I admire the courage of Ford Fischer, who reported the events of the Charlottesville street riots directly from the scene and obtained close-up, highly informative documentary footage regarding the tragic events that transpired. He was even a victim of collateral damage; some of the pepper spray aimed at the fascist marchers instead found its way to him.
I recommend that everyone watch his 23-minute documentary in order to have a better understanding of the facts on the ground.
As for my impressions, the entire situation was a volatile powder keg – with tempers running high and many regrettably radicalized, armed, and incensed demonstrators looking for a fight. “Who started it” was often difficult to discern in the various brawls – although clearly the murder was committed by a detestable and ruthless alt-right white supremacist. More generally, though, past a certain point, once the violence is in full swing, distinguishing between legitimate self-defense and the initiation of force becomes nearly impossible in the din and chaos (a confusion readily taken advantage of by opportunistic fanatics who relish violence).
This is why, to the extent possible, the infrastructure of society should be configured to prevent such “powder keg” situations from emerging in the first place. Once civil discourse (which could include heated but peaceful and polite debate) is replaced with the shouting of expletives and threats by lines of armed rioters, it only takes one particularly unhinged individual to commit an atrocity. Most people, I hold, are decent and inclined toward peaceful behavior; this probably included most protesters – even on the alt-right side (who probably just wanted to hear their leaders speak). However, events such as these necessarily attract the minority of persons who temperamentally crave violence – and those people, irrespective of ideology, rile up the rest until the chaos is uncontrollable. For them, ideology is epiphenomenal, and violence is an end in itself.
In the immediate moment, police should have taken a more active role in separating the demonstrators. The right of free speech, even obnoxious or heinous speech, should be protected as long as it remains speech only. However, there is no reason for “in your face” confrontations between two incensed opposing sides. Mr. Fischer noted that the police initially took a largely “hands-off” attitude with respect to brawls. This was a mistake on the police’s part; each brawl constitutes assault and battery – criminal acts. Both the protest and counter-protest might have ended peacefully had a line of police remained between the opposing sides at all times. What was interesting is that a contingent of private militiamen was also present and impartial, desiring only to keep the peace and aid those who were injured. There is a role for this kind of citizen initiative (but only to keep the peace, and only to help), and I wonder if this might be part of the solution for future events where the police fail to protect life and property.
In the long-term, though, what is required is a revival of cultural standards of decency and tolerance in discourse – the prizing of civility and the search for constructive common ground, rather than the complete denunciation and demonization of those who disagree with one’s point of view. Because of deteriorating norms of conduct and a toxic media culture that has fomented political insults as entertainment, we have reached a crisis point where too many people have become radicalized beyond the condition where they even recognize that common ground might exist. So they try to beat one another with sticks instead of beating one another in debate. But words can still work. Words can change the culture – not right away, but with enough perseverance. This will be the work of decent persons who abhor violence and desire for precious lives and infrastructure to be preserved.