Amy Goodman and A. C. Thompson / Democracy Now! – 2018-08-12 01:01:23
Documenting Hate: New Doc Lays Bare
The Violent White Supremacy that
Exploded in Charlottesville
Amy Goodman and A. C. Thompson / Democracy Now!
(August 7, 2018) — This week marks one year since white supremacists and neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, in the deadly “Unite the Right” rally to protest the city’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. It became the biggest and deadliest white supremacist rally in the United States in decades.
We look back at the deadly rally in Charlottesville with a new documentary by Frontline PBS and ProPublica titled “Documenting Hate: Charlottesville.” We speak with A.C. Thompson, the reporter who produced the investigation, which premieres tonight on PBS.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This week marks one year since white supremacists and neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, in the deadly “Unite the Right” rally to protest Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. It became the biggest and deadliest white supremacist rally in the United States in decades.
The violence began on the night of August 11th, when hundreds of white men bearing torches marched on the University of Virginia campus and attacked a small group of anti-racist protesters. Then, on the morning of August 12th, up to a thousand white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville. Many were carrying Nazi flags, other white supremacist paraphernalia, as well. Some wore body armor and carried assault rifles and pistols. They were met by thousands of anti-racist counterdemonstrators. Police did little to intervene, even as the violent street fights broke out.
That afternoon, a white supremacist named James Alex Fields drove his Dodge Charger into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing an anti-racist activist named Heather Heyer. Nineteen other people were injured. Fields has since been charged with first-degree murder, as well as federal hate crimes.
Well, this weekend, white supremacists are planning to mark the first anniversary of Charlottesville by a holding another “Unite the Right” rally, this time in Washington, D.C. Anti-fascist and anti-racist protesters are preparing to stage a counterprotest.
Today we look back at the deadly rally in Charlottesville, the subject of a new documentary by Frontline PBS and ProPublica titled Documenting Hate: Charlottesville. In a few minutes, we’ll be joined by reporter A.C. Thompson, but first an excerpt of his new investigation.
A.C. THOMPSON: I arrived in Charlottesville for what would become the largest gathering of white supremacists in a generation. They called it “Unite the Right,” and it was drawing groups from at least 35 states.
POLICE CHIEF ALFRED THOMAS: Good afternoon. I’m Chief Thomas, Charlottesville Police Department. We will have a significant police presence throughout the weekend — well over a hundred officers from my agency, several hundred officers from the Virginia State Police. We were informed that the National Guard is monitoring this situation.
A.C. THOMPSON: The day before the rally, a few reporters gathered for the police press conference. But I had begun to hear from other sources in Charlottesville.
POLICE CHIEF ALFRED THOMAS: We have time for one more question.
A.C. THOMPSON: Chief, we’re hearing rumors of there being another torchlight march tonight, an unpermitted march. Do you have any information about that?
POLICE CHIEF ALFRED THOMAS: I’ve heard the same rumors, but I don’t have a lot of details. What have you heard? Where is that going to be taking place? In the city or the county?
A.C. THOMPSON: We’ve been hearing 5:00 or 6:00.
POLICE CHIEF ALFRED THOMAS: Where at?
A.C. THOMPSON: Not far from here is what we’ve been hearing.
The police had heard the same rumors I had, but the university grounds were quiet, and it seemed like the march might not be happening after all — until, suddenly, the torches appeared.
WHITE SUPREMACISTS: You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us!
A.C. THOMPSON: In a matter of moments, hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists assembled and marched on the university. The police arrived on the scene, but watched from the sidelines as a small group of anti-racist activists were quickly surrounded.
WHITE SUPREMACISTS: White lives matter! White lives matter! White lives matter!
A.C. THOMPSON: One of them, Emily Gorcenski, was streaming it from her phone.
EMILY GORCENSKI: We are pinned in. We are surrounded on all sides by hundreds of Nazis. We have no way out.
WHITE SUPREMACIST 1: Where are all your friends at, [bleep]? Where are all your friends at, [bleep]?
WHITE SUPREMACIST 2: We outnumber you! We outnumber you! We run this [bleep], not you.
WHITE SUPREMACISTS: White lives matter! White lives matter! White lives matter! White lives matter!
EMILY GORCENSKI: I got punched. I got kicked. I remember getting hit in the head. I thought it was with a torch. I stepped forward at one point, and I got shoved back. I thought I was going to die. The thing that I was thinking as the melee was happening was, I just need to keep the camera going, you know? That was the only thing that I could do. Yeah, it was like a hundred people beating up like a small group of us, a small group of students.
A.C. THOMPSON: Ten or 15 people.
EMILY GORCENSKI: Yeah. You could feel how angry they were, but also how happy they were, you know, to be doing this, to be intimidating people like this.
