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Charlottesville residents say ‘ethnic cleansing’ threat proves ongoing danger of white nationalism

The threats originated from the same online ecosystem that endorsed the New Zealand mass shooter.

Charlottesville, Virginia residents say recent threats of "ethnic cleansing" directed at a local high school are another example of the persistent danger of white supremacy. (Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Charlottesville, Virginia residents say recent threats of "ethnic cleansing" directed at a local high school are another example of the persistent danger of white supremacy. (Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

More than 4,000 students in Charlottesville, Virginia, were forced to stay home for the second straight day after an anonymous poster threatened to launch an “ethnic cleansing” at one of the city’s high schools.

Residents say it’s further proof of the persistent danger of white supremacy in the United States.

The threat targeting Charlottesville High School originated on Wednesday from the imageboard 4chan and was quickly endorsed by other users. On Thursday, authorities decided to close schools out of an abundance of caution as they investigated the matter. On Friday morning, police arrested a 17-year-old boy in connection with the comments, charging him with threats to commit serious bodily harm to persons on school property, a felony, and harassment by computer, a misdemeanor.

We want the community to know that any potential threats made against our schools, credible or not, are taken seriously and will be vigorously investigated,” the Charlottesville Police Department said in a statement Friday afternoon.

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The threats come one week after a mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which the alleged gunman posted his intentions on 8chan, a similar imageboard, just prior to carrying out the attack.

“Thank you for understanding our decision to close today. We heard clearly that you, too, want us to prioritize the safety or our students and staff,” Charlottesville City Schools said in a statement Thursday night. “We would like to acknowledge and condemn the fact that this threat was racially charged. We do not tolerate hate or racism… We are in this together and a threat against one is a threat against all.”

Charlottesville police are taking the lead on the investigation, assisted by the Virginia State Police. The FBI confirmed to ThinkProgress that it was also assisting local law enforcement with the investigation but declined to comment further.

On Thursday, police in Albermale County, which borders Charlottesville, arrested a teenager for making a separate, similar threat against Albermale High School. He has been charged with one felony count of threats of death or bodily injury.

The threats struck a chord in a town that has become a byword for white supremacy in the United States, thanks to the August 2017 “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally, during which one woman was killed and dozens of others were injured after a man drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.

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“Certainly in the wake of New Zealand and all that Charlottesville has experienced any explicit threat against community members is not only deeply disturbing but also deeply triggering,” Rev. Seth Wispelwey, a minister in Charlottesville, told ThinkProgress. “We know better than most that ignoring the violent words of white supremacy is not an option.”

“We have had too many real life tragedies to… say that white supremacy should not be taken seriously,” he added. “The joking, ironic intent is cover for a benefit of the doubt.”

Zyahna Bryant, a senior at Charlottesville High School and founder of the CHS Black Student Union, said it was essential to view this latest threat in the context of wider white supremacy that has long plagued the United States.

“The mass shootings and racial terrorism are not at all separate from the mass incarceration, the wealth gap, and the tracking of students of color,” Bryant told ThinkProgress. “This was a direct attack on black and brown students and it is important that those students are being supported.”

She continued, “This is related to the [Unite the Right] attacks, but it is diminishing to people of color who are from Charlottesville to oversimplify racism in this town and make it all about one day. White supremacy has been at the foundation of this place and that has been evident for a long time.”

4chan has gained a reputation as a favored site of those planning to carry out extremist attacks, or those eager to celebrate or elevate them. Prior to a 2015 mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, one commenter advised fellow posters “[not to] go to school tomorrow if you are in the northwest.” And in 2014, after 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people in Isla Vista, California, in a sexism and racism-fueled murder spree, 4chan widely praised him and dubbed him the “Supreme Gentlemen.”

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More recently, the alleged New Zealand gunman used 8chan (a 4chan knock-off with even less moderation) to announce his intention to kill worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, allowing hundreds to cheer him on as he live-streamed the shootings. In the wake of the massacre, even the site’s founder told the Wall Street Journal things had gone too far.

“It was very difficult in the days that followed to know that I created the site,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprised me if this happens again.”

This story has been updated to include new details from police about the arrest of an individual connected to the threat against Charlottesville High School, as well as statements from the Charlottesville Police Department.