Exposing Falsehoods and Revealing Truths
Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress/AP
I witnessed a terrorist attack in Charlottesville. Then the conspiracy theories began.
Last Sunday evening, I received a worried call from my sister asking if I had spoken with my mother and father. I had spent the day doing interviews about the vehicle attack I witnessed the day before while protesting the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and had not been in front of a computer all day. She told me that my parents’ home address had been posted on a neo-Nazi conspiracy theorist message board.
“They are suggesting that you arranged the attack, Brennan,” she said. “There are death threats against you.”
On Saturday morning, I witnessed James Fields smash his car into a crowd of demonstrators, killing Heather Heyer and wounding 19 others. Although I immediately shared the footage with police on the scene, it took me a half-hour to decide to post it publicly. I was concerned about how the footage might be used by the "alt-right" and felt uncomfortable knowing that I had probably filmed someone’s death. I did not want the attention posting the video was likely to bring. I consulted with friends and family, some of whom were also at the counterprotest and some of whom were watching the coverage from outside Charlottesville. They all urged me to share the video, and when I heard from friends that some media outlets were suggesting that it might have been an accident or that the driver might have been attempting to escape an angry mob, I knew I had to post it. The video I took—and the scene I witnessed with my own two eyes—clearly showed the attack was intentional. Fields drove down two empty blocks and plowed straight into the crowd before fleeing in reverse.
So I tweeted it out:
Within the next 24 hours, nearly every major American news network and a variety of international press outlets asked to interview me about the attack. I was too shaken to sleep on Saturday night, but I spent all day Sunday conducting interviews. I tried to give a frank account of what I had seen on Fourth Street and respond clearly to questions about the situation more broadly. I said there was one side and one side alone responsible for the death I witnessed—the Nazis and white supremacists who brought their ideology of violence and hate to our town. It was their man who drove his vehicle into the crowd. I thought these points were straightforward and uncontroversial.
Boy was I wrong.
Hours after an interview I did with Alex Witt of MSNBC, neo-Nazi commentators started posting about me on 4chan, Reddit and YouTube. These crack researchers bragged that they had discovered I worked for the State Department (it’s in my Twitter bio), that I have a connection to George Soros (he very publicly donated to the campaign of my former boss, Tom Perriello), and that I spent time in Africa working in conflict areas (information available in major news outlets).
Desperate to lay blame on anyone besides the alt-right, they seized on these facts to suggest a counter-narrative to the attack, claiming there was no way that someone with my background just happened to be right there to take the video. Even ignoring the fact that someone with my background—raised in Virginia, UVA graduate, lives in Charlottesville, worked to resolve ethnic conflicts overseas, politically progressive—is exactly the kind of person you’d expect to find at a protest against Nazis, their theories were absurd and illogical. They wrote that I was a CIA operative, funded by (choose your own adventure) George Soros, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, the IMF/World Bank, and/or a global Jewish mafia to orchestrate the Charlottesville attack in order to turn the general public against the alt-right. I had staged the attack and then worked with MSNBC and other outlets controlled by the left to spread propaganda. They claimed my ultimate goal was to start a race war that would undermine and then overthrow Donald Trump on behalf of the “Deep State.” (I’m generalizing here as the theories are widely variant and logically inconsistent, and I’m only aware of the small percentage I could be bothered to read.)
As these theories spread, I started receiving hate mail. Some people sent me fairly tame comments on social media like, “God has a special place for you Gilmore,” “you are a lying communist Nazi” and “fuck you cuck.” Others threatened to kill me. One commenter posted that he’d like to torture me to see “the extent of my CIA training.” I was followed and accosted on the street in Charlottesville, and there have been many attempts to hack into my online accounts. One site posted all of my known addresses and family members, including the house I grew up in, where my parents still live.
Normally, I would have just ignored these threats and certainly would not have commented on them publicly. I consider it an honor to be attacked by people who have none, and I am willing to put up with personal risk to speak out against Nazis. I believe that it is incumbent on white people in particular to take the risks necessary to confront and restrain white supremacists, given the inherent and intentional risk they present to all communities of color.
My parents feel similarly and took having their address posted online by hate groups in stride. Within days a letter showed up in their mail, containing four pages of text explaining why I would burn in in hell, as well as a suspicious white powder. While the powder was a hoax, their local police department took all the threats seriously, confiscated the letter and stepped up patrols around the house. My parents’ sole precaution was to pick the remaining tomatoes from their garden, “so the Nazis wouldn’t get them.” Even in the South, there must be a limit to our hospitality.