A.C. THOMPSON: Had you ever seen that displayed before?
EMILY GORCENSKI: No, never in my life. They were cheering. They were running through the streets, yelling at people. And they walked away, and they got away with it. They’re coming in here the next day, ready to do more. I thought, like, here we go. Yeah, here we go.
AMY GOODMAN: The documentary Documenting Hate: Charlottesville will be played tonight across the country. This is another excerpt.
WHITE SUPREMACISTS: You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us!
A.C. THOMPSON: Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12th, 2017. I had been tracking hate crimes since the 2016 presidential election, and I could see that something was happening in this country.
The Charlottesville rally was supposed to be about a Confederate monument, but anyone who was paying attention could see that it was about more than a single statue. It felt like a national reckoning around race was coming. And being here would help me understand it. I came here to ask questions, but as the day unraveled into chaos around me, one thing became clear: This was not a place to listen or understand; Charlottesville was a crime scene.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from A.C. Thompson’s Frontline/ProPublica documentary Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, which is premiering tonight on PBS stations around the country.
A.C. Thompson, joining us here in New York, welcome back to Democracy Now!
A.C. THOMPSON: Thanks for having me on.
AMY GOODMAN: What a critical documentary this is, as the “Unite the Right” rally plans again — is planned again for Washington, D.C., this weekend. Talk about this journey you took, starting in Charlottesville. You were there on that day a year ago, on those days, August 11th and 12th.
A.C. THOMPSON: You know, we went down there, and we went to the event, myself and my colleagues, because I had seen this resurgence of white power, white supremacist activity, that I hadn’t seen in decades. I had reported on these people in the ’90s, and they had sort of faded away.
And then, in the last two years, they had really come back with a vengeance. There were all these new groups, all these new activists, all these new leaders. And they sort of seemed to be piggybacking on the Trump moment and trying to build their movement again. We went down there. We were expecting it to be possibly bloody, possibly violent, but we did not expect it to be what it turned out to be, which was lethal.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we see you in the documentary questioning the police chief the day before. As you said, you were among a handful of reporters who were at this police news conference announcing what the plans were. And you asked this last question. Explain what it was that you asked and what information you had.
A.C. THOMPSON: You know, I wanted to know if they were going to do anything about the torch march that we were hearing would happen that night on the campus of the University of Virginia. And the chief was kind of coy and didn’t really say much about it. And it turned out that really nobody was ready for that.
The university police weren’t ready for that. The local police, the Charlottesville and county sheriffs, were not ready for that. And it turned into basically a bloodbath. When you go back and you look at the video in our film, what you see are white supremacists attacking mostly anti-racist student group over and over again with flaming torches and hitting them in the heads with them. Police were late to the scene and basically intervened very, very late.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you say to the police chief, “You’ve talked about plans for tomorrow, but what about tonight?” you said.
A.C. THOMPSON: Right, right. And —
AMY GOODMAN: That was the tiki torch-holding — and I hate to say tiki torch, because it sort of minimizes — yes, it ridicules them, but it also takes away the violence of what happened.
A.C. THOMPSON: Right. And later what would happen, with both that night and the next day, is the city commissioned an exhaustive investigative report about police failures. And it said, look, the UVA, the university police, they didn’t really understand what they were dealing with; they thought this was just going to be a typical protest march, not a volatile, violent situation. And they were out of place and unprepared. The next day, more of the same.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we get to the next day, Democracy Now! spoke with Cornel West last year, the Harvard, Princeton University, Union Theological professor, who was in Charlottesville that weekend for the counterdemonstrations with members of clergy, students, Black Lives Matter activists, protesters with the anti-fascist movement known as “antifa.” And I asked him about the reports that the counterprotesters were attacked with torches, pepper spray and lighter fluid.
CORNEL WEST: Absolutely. You had a number of the courageous students, of all colors, at the University of Virginia who were protesting against the neofascists themselves. The neofascists had their own ammunition. And this is very important to keep in mind, because the police, for the most part, pulled back.
The next day, for example, those 20 of us who were standing, many of them clergy, we would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists who approached, over 300, 350 anti-fascists. We just had 20. And we’re singing “This Little light of Mine,” you know what I mean? So that the —
AMY GOODMAN: “Antifa” meaning anti-fascist.
CORNEL WEST: The anti-fascists, and then, crucial, the anarchists, because they saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that.
AMY GOODMAN: Talking about the events of August 11th and 12th in Charlottesville. And you have in your documentary the image of Cornel West and other religious leaders arm in arm, just walking.
