By George Joseph | ProPublica | – –
Nearly a month before a car driven by an alleged neo-Nazi plowed into counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12, white supremacists planning the “Unite the Right” rally joked about using vehicles to run over their opponents.
That message and thousands of other conversations among white supremacists were leaked from a chat app called Discord and posted on the website of a left-wing media collective called Unicorn Riot. Many users’ participation could not be verified, but ProPublica was able to confirm that two people whose statements were included in the leaked trove made the comments attributed to them.
The pre-Charlottesville chats include discussions of potential violence, the use of weapons, and excitement at the prospect of “fighting for the white race.”
The leaked discussions also reveal an intense level of planning and nationwide coordination. As ProPublica reported earlier this month, the “Unite the Right” demonstrations were dominated by a younger, more tech-savvy generation of white supremacists than in past protests. They coordinated logistics for disparate groups and came together a thousand strong to take over city streets in military-style formation. The two-plus months of leaked planning discussions, reviewed by ProPublica, support this assessment. Below are five key takeaways from the messages.
1. Some Activists Insisted on Peace — But Many Were Hungry for Violence
The discussion boards include repeated fantasies of violence against counter-protesters and black residents, only occasionally challenged by board moderators. (Wired.com reported on several examples over the weekend.) On July 18, for example, user AltCelt(IL) posted a photo of vehicles surrounded by crowds in response to fellow commentors’ discussion of car insurance and logistics. Another user replied, claiming that in North Carolina “driving over protesters blocking roadways isn’t an offense.” The user seemed to be referring to a controversial bill that was recently passed by the North Carolina Statehouse. The user then posted a meme showing a combine harvester that could be a “digestor” for multiple lanes of protesters, saying, “Sure would be nice.”
Less than a month later, at the actual “Unite the Right” rally, a car struck a group of counter-protestors, killing 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others. The white supremacists made light of that after the fact, with one user posting a meme that inserted an image of the car from the movie “Back to the Future” into a photo of the crowd at Charlottesville, adding the phrase, “Back to the Fhurer (sic).”
Evan McLaren, executive director of Richard Spencer’s white supremacist National Policy Institute, argued in an interview that what he characterized as “irreverent banter” was “not relevant to what happened” and did not spur the violence in Charlottesville.
The chat group members often used Discord before the rally to discuss street-fighting with their enemies, especially antifa groups. And some conversations focused on terrorizing Charlottesville residents. On Aug. 3, a user copied a posting for a Facebook event for a black community back-to-school party near Emancipation Park, the site of the planned Robert E. Lee statue removal. Users joked about crashing the party and stabbing attendees, who would have presumably included schoolchildren. (“RAHOWA,” cited below, is an acronym for “racial holy war.”)
2. White Supremacist Groups Spent Months Tracking Potential Foes Online and in the Real World
A month before the rally, white supremacists used their chat site to collect information on counter-protesters they anticipated they might encounter. As one chat group leader put it, “knowing faces is always helpful.” For weeks in the lead-up to the rally, white nationalists shared photos of a wide variety of potential adversaries, from out-of-state leftists to local Charlottesville racial justice activists.
On July 17, a user with the handle Stanislav Dajic posted “>Nigger >shoot intended targets,” followed by a smiley-face emoji, under a photo of Joseph Offutt, a black Dallas-area activist who has taken part in several counter-protests against Black Lives Matter.
Chat group users also trawled through left-wing websites and social media, aiming to exploit what they viewed as their political advantage in the Trump era.
McLaren, for instance, posted information about a “DC Training to Resist the Alt-Right” car pool, which he took from the discussion section of a left-wing Facebook event. (McLaren said he did so to protect his fellow marchers.)
The white supremacists also gathered and shared information they had gleaned via in-person sleuthing efforts. One post from July 26, for example, showed a photo a white supremacist took of notes left on a whiteboard from a meeting of a group called Showing Up For Racial Justice in Charlottesville. The board included references to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Black Lives Matter and other entities.
On July 20, another user took pictures of three left-wing groups in Ann Arbor as they raised money and recruited volunteers to go to Charlottesville.
The user advised his compatriots, “If you guys live in leftie areas and have art or street fairs coming up, it’d be worth it to mosey through and see if your local leftists are out trying for the same thing.”
3. Users Collected “Evidence” of Left-Wing Social Media Threats to Give to Police and Courts
Weeks before the “Unite the Right” rally, chat-room participants were collecting alleged left-wing threats of violence, such as “Punch a Nazi” posts on social media, suggesting this content should be forwarded to police or compiled for court proceedings. In one post from Aug. 9, for example, a user advised members of the “Antifa Watch” discussion thread to share threats against the rally “to help with our court case.”
