…. For us, it is conquer or die. This is a unique burden for the white man, that our fate is entirely in our hands. And it is appropriate because within us, within the very blood in our veins as children of the sun, lies the potential for greatness.[iii]
Spencer rejects Nazism and violence and instead calls for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to stop the “deconstruction” of European culture.[iv] Nevertheless, his movement provides organized events where extremist groups and individuals can meet, recruit, and engage in violent acts.
Prior to Spencer’s speech at the University of Florida, the director of operations at the National Policy Institute invited known violent groups “to promote our ideals by exercising free speech, triggering the Opposition, and making a splash in U.S. and international news.”[v] One such group was Patriot Front, a white supremacist organization and offshoot of Vanguard America, a movement that spreads racist propaganda online and on college campuses.[vi] Patriot Front calls itself a “union of men willing to sacrifice for the survival, and prosperity of their fatherland, against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”[vii] Its membership includes William Fears, allegedly a former member of Vanguard America too, who attended Spencer’s speech in Gainesville.[viii]
Fears was one of three men charged with allegedly trying to murder members of a group protesting Spencer’s Florida speech. About 90 minutes after Spencer’s speech, Fears and his brother, Colton, of Pasadena, Texas, along with Tyler Tenbrink of Richmond, Texas, pulled up to this group in a silver Jeep, making Nazi salutes and chanting about Adolf Hitler. After one of the protesters hit the car with a baton, Tenbrink jumped out with a gun, while the Fears brothers yelled, “Kill them” and “Shoot them.” Tenbrink fired a shot, though he missed the crowd and hit a building, before the three men drove away. Police arrested the three on October 20 on charges of attempted homicide.[ix]
Spencer’s Florida speech was not his first event associated with the alt-right that provided the backdrop for violence. During the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, James Fields drove a car into a crowd of protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 other people. Beforehand, a photographer captured Fields with symbols of Vanguard America, though the white supremacist group denies any links to him.[x] In the wake of the attack, Spencer called the alt-right “nonviolent” and instead argued that both the mayor of Charlottesville and the governor of Virginia have “blood on their hands.”[xi] Nevertheless, his alt-right movement has repeatedly served as the venue for acts of domestic terrorism in recent months.
That pattern does not elevate Spencer’s alt-right to a terrorist movement itself, though. No evidence suggests that he or other leaders directed Tenbrink, the Fears brothers, or Fields to engage in violence. That applies to the splinter groups to which they allegedly belonged as well, Patriot Front and Vanguard America. According to terrorism expert Daniel Byman, the legal framework offers little guidance in even addressing acts of violence as terrorism, as there is neither a federal domestic terrorism statute nor a federally-maintained list of domestic terrorist organizations similar to the list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations.[xii]
Still, the alt-right does use tactics that induce fear in a wider audience. Spencer’s torch-lit rallies in Charlottesville, for instance, not only serve as a recruitment tool for right-wing extremists but invoke imagery of the Ku Klux Klan. “Blood and soil” chants during these rallies remind onlookers of Nazi Germany.[xiii] “I love the torches,” Spencer told Rolling Stone. “It’s spectacular; it’s theatrical and mystical and magical and religious, even.”[xiv] Patriot Front has also used these tactics.[xv]
Terrorism’s success depends on whether it coerces a population to adopt certain political ends. Spencer’s movement will never convince the majority of Americans of European descent to seek a white ethno-state, nor will it convince all those deemed “other” to depart. In pursuit of this un-American and horrific goal, though, this movement can provide venues for violence against civilians, instill fear in the broader population, and raise hell for law enforcement. We all must remain vigilant.
[ii] Lois Beckett, “White Supremacist Richard Spencer faces barrage of protest at Florida speech,” The Guardian, October 19, 2017.
[iii] Graeme Wood, “His Kampf,” The Atlantic, June 2017.
[iv] Southern Poverty Law Center, “Richard Bertrand Spencer,” https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/richard-bertrand-spencer-0.
[v] Michael Edison Hayden, “Richard Spencer Event Linked to Attempted Murder Suspect, According to Planning Document,” Newsweek, October 27, 2017.
[vi] Anti-Defamation League, “White Supremacist Banner Removed From Freeway Overpass,” October 16, 2017.
[viii] Michael Edison Hayden, “Richard Spencer Event Linked to Attempted Murder Suspect, According to Planning Document.”
[ix] Lois Beckett, “Three men charged after protesters shot at following Richard Spencer speech,” The Guardian, October 20, 2017.
[x] Jonah Engel Bromwich and Alan Blinder, “What We Know About James Alex Fields, Driver Charged in Charlottesville Killing,” The New York Times, August 13, 2017.
[xi] Rosie Gray, “’Alt-Right’ Leaders Won’t Condemn Ramming Suspect,” The Atlantic, August 14, 2017.
[xii] Daniel Byman, “Should We Use the ‘T-Word’ for Right-Wing Violence?” Lawfare, October 16, 2017.
[xiii] Matt Pearce, “Chanting ‘blood and soil!’ white nationalists with torches march on University of Virginia,” Los Angeles Times, August 11, 2017; Adam Epstein, “‘Blood and Soil’: The meaning of the Nazi slogan chanted by white nationalists in Charlottesville,” Quartz, August 13, 2017.
[xiv] Sarah Posner, “After Charlottesville Rally Ends in Violent, Alt-Right Vows to Return,” Rolling Stone, August 13, 2017.