This week, just prior to the one-year anniversary of the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, and an anticipated “Unite the Right 2” rally in Washington, D.C. this Sunday, PBS Frontline and ProPublica premiered the first installment of their two-part series, Documenting Hate: Charlottesville. In the documentary, the filmmakers track down and confront some of the white supremacists who participated in last year’s racist violence.
The Progressive spoke with Documenting Hate producer Karim Hajj about the investigation, and what we can expect in part two. Part one is now streaming online.
Q: Given the lack of action by the FBI and local police in the aftermath of events in Charlottesville do you think there’s a case to be made that white supremacist’s activity is in some ways state sanctioned? At least one of the white supremacists you tracked down was active-duty military, and we’ve subsequently seen other examples other examples of official accommodation of white supremacists.
Karim Hajj: There’s a strong case to be made that the white supremacists who engaged in violence last August felt that they would not face serious consequences for their actions. Taken in combination with the FBI’s public statements about the agency’s enforcement priorities and the high-profile political cover these groups received in the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally, it’s fair to say that white supremacists have felt unusually emboldened.
Q: The film shows a number of violent white supremacist activities in southern California leading up to Charlottesville. That was surprising to me. Is California a hotbed for these groups?
KH: In the early 1920s, the KKK was the dominant political force in Anaheim, and those same political players helped shape the establishment of Orange County as a whole. That history, combined with pretty rapid demographic change, has made Orange County an appealing location for white supremacist organizing.
Q: In the film you talk to a probation officer who has worked with members of white supremacist groups and who says they are more active now than they’ve ever been. Why do you think that is?
KH: The experts in the film attribute the rise in white supremacist activity to a perceived ideological affinity with more mainstream rightwing politics. Some of that is probably attributable to the strong current of nativist sentiment in the United States and across Europe as well.
I was most surprised by their reluctance to admit to their politics. They would frequently stop short of fascist or explicitly neo-Nazi position.
Q: Another installment of this documentary is coming out in the fall. Anything you can tell us about what to expect next?
KH: We’re particularly interested in members of white supremacist groups who are current or former members of the armed services. We’ll also be taking a closer look at the neo-Nazi terrorist group, Atomwaffen, who we introduce in the first film.
Q: What’s the major lesson learned after your team’s investigation?
KH: These new white-supremacist formations tend not to be organized along class lines. [And] while the more extreme groups are interested in keeping their identities hidden, others have begun to operate out in the open. Most importantly, they all feel as if this political moment is an opportunity for them to make some serious inroads for their politics.