As the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville, Va., Unite the Right rally approaches, many still cannot wrap their minds around the hundreds if not thousands of white supremacist sympathizers who descended on a bucolic college town and wrecked violent havoc—one anti-racism protester was killed, dozens more were hospitalized—in the year of our Lord 2017. Many saw the incident as moving backward on race relations; the more cynical among us saw it as a harbinger of what’s to come under a president who promotes racial animosity without shame.
On Tuesday night at 10 p.m. EDT, Frontline and ProPublica will debut Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, a documentary where journalist A.C. Thompson parses out the events of those two days last August, and tries to understand how the “largest gathering of white supremacists in a generation” has moved from the fringe to our mainstream, coming out to loudly declare that they “will not be replaced.”
“I could see that something was happening in this country, a national reckoning around race, and being [in Charlottesville] would help me understand it,” says Thompson. He later explains that the Unite the Right rally was a “watershed moment” for the white supremacist, white nationalist, alt-right, neo-Nazi, good old racist movement, which is increasingly becoming more expansive, organized, and unfortunately, violent.
Thompson describes the events of Charlottesville as a “crime scene” as anti-racist protester Heather Heyer lost her life when a vicious white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd, and folks like DeAndre Harris were beaten with sticks and left bloodied as police stood aside and let it happen.
What galls this reporter is that ProPublica and Thompson had no problem through social media, doing what is still called detective work, in identifying the extremists, yet somehow local, state and even federal law enforcement such as the FBI seemed to be caught with their pants down on Aug. 12 of last year — disorganized at best, and at worst, well, allowing these savage men to hurt people as they ignored them or looked away.
Thompson delves deeper into a few of those caught on camera that day, and reveals 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. Because of his diligent reporting and follow up, Miselis was fired from his position and Pistolis was kicked out of the military—proof that a free and working press can bring about good in this world.
Documenting Hate: Charlottesville is the first in a series of two Documenting Hate films from Frontline and ProPublica, with the second coming later this fall.
Tune into the premiere on PBS tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern, 9 p.m. Central and online at pbs.org/frontline, where it will continue streaming after its debut.