A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah, we followed them from the sunrise ceremony they had at a nearby church to the park, where the main “Unite the Right” rally occurred. And I think, to me, one of the images that I have, early on that morning, being with that group of clergy is I remember there was a white man wearing a Nazi swastika T-shirt, and within the first five minutes of being there, he was shoving around an African-American photographer. And that sort of was the tone for the day, that it was going to be violent, it was going to be aggressive, and really nobody was going to stop the violence.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to our discussion with A.C. Thompson, correspondent for Frontline PBS, a reporter with ProPublica. His investigation, Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, premieres tonight 10 p.m. Eastern on PBS stations and online at PBS.org/Frontline.
We’ll continue what he did next, going to Charlottesville, across the country, to track the “Unite the Right” activists, who it seemed like the federal government was not exactly investigating. And we’ll begin with what President Trump had to say after that rally. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
New Charlottesville Doc Exposes
Neo-Nazi Leaders and Their Ties to
US Military and Weapons Contractors
Amy Goodman / Democracy Now!
(August 10, 2018) — hen hundreds of white supremacists arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a deadly “Unite the Right” protest last August, local authorities were unprepared for the violence that terrorized the city, largely standing back during bloody encounters between white supremacists and counterprotesters.
One year later, we speak with investigative reporter A.C. Thompson on his work to track down and identify white supremacists from Charlottesville and other extremist rallies across the country. His investigation, “Documenting Hate: Charlottesville,” premieres tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern on PBS.
AMY GOODMAN: Soon we’ll be speaking with Heather Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, who will be joining us from Charlottesville. But right now I want to turn back to President Trump last August speaking at the news conference he held in the lobby of Trump Tower, his residence here in New York, defending his decision to wait two full days before placing blame on white supremacists for the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. During the news conference, the president attacked the anti-racist counterprotesters, repeating his earlier claim there was violence on all sides.
REPORTER 1: You said there was hatred, there was violence on both sides. Are the counterprotesters to blame —
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I do think there’s blame — yes, I think there’s blame on both sides. You look at — you look at both sides, I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it, either. And — and —
REPORTER 1: But only the Nazis —
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And — and if you reported it accurately, you would say.
REPORTER 2: One side killed a person. Heather Heyer died —
REPORTER 1: The neo-Nazis started this. They showed up in Charlottesville. They showed up in Charlottesville —
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Excuse me. Excuse me.
REPORTER 1: — to protest the removal of that statue.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They didn’t put themselves down as neo — and you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was President Trump. A.C. Thompson, talk about his response and the effect you believe it had.
A.C. THOMPSON: You know, for members of the white power movement, this was a sort of opening. They said, “Hey, the president is basically lending us some support. He’s not totally condemning us. He’s saying some of us are fine people.” And the folks that I talked to in that movement took heart in that. They felt inspired and excited about that. And they thought, you know, “This guy is on our side.”
AMY GOODMAN: So, you decide, in Charlottesville, you’re trying to figure out who the people are who are carrying the torches. Who were the people hitting, beating, going after those bystanders, also a smaller group of protesters who were directly confronting them, and the thousands that were also there?
A.C. THOMPSON: Right. You know, what we saw there was a police failure on the day, but we also saw what seemed to be a sort of ongoing, slow-moving law enforcement failure to bring the people who had been involved in these incredibly vicious altercations to justice and hold them accountable. And what we wanted to do was go figure out who were these people, what had they done, and sort of why had they eluded the authorities, what had happened in the intervening months. And so we set out to sort of identify these characters and identify specific crimes that we could sort of tell people, “Hey, look, this is something that happened, and nobody has been held accountable for it.”
AMY GOODMAN: So, were you just tracking the FBI, tracking the police, tracking these people?
A.C. THOMPSON: No, no, we were doing our own investigation. We were, you know, basically trying to figure this out all on our own. And for me, I was immediately drawn to a group called the Rise Above Movement. And they’re based in Southern California. I live in California. And they had been involved in violent protests up and down my state.
And when a realized, “Oh, these guys were in Charlottesville, too,” I thought this is a group that I need to focus on, because they are a white power, street-fighting crew. They are capable of significant violence in sort of ways that some of these other actors aren’t. They’re trained fighters. And I had seen them involved in these really, really nasty attacks on both coasts.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Rise Above Movement, R-A-M.
A.C. THOMPSON: That’s the Rise Above Movement, RAM.
AMY GOODMAN: RAM. So talk about Rob Rundo.
A.C. THOMPSON: So, Robert Rundo is the founder of the group. He’s a young man who grew up here in New York City. He was in Flushing, Queens. At the time when he was growing up, he ran like a small multiracial gang. They had an altercation with MS-13, the Salvadoran gang. Rundo ended up stabbing a member of that gang multiple times. He went to prison.
AMY GOODMAN: You show that on video in the film.
