WASHINGTON — “The car that struck her ruptured her abdominal aorta in four places at once,” Susan Bro said, describing the horrific crash that killed her daughter, Heather Heyer, in Charlottesville, Va., five years ago.
The painful detail came during Bro’s introduction of President Biden at Thursday’s summit on extremism at the White House. Her daughter was killed in 2017 while protesting the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, falling victim to a driver who intentionally plowed his car through a crowd of antiracist counterprotesters.
“In America, evil will not win. It will not prevail,” Biden said as he took the stage at the White House. “Hate will not prevail. And white supremacists will not have the last word. And this venom and violence cannot be the story of our time.”
Charlottesville motivated Biden to seek the presidency in 2019, and it remains a byword for white supremacist extremism, which experts believe is the greatest threat to American security today.
“Charlottesville changed everything,” Biden said at Thursday’s summit, which convened civil rights leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton and Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization founded more than a century ago to combat antisemitism. Leaders of Asian American and Hispanic communities also attended. Journalists Lisa Ling and Ana Navarro spoke.
Ahead of the event, titled “United We Stand,” the White House unveiled a raft of initiatives intended to “renew civic bonds and heal divides.”
Donald Trump, who was president at the time of the Charlottesville rally, had defended the antisemites and racists who gathered there, purportedly to stop the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Trump’s equivocal condemnation seemed to give extremists license, as did the presence of far-right activists and ideologues in his administration.
“He emboldened extremists,” Greenblatt of the ADL says of Trump. “He welcomed white supremacists into the public conversation in ways that have never happened before.”
In Thursday’s remarks, Biden made a connection between Charlottesville and the violent Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, where some supporters of Trump showed up in antisemitic and racist regalia.
“That’s not America, not who we are,” he said of the period bookmarked by those two events, even as the threat persists today. The steps outlined by the White House on Thursday reflected the recognition that in a digitized society in which isolation is quickly becoming the norm, extremists have a ready audience, especially among disaffected young men.
The initiatives ranged from new efforts to stop bullying in schools to training for law enforcement agencies from the National Threat Assessment Center, improving digital literacy and a push from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities “to connect communities through cultural engagement.” The White House also announced several public-private partnerships meant to foster interfaith and cross-cultural interaction.
“Hate-fueled violence is born into the fertile soil of a toxic division. And we won’t solve the problem by going after the extreme fringes alone,” the president said, in seeming recognition that the same forces that turn some people into extremists operate largely unchecked in the culture at large. “We have to confront the ways in which our toxic divisions fuel this crisis for all of us.”
Biden also called on Congress “to get rid of special immunity for social media companies and impose much stronger transparency requirements on all of them,” a reference to the contentious debate over Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which essentially absolves companies like Twitter and Facebook of any responsibility for the content published on their platforms.
Although revising Section 230 has support from some Republicans, such as Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, the debate over free speech and corporate responsibility does not appear to be headed for imminent resolution on Capitol Hill.
After the summit, Sharpton, Greenblatt, Marc Morial of the National Urban League, Sindy Benavides of the League of United Latin American Citizens and John C. Yang of Asian Americans Advancing Justice stood shoulder-to-shoulder outside the West Wing, describing the day’s events as an encouraging sign.
“We’ve never had a day like this in the White House,” Greenblatt said. But, he added, “ultimately, it’s on us. It’s on what we do.”