A Q&A with Nora Neus
On August 11 and 12, 2017, armed neo-Nazi demonstrators descended on the University of Virginia campus and downtown Charlottesville. When they assaulted antiracist counterprotesters, the police failed to intervene, and events culminated in the murder of counterprotestor Heather Heyer. In 24 Hours in Charlottesville: An Oral History of the Stand Against White Supremacy, Emmy-nominated journalist and former Charlottesville resident Nora Neus crafts an extraordinary account from the voices of the students, faith leaders, politicians, and community members who were there and confronted the violent white supremacists. Beacon Press senior publicist Bev Rivero caught up with Neus to chat with her about it.
Bev Rivero: There was an intentional decision to not include the narrative of, or interview, white supremacists who enacted the violence that is recounted here. Can you discuss this choice as a writer and the ethical parameters in the process?
Nora Neus: This decision was a key component of the book from the very beginning, and the thing I thought could (and almost did) sink the whole project. Prevailing wisdom from experts in this space say that interviewing and quoting white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and members of other hate groups either (1) gives them a “platform” from which to spew their hateful ideology or (2) minimizes the threat they represent if treating them as just another actor in the story. In other words, you risk either creating helpful propaganda for the white supremacists or making them seem sympathetic, as if their “side of the story” is just as valid. There are experts on combating hate groups who could speak to this more than me, but I listened to the research and experts and chose not to platform fascists. Many of the major American book publishers liked my proposal for this book but wanted me to also interview white nationalists for their perspective, which I was unwilling to do. I’m so grateful to Beacon for understanding the stakes here and supporting the book without platforming hate groups.
BR: In the introduction, you conclude with: “These are the voices of Charlottesville, telling their own story.” It’s clear that community was a big part of the book project. The nature of the oral history lends itself to this, but can you talk more about the intentionality around this, and anything that stood out when putting the book together?
NN: This was also a non-negotiable when approaching this book project. In early conversations with key community members and activists about my interest in writing a book about Charlottesville, I told them point-blank that I would not write the book if I did not have the support of the community. It was honestly a scary thing to say out loud and so explicitly, because I really did want to write this book, but it was important to me also as a way of holding myself accountable. Thankfully, the community did rally behind the book, and most folks I’ve spoken to feel like it’s the first truly community-driven and accurate account of the Summer of Hate.
BR: You collaborated with an oral historian and research assistant for 24 Hours in Charlottesville. What was the process like, and did it inform how you think about book-specific writing?
NN: It was incredible! I worked with oral historian Noor al Zamami (they/them), who was trained at Columbia University’s top oral history program, and research assistant Arya Royal (she/her), a University of Virginia alum who was very involved in the Black and activist communities. They both helped shape the narrative in valuable ways, asking questions I hadn’t thought of and challenging my assumptions, when necessary. They are both incredibly talented at their jobs and have the added benefit of informing the book’s understanding of the experience of people of color.
BR: You speak with Emily Gorcenski, who shared: “The white supremacist movement is about whiteness, but whiteness is not just about skin color. It’s about patriarchy. It’s about heteronormativity, cisnormativity. Trans people are one of the most targeted groups by the current white supremacist movement. So I think that being trans informs what I do and that having lived a life of not speaking under my real voice, I know what the power of speaking under my real voice is.” Queer and trans activism is intersectional with the movement to stand up to white supremacist hate. Do you think the general public can be made more aware of how these activists are working to stop the spread of hatred and bigotry?
NN: Absolutely. That’s one enormous theme of the book that came through when I started my research: the fight against fascism and white supremacy is an intersectional fight. There was a quote that got cut from the book for space that said something like, “These are not your grandparents’ white supremacists.” And that’s so true. It’s not just anti-Black racism, but white supremacy has become a catch all for a wide variety of hate, anything that’s not part of the cishet conservative white community. It’s not a coincidence that the enormous percentage of the activists fighting white supremacy in Charlottesville that summer were queer and trans people of color.
BR: How do you think Charlottesville has changed in the past six years since the events in 24 Hours in Charlottesville? What lessons do you think other cities can take from them?
NN: The Charlottesville community is still grappling with how to move forward from the Summer of Hate. There’s been some progress, but it’s slow. The big lesson for other cities is to trust local antifascist activists when they warn you about an impeding fascist threat; Charlottesville did not heed their warning, with disastrous effect.
About Nora Neus
Nora Neus is an Emmy-nominated journalist whose reporting has appeared in CNN, VICE News, the Washington Post, and more. Neus field-produced Anderson Cooper’s coverage of the 2017 white nationalist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, for CNN. Before joining CNN, she worked as a local news reporter and fill-in anchor for the CNN affiliate in Charlottesville, WVIR NBC29. She is the coauthor of the YA graphic novel Muhammad Najem, War Reporter: How One Boy Put the Spotlight on Syria. Connect with her online at noraneus.com.