A.C. THOMPSON: It’s on video, yeah. We have the surveillance video. And he went to prison in upstate New York. And by the time he got out of prison, he was definitely a committed white supremacist. He ends up moving to California, and he starts up a new gang, the Rise Above Movement. And this is a political white supremacist gang.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about Charlottesville and Rob Rundo’s presence there.
A.C. THOMPSON: So, he wasn’t there, but his people were there. And they were involved in multiple skirmishes that we saw. So, one of them was a guy named Mike Miselis. And Mike Miselis, we have documentary evidence of him hurling a full Coke can at counterprotesters. We believe he threw a rock at counterprotesters.
He came with his hands taped up like a boxer, as if he was preparing for a fight. He was wearing a mouth guard like a boxer would wear. And we have video of him engaging in this altercation with counterprotesters, where he pushes a couple to the ground and starts punching them when they’re on the ground.
His colleague, Ben Daley, enters into the fray and chokes and attacks two female counterprotesters, leaving them bloody. So this was a pretty nasty fight that we saw that seemed totally unnecessary and that we captured on video. Our goal was — when we first started doing this work, we didn’t know these guys’ names, we didn’t know what they had done. We were trying to identify them. And we said we want to know who these guys in this video are.
AMY GOODMAN: So, on July 5th, you reported a story about Michael Miselis for ProPublica headlined “He Is a Member of a Violent White Supremacist Group. So Why Is He Working for a Defense Contractor With a Security Clearance?” One day after your story was published, Michael Miselis lost his job. Talk about how you tracked him down.
A.C. THOMPSON: You know, so we had these photos and videos, and we had seen him at these rallies, but we didn’t know his name. We didn’t know who he was. Eventually, over many months, we were able to get a break that led us — that gave us his name. And we were able to corroborate that, yeah, this is the guy.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that break.
A.C. THOMPSON: We had a law enforcement source who said, “Hey, this is evidence that’s going to lead you to this guy,” and helped us lead us to that name. We went and saw Michael Miselis — and it’s in our film — and said, “Hey” —
AMY GOODMAN: And you confront him when he’s getting in his car, where?
A.C. THOMPSON: This is in Southern California, not far from the Northrop Grumman plant. And you can watch the video and decide what you think about it, but I was struck by the fact that he seemed kind of highly unsurprised to have somebody come and say, “Hey, what were you doing in Charlottesville last summer?” To me, he didn’t seem particularly shocked by that.
AMY GOODMAN: He immediately said, of course, “I wasn’t there.” But you kept pushing.
A.C. THOMPSON: Right. He said, “I wasn’t there,” and he denied being there, at the time. He has since — or his group has since gone back on that and acknowledged that he was there.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about Northrop Grumman.
A.C. THOMPSON: So, Northrop Grumman at first said nothing. We kept asking them, “Hey, what’s the story with this guy? How did he get a security clearance? What is he doing working for your company?” And they said nothing to us. We made repeated queries to them about this.
Then, when we published our story, they issued a statement saying: “Hey, we don’t approve of this. We’re investigating. We’re concerned about this.” The CEO of the company at the time sent out a bulletin to everybody on the staff, an internal bulletin, saying, “This is not good. We’re not down with this.” And eventually we were alerted that they had been — that he had been let go from the company.
AMY GOODMAN: And when was that?
A.C. THOMPSON: The day after, about 24 hours afterwards.
AMY GOODMAN: And what other images did you — did you have images of him at other locations?
A.C. THOMPSON: We had video of him in Berkeley, and we had video of him in Charlottesville, both times in these violent altercations and really looking like he was prepared for violence, so hands taped up, goggles, a mouthpiece in, that kind of thing.
AMY GOODMAN: And when you talk about these protests in California, for those who are not familiar with them, know Charlottesville because, well, a person died there —
A.C. THOMPSON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: — Heather Heyer — and, again, in a few minutes we’ll be talking with her mother. But you had seen this coming. Talk about the series of “Unite the Right” rallies that were held throughout California.
A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah, so there was — in 2016 and 2017, there was a whole string of far-right and racist rallies that occurred throughout California, and almost every one of these turned into a bloodbath. So, you had a Klan rally in the spring of 2016 in Anaheim; three people were stabbed.
You had a Nazi rally in Sacramento in 2016, the summer; seven people were stabbed. And then you had conflicts in Huntington Beach, a Trump march, where the Rise Above Movement first made its presence known, and there were numerous altercations. A journalist from the OC Weekly newspaper was attacked there by the Rise Above Movement.
