Thursday, January 21, 2021

PBS’ ‘Documenting Hate: Charlottesville’ Explores Why Many Perpetrators of the Racist Violence Went Unpunished

Charlottesville, VA. United States. Riots in Charlottesville between Alt-Right demonstrators and counterprotesters (photo Edu Bayer)

*As white supremacists prepare to rally in Washington D.C. to mark the one-year anniversary of their deadly Charlottesville gathering, PBS’s Frontline and ProPublica join forces to present “Documenting Hate: Charlottesville.”

Premiering Tuesday, Aug. 7, the special investigates why, nearly a year after the rally, many of the perpetrators of racist violence have not been held accountable. Also, correspondent A.C. Thompson methodically tracks down some of those at the center of the violence on Aug 11 and 12, 2017 — and reveals just how ill-prepared law enforcement was to handle an influx of white supremacists from across the country, some of whom had been part of a series of earlier violent confrontations in California and descended on Charlottesville specifically to fight.

Ultimately, on August 12, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed when neo-Nazi James Alex Fields allegedly drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. Thompson speaks with Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, who believes Fields isn’t the only one who should be held accountable: “For people from 35 states to come in to fight, that’s absolutely absurd,” she says.

Thompson also speaks with experts who say law enforcement’s response so far has only made white supremacists feel more emboldened — and in the process, he shines an unflinching light on the rise of America’s new white supremacist groups and how they operate and recruit.

“To be honest with you, they have some parallels to ISIS recruitment videos and some of the themes that they use … what they’re trying to sell is this idea that we need to go back to a more traditional time [and] traditional masculinity,” sociologist Pete Simi tells Thompson of the Rise Above Movement, a group that has been involved in violence in at least four cities. “And when they blend in these fight scenes, that’s also this idea of being not only just fit and living a pure life, but also being a warrior of sorts.”

Frontline and ProPublica’s joint investigation has already revealed that one participant in the violence, Vasillios Pistolis, was an active-duty Marine, and that another, Michael Miselis, worked for a major defense contractor and held a U.S. government security clearance. Citing the reporting, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) wrote to U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis to formally request an investigation of white supremacists in the military.

Ultimately, the film is an eye-opening examination of how white supremacist ideologies have moved out of the shadows. Lowell Smith, a former Orange County probation officer who for much of his career worked exclusively on white supremacist groups, tells Thompson that such groups have now entered the mainstream, and are likely the most active he’s seen them over his 26-year career.

“When I first began working with them they were very much a subculture,” he tells Thompson. But now, rather than prison-based groups primarily comprised of criminals, he’s seeing college kids joining up: “It’s not the criminal element. You’re seeing mainstream, that you wouldn’t suspect, becoming emboldened in this movement. I’m very concerned.”

“Documenting Hate: Charlottesville” premieres Tuesday, August 7, at 10/9c on PBS and online at pbs.org/frontline.

Watch the trailer below:

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