FRONTLINE: Documenting Hate: Charlottesville
Airs Tuesday, April 9, 2019 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV
Friday, April 5, 2019
Credit: Courtesy of Edu Bayer
—One Year After Charlottesville, FRONTLINE and ProPublica Investigate White Supremacists’ Resurgence in America—
For the past year, FRONTLINE and ProPublica have been investigating the white supremacists at the center of last August’s infamous and deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
This joint reporting has already shed new and troubling light on the events of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017 — revealing 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.
Now, in a major new documentary with correspondent A.C. Thompson called "Documenting Hate: Charlottesville," FRONTLINE and ProPublica go even deeper — investigating why, nearly a year after the rally, many of the perpetrators of racist violence have not been held accountable; tracing the origins and actions of the white supremacist groups they belong to; and revealing how a series of violent clashes involving those very same individuals and groups preceded the deadly rally in Charlottesville.
“I could see from my office here in New York City how this was building… this was not just predictable, but predicted,” says Mike German, a retired FBI Special Agent who spent years infiltrating white supremacist groups, and who closely followed the Charlottesville rally in his current position as a fellow at The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “Where was the FBI?”
"Documenting Hate: Charlottesville" is the first in a series of two films from FRONTLINE and ProPublica investigating the resurgence of white supremacists in America. The second documentary will air in Fall 2018.
In the film, Thompson methodically tracks down some of those at the center of the Charlottesville violence — 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.
Former Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer tells Thompson he didn’t see state and local police’s security plans for the rally until months later: “I wish that we had known more,” Signer tells Thompson. “I wish that we had been given more information by the, by the state intelligence apparatus … They did not present us with any evidence of a credible threat.”
In particular, the documentary reveals how the events of August 11 may have set the stage for the next day’s tragedy: During a torchlight march at Charlottesville’s University of Virginia, police did little to prevent white supremacists from attacking their ideological foes.
“When they did that in the presence of police who were watching, and they knew that and they saw that, and they walked away and they got away with it … They're coming in here the next day ready to do more,” activist Emily Gorcenski, who was assaulted at the torchlight march, tells Thompson.
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 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.”
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.”
And finally, the film begins an exploration of white supremacists’ presence in the U.S. armed forces. After FRONTLINE and ProPublica’s reporting revealed that a neo-Nazi active duty Marine, Vasillios Pistolis, participated in the Charlottesville violence, Pistolis was court-martialed and sentenced to 28 days in prison.
“We really are in a moment where vigilance is critically important, and clear messages from leaders have got to be shared,” Ellison tells FRONTLINE in the film, adding that the government “has to be very clear about the unacceptability of any extremists, including white supremacists… acquiring the best military training in the world, which they might use to advance their extremism against their fellow Americans.”
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Also, you can read text stories online at propublica.org.
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A FRONTLINE Production with Midnight Films, LLC in partnership with ProPublica. The writer and director is Richard Rowley. The producer and correspondent is A.C. Thompson. The producer is Karim Hajj. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.
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