And then you had Berkeley. And the Berkeley battles, the Berkeley demonstrations, were incredibly violent, sort of street-fighting, political-warfare-in-the-streets events that went on through the spring, that Rise Above Movement was present, Nazi groups were present, other white supremacist groups, and also sort of less extreme pro-Trump groups were there. But these were really highly, highly violent scenarios that were poorly policed, where they got out of control and just spun on for hours.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, earlier I asked you if you were tracking the FBI tracking them. But, I mean, I think what clearly comes through in your documentary is your sort of utter surprise that you felt like you were out there on your own tracking these people.
A.C. THOMPSON: Right, exactly, like that was our — that was our sense for much of the work that we were doing, was that there was not a lot of interest from law enforcement in these characters. I believe that has possibly changed now. But while we were doing our work, it wasn’t like there was an investigative trail left by law enforcement for us to follow.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the US Marine Corps lance corporal who you identify as a neo-Nazi and assailant during last August’s bloody white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
A.C. THOMPSON: So that’s Vasillios Pistolis. And Pistolis is, I would say, a fascinating and disturbing character. At the time of the Charlottesville rally, he was a member of what I would say is the most extreme, most dangerous white supremacist group, and that’s the Atomwaffen Division, which is a group of committed domestic Nazi terrorists whose goal is to start a race war, overthrow the US government and establish a fascist state.
And they aim to do that through guerrilla warfare, assassination and political terrorism. So, at the same time Pistolis is serving in the Marine Corps, he is in a group that is dedicated to overthrowing the government through force of arms.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Atomwaffen, A-T-O-M-W-A-F-F-E-N?
A.C. THOMPSON: Right. So that means — in German, that means nuclear weapons, and then with the English word “division.” So it’s sort of a nod to the Third Reich.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the encrypted chats that they have online. Talk about Discord.
A.C. THOMPSON: Right. So, working with my colleagues, Jake Hanrahan and Ali Winston, we were able to get access to 250,000 chat messages sent privately by the group. And they sort of really lay out the group’s ideology, their intentions and sort of their menace.
You know, some of the chat messages that we got included people talking about specific plans to blow up the power grid in Western states. They talked about plans to manufacture weapons. They talked about training camps that they were doing in the Nevada desert, in the Midwest, training people in hand-to-hand combat and guerrilla warfare.
AMY GOODMAN: You took your information back to Emily Gorcenski —
A.C. THOMPSON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: — in Charlottesville. And explain what you found and what she had been looking for, as well.
A.C. THOMPSON: Right. So, Emily and I had been messaging one another since shortly after the Charlottesville event. And she was trying to figure out, “Hey, who attacked me on the night of the 11th?” And we had some notion that perhaps it was the Rise Above Movement. We knew that they were there and they were close to her. Maybe it was somebody else. And eventually I come across, in these chat logs, Vasillios Pistolis talking quite explicitly about attacking Emily, as well as attacking many other people. He said —
AMY GOODMAN: But wait, this is really important. He didn’t just say, “I attacked this person.” He talked about her, Emily Gorcenski.
A.C. THOMPSON: Right, right. That was what was stunning to me. That was what — like, you never see that, right? It’s like somebody has just offered you up the evidence right there. And I think it’s because Emily had been live-streaming that, and so people started — on the far right, started knowing her name. And then he wanted to take credit for that assault.
And from everything we can tell, we know he was there. We have video of him entering that fray. Emily is not entirely sure if the kick that he launched actually hit her. But she knows, and we can see from the video, that he propelled himself into that melee and that basically the violence escalated from the time that he jumped in.
He also, you know, later said — we have video of him beating somebody with a wooden flagpole the next day. And he posted these messages saying, “Hey, I split” — I think he said, “I split three skulls today, with virtually no damage to myself. You know, I had so much fun at ‘Unite the Right.'” So he was a guy who was bragging about the violence he engaged in. You know, he posted photos of himself, in these private chats, attacking people.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about how you tracked him to his employer.
A.C. THOMPSON: So, that’s one of the fascinating things about these chat logs from the Atomwaffen Division, is you start looking at them, and you realize, oh, there are several people who are active-duty or former military in this group, people that have good combat training, people that know their way around weapons. And we thought, let’s finally go — when we had enough evidence — go to the Marine Corps and say, “Hey, look, this is what we know about this guy who works for you. This is” —
AMY GOODMAN: And where does he work for them?
A.C. THOMPSON: At that time, he was a lance corporal at Camp Lejeune down in North Carolina, which is a place that’s actually had sort of persistent problems with white supremacists over the years.
AMY GOODMAN: This Atomwaffen leader.
A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah, he’s down there. He’s on base, working with the Marine Corps down there. He was a water purification specialist at that time. And we said, “Look, here’s photos. Here’s video. Here’s what we’re going to say. We need to know if you guys have taken action against this guy at all. Do you know about him? And what should we know about him?” you know, and put that out to them.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did they say?
