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Ex-Charlottesville Mayor Recalls 2017 Lessons On Far-Right Extremism

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

While the country continues to consider responses to the riot at the Capitol on Wednesday, we wanted perspective from an official who previously dealt with far-right extremists firsthand, so we've called Michael Signer. He was the mayor of Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 when neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups flooded the city for the Unite the Right rally, which did eventually turn violent. And one woman was killed, and numerous other people were injured as a result of the events that day.

Mayor Signer's thought a lot about these issues, and he wrote about them in a book called "Cry Havoc: Charlottesville And American Democracy Under Siege." He's also an historian who's considered a lot of these issues previously, so he is with us now to tell us more.

Mr. Mayor, good to have you back on the program.

MICHAEL SIGNER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, you know, I think, like many people, you must have had some very specific responses to what you saw unfold on the Capitol. So what - you know, what was the first thing that came to your mind when you saw what was happening?

SIGNER: Well, with three years of retrospect now looking back at Charlottesville happening in 2017, it's even clearer that it was really kind of the fulcrum or the hinge for this whole new era in our politics and in, I think, two major respects. The first one was - you could call it the militarization of politics. So it's the advent of people who are routinely using political violence to intimidate and try to achieve their outcomes, which is incredibly offensive to our Constitution.

But the second is that it also opened the door for people to repudiate that kind of politics. So Joe Biden ran virtually his entire presidential campaign on this goal of restoring the soul of America. And his first campaign ad began with the word Charlottesville and with his recollections of watching neo-Nazis in the street and the murder of Heather Heyer, which you alluded to. And so I think both of those phenomena happened this week.

MARTIN: A number of the - like, the police chief, the newly named police chief, I mean, the prior - the incumbent of that office resigned just a couple of weeks ago. And he's just...

SIGNER: Yep.

MARTIN: His replacement is - he's a veteran of the department, but he's new to the role - has been quoted as saying that they didn't know that this was going to happen. And a lot of people just don't believe that. Do you buy that there was not intelligence here that would have allowed them to plan appropriately or...

SIGNER: No.

MARTIN: ...Or not?

SIGNER: Here are three specific lessons that came out of Charlottesville. The first is you have to design a security plan for whatever event is going to happen that will separate whoever might be violent from those who could intensify the conflict. The second is that you have to get intelligence on what's planned, wherever it's going to be, especially from what's called the dark web. And the third is that you need to do tabletop exercises where the different components of government rehearse and practice beforehand. That's a best practice. And none of those things happen in this instance.

And I think it's probably because of the fact that the federal government, which controls Washington, D.C., has adopted a codling posture toward white nationalists. This has been amply described now by figures like Elizabeth Neumann, who was an assistant secretary of homeland security under the Trump administration who resigned and later became a whistleblower, talking about how they were adopting not only a relaxed posture, but almost an encouraging one toward white nationalists because they're part of the Trump political coalition.

So if you try to puzzle it through, they didn't know because they didn't want to know.

MARTIN: The - a number of the far-right media and - including, you know, certain, you know, political figures have drawn the analogy to Black Lives Matter and Antifa. And their argument is that, you know, these groups were allowed to demonstrate. So these groups, you know, similarly should be allowed to demonstrate. And their attitude is that, you know, they were coddled. And so they feel like this is sort of equivalent. And what's your response to that?

SIGNER: This whole sordid affair has revealed the inherent white supremacy in modern-day Trump-era mass policing. I mean, just a reminder - he was so troubled by what he called the, quote, "outrageous acts of violence and destruction in Portland and Seattle," where there were a lot of Black Lives Matter and antifascist protesters, that he called for the invasion of those cities by federal troops last summer in the wake of the George Floyd protests. And he wanted to defund the cities.

And he specifically talked about the occupation of federal buildings. That's a direct quote from President Trump. So he's very alarmed about the occupation of federal buildings when it comes to Black and brown protesters protesting police brutality. But when it comes to the occupation of federal buildings by his base, he's actually directly connected.

MARTIN: One of the points that you've been making is that Donald Trump was the sort of the fulcrum of this. I mean, you pointed out that he had been encouraging his supporters to violence dating back to the 2016 campaign, where he said that he would, you know, pay the legal fees for any of his supporters who beat up protesters.

SIGNER: Sure.

MARTIN: And he's used that kind of language throughout his presidency.

SIGNER: Yeah.

MARTIN: But I think you're also making the point that this goes beyond President Trump. If that's the case, what's the answer?

SIGNER: Pragmatically, I'm so disappointed and frustrated by the lack of leadership in so many in the modern Republican Party to recognize this and stop it - stop it through their complicity, stop it through overt action. There have been the "Never Trumpers." There've been people like Mitt Romney. But they really have allowed themselves to be intimidated and controlled by this demagogue.

I hope that they wake up this next week and the next two weeks and they vote to convict him because that will prevent him from running for office again. It could get worse, and we have just seen the start of that - the real instance of that danger this week.

MARTIN: Michael Signer is the former mayor of Charlottesville, Va., which was the site of 2017's Unite the Right rally. He wrote about his experiences through that period in the book "Cry Havoc: Charlottesville And American Democracy Under Siege."

Michael Signer, thank you so much for talking to us.

SIGNER: Thank you for having me. Despite the sad occasion, it's good to be on with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KASSA OVERALL'S "DO YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.