Matthew Heimbach, an Indiana resident who has risen to prominence in the white nationalist movement, approached the epicenter of Saturday’s rally here wearing a black combat helmet and with a bodyguard close on his heels.
But as he entered the intersection just outside Emancipation Park, Heimbach and members of his Traditionalist Workers Party were met by counter protesters who had formed a blockade. A melee ensued, with people being flung to the ground in what was the first in a series of violent episodes that turned a graceful college town into a battleground. Later, when a car plowed into a crowd of people, at least killing one person and injuring 19 others, the casualties were all too real.
For Heimbach, a 26-year-old Maryland native who married into an Indiana family and has come to call Paoli home, the event he worked for weeks to promote ended quickly. Within an hour of his arrival — and before it was to officially begin — Virginia State Police stepped in and declared the rally an unlawful assembly. They ordered participants to disperse. Hours later, the tragedy of the car crash potentially overshadowed whatever message Heimbach hoped the rally would send.
Heimbach was unavailable for comment Saturday afternoon but was present in Emancipation Park long enough to get a face full of pepper spray. And then, as groups on both extremes of the ideological divide hurled objects and insults, Heimbach ordered his followers to push down the metal police barricades that cut the park into separate zones. Within minutes, state troopers stepped in with their order to end the gathering. It’s unclear if the actions were connected.
Ostensibly, the reason for Saturday’s rally was to protest a decision by Charlottesville to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from the park that until recently bore his name. But, in recent interviews, Heimbach acknowledged that the event was equally about bringing together members of the extreme right, who have been prone to splintering but found a rallying cry in Charlottesville.
“The biggest thing is a show of strength,” he said ahead of the rally. “To show that our organizations that have been divided on class, been divided on religious issues, divided on ideological grounds, can put 14 words — ‘We must secure the existence of our people and the future for white children’ — as our primary motivating factor.”
Heimbach, like many of those rallying alongside him Saturday, sees white identity, culture and religion as increasingly endangered by a diversifying America. He sees America as a failure and says his ultimate goal is to see it carved into ethno-states, with parts set aside for whites, parts for blacks, parts for Hispanics and so on. Such a future is desirable, he and others say, because they fear a white genocide is imminent and they point to the erasure of white history in the removal of Lee’s statue as evidence.
Such views were evident Friday night when more than 200 white nationalists lit tiki torches and marched through the heart of the University of Virginia’s campus. Among their chants was: “You will not replace us.” That sentiment certainly had echoes in the planned removal of the Lee statue, but among Heimbach’s peers, it’s more personal.
“I don’t want to fast forward 40 years and look my grandchildren in the eyes and have them say, ‘Why didn’t you do anything to stop this?’ " he said recently.
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The dark aspects of Heimbach’s ideology aren’t limited to race. He and others in his fold are quick to blame their woes on “the Jewish power structure.” They’re apt to speak fondly of Adolph Hitler, deny the Holocaust and appreciate the leadership of strong nationalists worldwide, from Russia’s Putin to Syria’s Assad. He and others speak in reverent terms of David Duke, the former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who made a rally appearance Saturday.
Heimbach’s ideologies collided forcefully Saturday on the streets of Charlottesville with those of groups that proudly proclaimed their diversity. First, it was the peaceful songs and prayers of clergy from across the faith and racial spectrum who arrived linked arm in arm. Later, as the morning wore on, they were followed by more militant groups — dressed in their own combat gear — chanting slogans such as “Kill All Nazis” and urging white supremacists and nationalists to die off quickly.
Saturday’s rally was the largest gathering of white nationalists in at least a decade. And, in the past year, Heimbach said they’ve drawn energy from a new source, from someone who has given voice to their concerns about immigrants, refugees and Muslims — President Trump.
“He himself didn’t create anything,” Heimbach said of the movement. “But he did show where white politics are going in the United States.”
Whether Heimbach’s movement has a place to go after Charlottesville remains to be seen.