A.C. THOMPSON: What we found out was that there had already been an investigation into Pistolis by military investigators. And apparently the investigation stalled or was dropped or didn’t go somewhere. But there had been an investigation, for at least six months, into his conduct. In the military, you cannot be a member of an active white supremacist group. That is against military regulations in all branches of the service.
You also — you know, engaging in criminal activity, like assaulting people, is also barred. But for some reason, the Marine Corps had not acted on the information that it had, that it had had since before we talked to them. Six months before, they were tipped off about this. And they had allowed him to remain in the corps.
AMY GOODMAN: So you have all the evidence. You have the video. You have him beating —
A.C. THOMPSON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: — Emily Gorcenski and others.
A.C. THOMPSON: Right. And at that point, it seems like they took more aggressive action. So they ended up court-martialing Vasillios Pistolis, and they recently separated him from the service, which is jargon to say that they have ousted him from the service.
But I would point out that the court-martial that they did with Pistolis was basically a misdemeanor court-martial. And it just said, “Hey, you weren’t following orders. You were misleading your superiors,” and gave him 30 days in the brig. And then the discharge that they went through him, I would say, from what I can tell, is not a particularly severe sort of discharge, because those things are graded. You know, an other-than-honorable, a dishonorable discharge, these are serious. And I’m not sure that that was the kind of thing that he got.
AMY GOODMAN: Because it just happened.
A.C. THOMPSON: It just happened. And like I said, this was basically a misdemeanor court-martial that he got.
AMY GOODMAN: And you tracked him down. You actually talk to him in the documentary.
A.C. THOMPSON: I actually talked to him. I emailed him first at his email, which included the numbers 88, which is a code for “Heil Hitler” among white supremacists. And he gave me a bunch of different stories. You know, he gave me — he said, “Look, I have ‘alt-right’ beliefs.” He suggested like, “Yes, I am a white supremacist.”
AMY GOODMAN: He had denied he was in Charlottesville.
A.C. THOMPSON: But he denied he was in Charlottesville.
AMY GOODMAN: At first.
A.C. THOMPSON: At first. And then I said, “Look, I’ve got videos of you. I’ve got photos of you. I’ve got chat logs where you’re talking about this stuff. It sure looks like you. I don’t know — you know, you don’t have a body double that I know of, so explain this to me.” And he just basically said, “Hey, you know, how about you don’t publish this, and somewhere down the road I’ll give you information about other white power figures, and that will help your career, because you probably don’t want to work at ProPublica for the rest of your life?” And I said, “No, thanks. I think we should do this story.”
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and, A.C., I want to ask you to stay with us. But when we come back, we’ll also be joined by Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old anti-racist activist who was run down by a white supremacist a year ago and killed. A.C. Thompson is correspondent for the Frontline PBS documentary that — and reporter for ProPublica. His investigation, Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, will premiere tonight around the country. Stay with us
Mother of Heather Heyer, Killed 1 Year Ago:
Everyone Needs to Pick Up the Baton & Stand Against Hate
Amy Goodman / Democracy Now!
(August 7, 2018) — It has been nearly a year since anti-racist activist Heather Heyer died in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white supremacist James Alex Fields drove his Dodge Charger into a crowd of counterdemonstrators.
As white supremacists plan to mark the first anniversary of Charlottesville by holding another “Unite the Right” rally in Washington, D.C., we speak with Heyer’s mother Susan Bro about Heather Heyer’s legacy and what activists can do to combat racism.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue to look back at last year’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. At the rally, a neo-Nazi named James Alex Fields drove his Dodge Charger into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing 32-year-old anti-racist activist Heather Heyer. Nineteen other people were injured. Fields has since been charged with first-degree murder, as well as federal hate crimes.
We’re now joined by Heather’s mother, Susan Bro. She joins us from Charlottesville and joins A.C. Thompson, as well, who did the documentary premiering tonight on PBS Frontline.
Susan, it’s a year later, but it’s my first time to offer you my condolences, the whole family at Democracy Now!‘s condolences, on the death of your daughter Heather.
SUSAN BRO: Thank you so much.
AMY GOODMAN: So it has been a year since August 12th, when you lost your daughter. Talk about why Heather was out there on August 12th last year, one of those who were protesting the white supremacist rally.
SUSAN BRO: Heather always believed, and acted on her beliefs, that equality was for all people, that if anybody is marginalized in the human race, then we all are. So, when her friends, who were African-American, were going to be at the rally, they said, “Come with us.” And at first she was like, “No, I think I’ll stay away.” And then she saw where her friend Courtney had live-streamed the events of Friday night. And she said, “I have to go.”
And her friend tried to talk her out of it. And she said, “I know it’s dangerous. I could die. But I have to be there.” And, of course, when we say things like that, we don’t really think we’re going to die, but she was there to support her friends.
And the group that she was with deliberately stayed away from the fighting all day. Wherever they saw fights, they turned away. And she was with a very large group of counterprotesters. She personally didn’t even carry any signs. She just had her cigarettes, her lighter, her keys and her phone with her.
She had parked her car nearby. And she was dressed to go to work as a waitress later. She had her hair back in a long braid, and she had on her black shirt and black top that she would wear to waitress. And she thought it was going to be just a day of walking the streets, you know, shouting “Black Lives Matter” and “Whose streets? Our streets!” And they had done that all day long.
From what I understand from Marcus and Marissa, her friends, they thought the Nazis were all leaving. Everybody was kind of relaxed and happy as they are coming back onto the barricaded mall. And they were going to get some food and some water. It was a really hot day. And that’s when Mr. Fields chose to drive his car into the crowd.
AMY GOODMAN: And he hit your daughter.
SUSAN BRO: Yes, he did. Hit a lot of other people.
AMY GOODMAN: Injured her friends.
SUSAN BRO: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: I just recently saw pictures of the wedding you were at of her dear friends, made famous because her friend, his feet up in the air as he was just upended by this car.
SUSAN BRO: His leg was shattered.
AMY GOODMAN: As he was pushing his partner away from the car, trying to save her life.
SUSAN BRO: Right. He told me he reached for Heather. He couldn’t get to her, but he at least knocked Marissa out of the way. And I said, “Honey, it’s OK.” And he still cries about that to this day. He’s so frustrated and angry about that. It is what it is, and we move forward. You know, I can’t be consumed by grief to where I can’t function. I have to move forward.
So, my life now revolves around not only have I picked up Heather’s baton and I’m running with it, but I’m also passing it off to as many people as I possibly can. They tried to silence my daughter, one voice. You don’t get to do that. I said at her funeral, you just magnified her, because not only am I going to speak up and speak louder, but I’m going to make sure lots of other people speak up, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Susan, did you think of Heather as an activist?
SUSAN BRO: She was a quiet activist. She was very passionate about her beliefs, but she was only passionate in small groups, in one-on-one conversations and in small family groups or on Facebook. That was her method of changing people’s hearts and minds. And what she would do was what she was actually taped doing that day.
She walked up to one of the girls as the neo-Nazis were leaving, a girl in a black helmet, and she said, “Talk to me about why you’re here. Why do you feel this way? What made you want to come? Why do you hate people? Can you talk to me about it? Can you explain to me?” and, you know, tried to be gently pulling the girl out of her belief system to talk to her. All the girl would say to her was “No comment. No comment,” because that’s what they’re trained to do. But that was Heather’s method of converting people, was talking one on one.
AMY GOODMAN: Heather’s last message on Facebook, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Heather also worked to help people going into bankruptcy. Is that right, Susan?
SUSAN BRO: Yes. One press article mistakenly put that she did that to help the poor, and somebody told me they got that from the website. We’ll get that changed. Not only poor people file for bankruptcy. Donald Trump has filed for bankruptcy many times. I don’t think he actually came to Heather for help. But a lot of people file for bankruptcy. But she was the bankruptcy intake person. She handled every single file that came through the office.
And after she died, thousands of people, over the course of the last year, have come to me and said, “Well, I knew Heather.” And I say, “How did you know her?” And sometimes they’ll say they knew her as a bartender or a waitress, but sometimes, more often than not, they’ll say they met her at Miller Law Group and that she was a person who made them feel comfortable, at ease.
Many times she would help people figure out how they didn’t have to even file for bankruptcy, so they never actually became a client, because Heather could help them figure out what they needed to do to save their car or save their house and get themselves back on track. So I was very proud of that as a mother, but I never knew any of that until after she was gone.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to an interview that A.C. Thompson did with Democrat Mike Signer, the former mayor of Charlottesville, for the documentary Documenting Hate: Charlottesville.
MICHAEL SIGNER: Groups that previously had been stuck in the shadows and at the margins and at the extremes were brought into the mainstream, and that’s why they felt welcome to try and “unite the right” in Charlottesville. At the end of the day, it’s a city of, you know, just under 50,000 people, and we were — we were in this — we were this target for forces much bigger than us.
A.C. THOMPSON: I saw you that night over at the county government headquarters, and you looked stricken.
MICHAEL SIGNER: “Stricken” is not a bad word for it. I wish that we had known more. I wish that we had been given more information by the state intelligence apparatus.