However, these are not normal times, and a couple of things made me feel the need to speak out about these conspiracy theories and threats.
First, at some point during the week, it occurred to me that there was a pretty good chance these conspiracy theories had made their way to the White House. While they initially appeared only on obscure, wacko sites with pictures of bald eagles shooting machine guns, within 72 hours, they had gone “mainstream.” Infowars posted a “bombshell” investigation into Charlottesville that showed it was all a Soros plot, and I was the key operative. The president of the United States has been a guest on the very show that echoed theories suggesting I was, at best, an accessory to murder and, at worst, the orchestrator of the entire event, including hiring Nazi and antifa actors, staging a confrontation, and then working with allies in the mainstream “leftist” media to blind the world to the “reality.”
While some people in Facebook messages, tweets and comment boards were calling for my head, others were tweeting at various conservative leaders, including Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump and Sean Hannity, to open an investigation into my alleged role in the attack. On Thursday, Hannity broadcast claims on his radio show that the protesters in Charlottesville were paid. Although I wasn’t mentioned by name, there’s a clear connection between the conspiracy theories circulating about me orchestrating the attack and this segment, which aired on a show listened to by millions. Several days later, Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, a sitting U.S. congressman, called for a federal investigation of Charlottesville, alleging that protests were paid for and arranged “by forces of evil beyond what normal people can think about,” as part of a democratic agenda to make the 2018 midterm elections about race. Within less than a week the conspiracy theory had gone from an alt-right message board to millions across the country on broadcast television and radio and was being parroted by a national politician.
Trump has parroted Infowars several times, something even Infowars founder Alex Jones has described as “surreal.” Hannity dined with Trump a few weeks ago. Did I actually have to worry that the president of the United States might launch an investigation against me because I happened to capture footage of a white supremacist terror attack and spoke publicly about what I saw? I realized I couldn’t rule it out, and that frankly scares the hell out of me—for my family, but particularly for our country.
Over the past week, I’ve seen personally the very real damage that these conspiracy theories have on our public discourse. The danger is not necessarily that a large number of people will believe them in their entirety. Instead, it’s that they muddy the waters on issues that should be about right and wrong. This is truly dangerous. If we are to get beyond this current acute manifestation of the cancer of American racism and begin to heal, the right must join with the left to excise the malignancy of white supremacy from our politics and society. Conspiratorial thinking and confusion on what is real make this much harder.
When he heard about the nature of the threats I had received, one law enforcement officer said, “Well, there are two sides to every story.” Coming from rural Virginia, where Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are buried and where Trump received a healthy majority of the vote, perhaps I should not have been taken aback, but I admit I was.
I love the area where I grew up, and I love the people who live there, including many of my closest friends who are extremely conservative, with whom I grew up hunting, fishing and playing bluegrass. But in this story, there are not two sides.
I know what I saw on Saturday, and I know which side was responsible. I saw a man who identified himself as a Nazi purposefully drive his car into a group of protesters. White supremacist and Nazi ideology is inherently violent. They would deny nonwhite Americans their rights by any means possible and have historically used violence and intimidation to achieve their goal. The groups that marched in Charlottesville on Saturday were heavily armed and, according to their own words, they came prepared and, at least in some cases, hoped for violence.
By introducing doubt about what happened, even if their theories conflict with one another, these sites make it easier to argue that the Unite the Right rally was not just about white supremacy. In fact, we heard the president say that there were good people who were just there to defend Southern history and culture and peacefully protest removing the Robert E. Lee statue. Just as his equivocation and failure to condemn the alt-right enables and helps grow their twisted movement, the president’s warm embrace of conspiracy theories, rejection of journalistic standards, and propagation of noncredible sources of information embolden and grow the numbers of Americans looking for another explanation besides the uncomfortable truth.
Sometimes the story is not complicated: Nazis are bad, and I just happened to witness one of them commit a terrorist attack. I didn’t want the attention that came with having seen this horrific act, but I will continue to join the millions of Americans speaking out about its undeniable cause.
We need to stop reading and believing imaginary plots. And we all need to continue to speak out and act, both against white supremacy and the culture of conspiracy that has taken root in our country.
Brennan Gilmore, a native of Lexington, Virginia, formerly served as chief of staff to Tom Perriello, candidate for Virginia governor. Before that, he served for 15 years in the U.S. Foreign Service at postings in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Sudan, Tunisia and Sierra Leone. Brennan lives in Charlottesville, where he works in rural workforce development to bring IT jobs to underserved communities in rural Virginia.