Cops let C’ville alt-right rally rage out of control: Photog

Anti-fascists and alt-right extremists who look like they just stepped out of “A Clockwork Orange” clashing in Charlottesville on Sat., Aug. 12. Photos by John Penley

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Tues., Aug. 22, 3:55 p.m.: Former East Village activist John Penley used to cover squatter evictions and clashes between anarchists and police in Alphabet City. Two weekends ago, he was in the middle of the fray in Charlottesville, Virginia, as hardcore alt-right members, neo-Nazis and the Klan clashed with anti-fascists over that city’s planned removal of a statue of Confederate hero General Robert E. Lee.

Penley, who now lives back in his native North Carolina, also photographed a Klan rally in Charlottesville for The Villager a month ago. At that time, he assured that last weekend’s “Unite the Right” rally would be far more incendiary and potentially violent.

Obviously, he was right, as on Sat., Aug. 12, an enraged alt-right member gunned his Dodge Challenger into members of the “anti-fa” crowd, injuring many and tragically killing Heather Heyer, 32.

Anti-fascists turned out to confrot the neo-Nazis, Klan and alt-right.

Reached by phone the following Monday, Penley, said he was still recovering from injuries he got in the melee.

“I got run over by a herd of f—ing Nazis,” he said, “and I got a big cut on my knee. And I got teargassed and pepper-sprayed a bit. … I’m still in shock. It was kind of like going into a war zone.”

Neo-Nazis came bearing shields.

Penley blames the Charlottesville police for basically letting the situation spiral out of control.

“The cops stood down,” he said. “Dude, they just let it go. There were street battles for hours.

“They didn’t do anything until it was time for his rally to start,” he said, referring to Jason Kessler, the alt-right rally’s organizer. “Then they shut it down.”

Brandishing shields and insignia, white supremacists stood near the Robert E. Lee Civil War statue, in background at right, that Charlottesville plans to pull down.

Penley said that the alt-right group went into Emancipation Park — which was recently renamed from Lee Park — which is where the Lee statue is located and where they had been granted a permit for a rally. But then the white supremacists repeatedly forayed out of the park to skirmish with the anti-fa, while police did nothing about it.

Militia members who were part of the “Unite the Right” rally showed up wearing bulletproof vests and combat helmets. This black militia member was the only black person the photographer saw among the alt-right contingent.

It was during one of these charges by the racists that Penley got mowed down.

Basically, police felt things had gotten out of hand, at that point, and called off the event when Kessler was ready to start his rally around noon.

Governor Terry McAuliffe said there was concern over the heavily armed militia members and others among the alt-righters. In fact, he said, most of the alt-right group members were armed, which was behind the decision by police to hang back.

The night before, the alt-righters’ torch-lit march on the University of Virginia Campus was a sign of what was to come the next day, Penley said.

The alt-righters marched onto the UVA campus on Friday night Aug. 11 with torches — symbolically evoking the Ku Klux Klan.

“The alt-right guys assaulted some kids at the college,” he said. “They threw tiki torches at ’em. They pepper-sprayed ’em. It was 200 against 20.”

Richard Spencer, the prominent alt-right leader, had led a demonstration on the campus in May, where they had rallied around a statue of Thomas Jefferson.

Bearing their tiki torches, the racists invaded the University of Virginia campus. During their march around the town, they openly chanted against blacks and Jews.

Student protesters didn’t want a repeat of that this time around.

“The students didn’t want them on their campus,” Penley said. “They were surrounding the statue. All they did was chant, ‘Black Lives Matter!’”

Both Spencer and Kessler are UVA alumni.

Students surrounded a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the university campus to keep the racists from using it as a rallying point, like they did several months ago. This was the third rally by the Klan / alt-right in Charlottesville — which is a progressive city — since May. Jefferson, as President Trump noted in his comments on the statues debate, was a slaveholder. Some of the students hid their faces from the camera for fear of “doxxing” — having their personal information put on the Internet — by the alt-righters, and also because some anti-fa members are being investigated by the authorities in connection with past protests.

The torches’ symbolism was clear.

“It’s like a Klan thing — a Klan rally,” Penley said. “The Klan used to use torches. They were marching around town. They were denouncing Jews.”

The alt-right’s torchlit march.
An armed security guard for the “Unite the Right” group stood watch Friday night Aug. 11 as, according to the photographer, the group attacked students who were trying to keep them away from the Jefferson statue.

The former East Village activist said that the violence on the Friday night by the alt-right faction only encouraged any anti-fa members who might have been itching for a fight to come out all riled up and ready for action the next day.

Penley said when James Fields subsequently rammed his car into the anti-racists it was after police had already shut down Kessler’s rally.

Alt-right members helped an injured man after he clashed with anti-fascist opponents. According to the photographer, this man had also been involved in attacking UVA students the night before.
Alt-right members getting ready to make another charge out of Emancipation Park to fight with the anti-fa.

“That happened down by a mall,” he explained. “That was five minutes after we’d been there. We could have gotten hit. The Nazis were trying to go into a low-income black area, but were angry that they had been blocked by counterprotesters who were there. And Fields was angry about what happened at the park.

“They claimed that people had attacked his car. But you can see from the video, there’s no one near his car. He was just angry. … He just said, ‘F—, I’m gonna kill some people.’”

Penley stressed: “This was not conservatives. It was the most hardcore Nazi groups, Ku Klux Klan, alt-right people in the country.”

Some of the white-supremacist militia members were heavily armed with guns and rifles, adding to the tension and potential violence — and was reportedly part of the reason why police were hands-off, fearing bullets would start flying if they intervened.

President Donald Trump commented the day after the deadly violence that there were some “very fine people” among the alt-right contingent. But Penley — like many horrified Americans and people all around the world — was having none of it.

There were constant fights between the two sides outside Emancipation Park.

“There were no good people among them,” he said, “that’s all I’ve got to say.”

Penley said he told some of the supremacists to their face: “ ‘My grandfather fought the Nazis’… . They wouldn’t say anything. They just stared at me like they wanted to kill me.”

Anti-fascist counterprotesters knocked down barricades and mixed it up with the supremacists. The fighting between the two groups went on for hours.

Although a young counterprotester was killed, Penley said the alt-right were the ones who ultimately lost over the weekend, and badly — from public opinion to the skirmishes outside of the park.

“They really got beat there,” he said, “physically beat. … Honestly, they exposed what the alt-right is all about,” he added. “Everybody’s saying they’re conservative — they’re outright Nazis. The public’s opinion has been changed. And they got their asses kicked. And nobody likes a loser in a fight. I think anti-fa did the country a big favor.”

A face-off between a heavily armed alt-right militia member, left, and an anti-fascist counterprotester.

Following the Charlottesville tragedy, North Carolina’s governor, Roy Cooper, two weeks ago declared he wants all Confederate monuments across his entire state removed. The news bowled over North Carolina native Penley.

The alt-right’s virulent anti-Semitism was on plain display in Charlottesville.

“This is pretty much a declaration of war on the KKK, neo-Nazis, alt-right and Trump supporters in North Carolina,” Penley said. “The first shot has been fired, so to speak, by our governor, and I think this is something I never thought I would see here in my lifetime.

“The times they are a-changin’ and you don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing,” he said, quoting Dylan. “I hope Jesse Helms hears about this in hell.”