A.C. THOMPSON: Did they say anything like, “Hey, these guys are going to come with clubs. They’re going to come with pepper spray. They’re going to come with, you know, implements of violence”?
MICHAEL SIGNER: No. We had one briefing with three members of the Virginia State Police who came and talked to us on City Council. They did not present us with any evidence of a credible threat.
A.C. THOMPSON: As I understand it, about 10 people altogether have been prosecuted from those days. Does that sound accurate to you?
MICHAEL SIGNER: It sounds like it should be a lot higher.
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Mike Signer, the former mayor of Charlottesville. Since then, Nikuyah Walker has been elected, the first African-American woman mayor of Charlottesville. The “Unite the Right” rally certainly might have helped her in her bid, as she challenged the establishment.
Her theme was “unmasking the illusion.” But I wanted to bring this into the conversation with you, Susan and A.C. — A.C., starting with you, do you think the response of Donald Trump, before and after, how the Trump administration is dealing with white supremacy, left the Charlottesville establishment flat-footed before?
A.C. THOMPSON: What do you mean?
AMY GOODMAN: Meaning that they weren’t prepared and that they didn’t feel they were properly briefed, that they didn’t understand who these people were.
A.C. THOMPSON: So, it’s a really interesting thing, because our understanding is this, is that the federal intelligence agencies and the federal law enforcement agencies compiled research on these groups and that they had intelligence on these groups.
And now, our sort of question is: Why did that not reach the local authorities? Why did that not reach the City Council? And what happened between the federal government compiling research, the state police fusion center and the state police compiling research and intelligence, and the local police compiling intelligence, that leads to somehow folks thinking that nothing bad is going to happen that day?
AMY GOODMAN: Susan Bro, who do you hold responsible, in addition to James Alex Fields, who has been charged with first-degree murder, for the death of Heather?
SUSAN BRO: Oh, well, it’s a very complex issue, a lot of mistrust in all the wrong places. My understanding is that local efforts of investigation were focused on the local activists, the local anti-racist activists, and not on outside forces coming in or even the inside forces who were already here in place. Jason Kessler is one of Charlottesville’s own. He also graduated from UVA. So, my understanding —
AMY GOODMAN: One of the organizers of the rally, and Richard Spencer.
SUSAN BRO: Right. And my understanding is that Southern Poverty Law Center had issued warnings, but they were not being heeded. I think that many people thought, as I did, that basically the “alt-not-right” and the not-so-new Nazis are basically buffoons and idiots, and didn’t really take them seriously.
From what I have seen and observed since then is that they generally will try to present themselves as so outrageous that nobody will take them seriously. They will come with a serious intent, but they generally will attack, if they’re going to most likely try a lethal attack, as people are relaxing, when people are letting down their guard, saying, “Oh, they’re leaving. Oh, they’re going now.”
I know in Florida they actually had members get into an altercation where they were firing a gun at people at a bus stop, as rally participants from both sides were leaving. It seems to be a pattern. This is what they did in Charlottesville, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it a question, A.C., of poor policing or perhaps protecting white supremacists? For example, what happened last weekend in Berkeley, California. The police arrested the anti-fascist protesters, not the white supremacists, posted their names, their photos online. They haven’t even been convicted.
A.C. THOMPSON: No, I don’t think it was — I don’t think it was that sort of thing, where the police were protecting one side or the other. I think the police essentially —
AMY GOODMAN: In Charlottesville.
A.C. THOMPSON: In Charlottesville. I think the police in Charlottesville essentially abdicated their responsibility almost entirely, on both —
AMY GOODMAN: You were going up to them, saying, “What are you doing?”
A.C. THOMPSON: Right, right, because, look, we have had 50 years of, I would say, violent resistance against the Klan, against Nazis, against all these white supremacist groups. They come to the streets, and they will meet heavy resistance. You know that. And so, if you’re law enforcement, you know the thing that I need to do is keep these two groups separated and make sure that people don’t bring clubs, weapons, other sort of things that they’re going to attack each other with. It’s not that hard.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds. Susan Bro, what do you want us to remember about Heather as we move into this next weekend, the anniversary of her death, another “Unite the Right” rally, this time in Washington, D.C.?
SUSAN BRO: What I want you to remember is that everyone needs to stand up against hate. Everyone needs to pick up that baton. If you need information on how to do that, contact me at the Heather Heyer Foundation, and I will help you find ways to do that.
AMY GOODMAN: Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, she now runs the Heather Heyer Foundation. And A.C. Thompson, correspondant for Frontline PBS, reporter for ProPublica, his investigation, Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, the documentary, premieres tonight on PBS stations around the country.
And that does it for our broadcast. Democracy Now! has a job opening for a broadcast engineer. Check the website, democracynow.org.
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