A white supremacist rally in Virginia led to the deaths of three people and dozens of injuries over the weekend—less than two months after the White House halted funding for a program aimed at countering white nationalist extremism, despite warnings from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.
Paralegal Heather Heyer, 32, died when James Fields, 20, struck her with a car on Saturday as he drove into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring 19 other people. Fields was one of a large group of white nationalists present in the college town of Charlottesville over the weekend for a “Unite the Right” rally where violence broke out numerous times, leaving a total of 34 people wounded. Two Virginia state police officers were also killed when their helicopter crashed while monitoring the rally.
President Donald Trump initially condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” for the tragedy, later placing the blame on white supremacists after a storm of backlash. But those words haven’t been backed up by policy—in June, the Trump administration dropped funding for one of the few organizations devoted to countering and de-radicalizing white extremists in the United States.
Founded in 2009, Life After Hate is run by former members of racist extremist movements who now work to counter and reform white nationalists. Under former President Barack Obama, the organization received $400,000 as part of its Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) program—the only anti-white nationalism group given funding under the program. After Trump’s election, Life After Hate reportedly saw a 20-fold increase in calls for help from those reporting signs of radicalization in themselves or others.
But that uptick seemingly did little to convince the president’s administration that Life After Hate’s work was valuable. Reuters reported in early February that the government was looking into shifting the CVE program’s focus, honing in on extremism connected to Muslim groups exclusively. The administration also froze $10 million in CVE funding. Only a few months later, Life After Hate was dropped from the program’s list of funded groups.
While the Department of Homeland Security has not explained its decision to drop funding for the organization, Life After Hate co-founder Christian Picciolini told ThinkProgress in February that he feared Trump’s move to pivot away from countering extremism more generally set a dangerous precedent.
“It sends a message that white extremism does not exist, or is not a priority in our country, when in fact it is a statistically larger and more present terror threat than any by foreign or other domestic actors,” Picciolini said. “We have hundreds of thousands of homegrown sovereign citizens and militia members with ties to white nationalism training in paramilitary camps across the U.S. and standing armed in front of mosques to intimidate marginalized Americans.”
“This decision, if true, would severely harm or destroy any community-led efforts to helping people disengage from violent extremism and potentially stop future terrorist acts,” he said.
The tragedy in Charlottesville seems to have confirmed Picciolini’s fears. Fields, who allegedly killed Heyer with his car, was photographed earlier on Saturday with Vanguard America, whose motto, “blood and soil”, is derived from the Nazi slogan “blut und boden”—a nod to racial purity. The group’s manifesto argues for “[a]n economy that is self-contained, and free from the influence of international corporations, led by a rootless group of international Jews, which place profit beyond the interests of our people, or any people.”
In the weeks leading up to the rally in Charlottesville, Vanguard America promoted the event repeatedly on social media, and its members were seen wearing their unofficial uniform of khaki pants and white polo shirts during the gathering. Fields was photographed in similar attire, though the group has claimed he is not in fact a member. Fields’ Facebook also reportedly contained Nazi imagery prior to its deletion.
Fields’ apparent radicalization and subsequent violence is part of a larger pattern flagged by both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. In a May report obtained by Foreign Policy, members of both agencies warn that white supremacists “likely will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year.” Entitled “White Supremacist Extremism Poses Persistent Threat of Lethal Violence,” the report concludes that white supremacists “were responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016…more than any other domestic extremist movement.”
Tracking conducted by ThinkProgress indicates that violence perpetuated by white extremists has continued into 2017. In the first three months following Trump’s election, ThinkProgress documented 261 incidents of hate, the vast majority of which were aimed at Jews, Muslims, people of color, and queer people. Still, Trump’s rhetoric has centered almost entirely on extremism carried out by Muslims specifically. Prominent members of the Trump administration have made similar comments. White House adviser Sebastian Gorka has argued that “[t]here’s no such thing as a lone wolf” because “[t]here has never been a serious attack or a serious plot that was unconnected from ISIS or al Qaeda.” (Timothy McVeigh, a white U.S. citizen, killed 168 people when he bombed a federal building in 1995 in Oklahoma City.)
That rhetoric, coupled with a move away from funding efforts, can do real harm, Picciolini emphasized in an interview with NPR following the tragedy in Charlottesville.
“What people need to understand is that since Sept. 11, more Americans have been killed on U.S. soil by white supremacists than by any other foreign or domestic group combined by a factor of two,” Picciolini said. “Yet we don’t really talk about that, nor do we even call these instances of the shooting at Charleston, S.C., or what happened at Oak Creek, [Wisconsin], at the Sikh temple or even what happened in Charlottesville this weekend — as terrorism.”