White supremacists and nationalists are casting themselves as police victims in the wake of last weekend’s deadly riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, alleging that law enforcement did nothing to protect them from anti-fascist counterprotesters.
“They refused to police areas that should have been policed,” white nationalist Richard Spencer, who is credited with founding the “alt-right” movement, told reporters from his home on Monday.
“I have never felt like the government or the police are against me,” Spencer said. “I always believe that if I do something wrong I’ll be punished, but if I’m in the right they are going to protect me. There’s never been a situation in my life where I’ve questioned that — until Saturday.”
Spencer was more equivocal, however, when asked whether he has new sympathy for Black Lives Matter activists who say they are profiled and subject to rampant police brutality.
“There might be a problem among the right of too much of a knee-jerk ‘We back the boys in blue,’ ‘blue lives matter’ type thing,” Spencer said, referring to pro-police movements. “We probably should be more sceptical.”
But he said that while it’s one thing to say that Charlottesville police “behaved in a totally reckless manner” last weekend, it’s another thing to suggest that there is “a nationwide institutional manhunt among police against black people.”
Spencer’s condemnations of the Charlottesville police echoed those of white supremacist Jason Kessler, who organised the “Unite the Right” rally and has been tweeting relentlessly about what he characterised as a negligent police response.
“Cops were given stand-down orders to allow violence to shut down rally,” Kessler wrote.
Alt-right white nationalist Tim Gionet, better known as Baked Alaska, retweeted several of Spencer’s complaints about how police had “failed.”
The far-right media outlet Breitbart, meanwhile, seized on a ProPublica report which said that Virginia state police and National Guardsmen “watched passively for hours as self-proclaimed Nazis engaged in street battles with counter-protesters.” Breitbart emphasised that ProPublica is left-leaning and alleged that it is funded by the billionaire liberal philanthropist George Soros.
Kessler also retweeted several statements from the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which wrote on Monday that Charlottesville’s policing last weekend “was not effective in preventing violence.”
To be sure, the Charlottesville police response has been roundly criticised on both sides.
On the right, the police’s “wait-and-see” approach was perceived as a conspiracy: Cops allowed violence to break out so they would have an excuse to shut down the rally. That claim was bolstered by Virginia’s ACLU chapter, which tweeted that police stood “passively by, seemingly waiting for violence to take place, so that they’d have grounds to declare ‘unlawful assembly.'”
Those on the left, meanwhile, viewed the laissez-faire response as an example of the police’s willingness to treat far-right extremists with kid gloves.
“Police in Charlottesville had the same military equipment we saw in Baltimore and Ferguson,” wrote MSNBC host Joy Ann Reid. “They just chose not to use them.”
“White supremacists actually pushed the police line in Charlottesville & the police just stood there,” tweeted Black Lives Matter activist Deray Mckesson.
Charlottesville police chief Al Thomas said on Monday that it was “simply not true” that cops had been told to stand down. But he acknowledged that the police force was “spread thin once the crowds dispersed” and that he has “regrets” about the way the protests were handled.
Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe also admitted that the police were reluctant to engage — but only because they were largely outgunned by far-right militias.
“It’s easy to criticise, but I can tell you this, 80% of the people here had semiautomatic weapons,” McAuliffe told the New York Times on Sunday.
“You saw the militia walking down the street, you would have thought they were an army … I was just talking to the State Police upstairs; [the militia members] had better equipment than our State Police had,” McAuliffe said. “And yet not a shot was fired, zero property damage.”
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