In another post, this one on July 30, a user noted that an anarchist blog post discussing the Charlottesville rally should be forwarded to the Virginia State Police. Eli Mosley, who played a lead role in organizing the “Unite the Right” rally, told ProPublica via Twitter that police had been informed about “potential threats” his group had received. (The Virginia State Police and the Charlottesville Police Department did not respond to ProPublica’s inquiries as to whether they received any such content.)
4. Some Members Displayed a Sophisticated Understanding of Digital Security Culture and Leftist Tactics
On an intelligence-gathering thread, a user identified as McCarthy recommended not bringing phones to the rally, since “any stolen phones will compromise your entire affinity group, any organizations you are a part of, and entire networks of communication.” McCarthy may have been referring to cellphone extraction devices and programs that can perform link analysis, which are increasingly used by law enforcement and can map phone users’ communication networks based on analysis of call and text logs. In addition, a stolen phone could be used to reveal the identities of white supremacists in a doxing campaign.
The user then shared a link to a page dedicated to operational security for right-wing protesters on the white supremacist website The Daily Stormer. In a message to ProPublica, Mosley attributed this security focus to members who he claimed are “high level tech workers and IT security consultants.”
Malcolm Harris, a left-wing writer whose work often focuses on far-right organizations, noted that this reference to “affinity” groups suggests that the right wing is borrowing from left-wing organizing tactics. The affinity model brings smaller operations to work together in a larger action, and the right seemed to use this approach to coordinate among numerous white supremacists groups, such as Identity Evropa, the Traditionalist Worker Party and Vanguard America.
“The base form of an affinity organization is a group of five to six people that know and trust each other, then knit themselves into a larger [collection],” Harris told ProPublica. “They love taking left-wing terminology, so I’m not surprised to see them talking about affinity groups. It’s a pretty decent model for when you don’t have a single organization running things.”
Right-wing activists also shared information about local and state police scanners to help gather intelligence.
“It’s not exactly surprising that they adopt these tactics,” said Harris. “But on the other hand, the police and the state have not made it a priority to break their networks.”
5. Organizers Worked Closely With Police and Assumed Law Enforcement Would Focus on Counter-Protesters
In planning documents and discussion threads, chat group leaders repeatedly referred before the march to close collaboration with police and voiced expectations that law enforcement would treat them respectfully. A secret planning document, entitled “Operation Unite The Right Charlottesville 2.0,” for example, prepped for various possible police responses to their demonstrations, but noted “in our communications with them [the police] they know that the left are the ones looking to do violence.”
In the message boards leading up to the rally, apparent chat group leaders also repeatedly referred to their close work with law enforcement. When asked about these communications, Mosley, who was quoted in one of the threads, explained, “when I said ‘they knew,’ I was referring to the police who, time and time again, admitted to us that they knew the left was (sic) going to be the violent ones.”
The perception of law enforcement was more mixed among commenters who appeared to be in the rank and file of the chat group. Some hoped to recruit white police officers to their cause and praised past law enforcement efforts against left-wing Antifa protesters.
Others felt cops could “betray” them and were fundamentally pawns of the establishment (and added what may have been caricatures of Jewish people).
After the rally, counter-protesters and progressives criticized law enforcement’s apparent unwillingness to shut down violent altercations. During the torchlit march on Aug. 11, for example, white supremacist forces led by figures like Richard Spencer were able to storm through the University of Virginia, with some participants beating up counter-protesters, some of whom fought back but were overwhelmed. Witnesses, such as the Harvard professor and activist Cornel West, noted how few police were in sight. The next day at the rally, according to the Daily Beast, police ignored pleas from wounded activists and did not intervene or make arrests after the beating of a black protester, Deandre Harris, in a parking garage next to the Charlottesville police station.
McLaren, the white supremacist, blames the local political establishment, claiming — without proof — that it engineered the violence. “I don’t blame police for this; it’s the people who were directing police,” said McLaren. “They obviously engineered an event where it had to be designed so that violence would occur.”
In the wake of the leaks (and efforts by Discord to ban them from the app), white supremacist leaders say they will simply move to other apps or abandon them. “I’ve never liked using Discord or things like that anyway,” Mosley wrote on Twitter. “We’ve done it without that before. We used it this time because it was a large and public event.”
McLaren echoed that view. “You know also there’s a robust nature to what we’ve accomplished so far,” said McLaren. “We’re pretty personally networked now so there’s an extent we can continue to coordinate things even if we’re completely shut out of social media.”
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Related video added by Juan Cole: