In Charlottesville, echoes of York City, circa 2002

Jason Addy
York Dispatch

Fifteen years after hordes of white supremacists met in York City, prompting brawls with anti-racist groups, Yorkers may have felt a sense of deja vu over the weekend until a similarly unsettling melee in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly.

Anti-fascists and members of a white supremacy group clash following visit to York by Matthew Hale, January 12, 2002. File photos by John Pavoncello

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Morning marches on Saturday, Aug. 12, devolved into punch-ups between the two factions, injuring more than a dozen people, but the day turned deadly when a car plowed into counterprotesters.

James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old from Ohio who is reported to be a Nazi sympathizer, was denied bail Monday, Aug. 14, after his arraignment on charges of second-degree murder, malicious wounding and hit and run.

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‘Spewing hatred’: The events over the weekend in Charlottesville, a town with about the same population as York City, struck a particularly familiar and poignant chord with the man leading York City in January 2002, when racists gathered downtown to hear a speech by the founder of a white supremacist religious movement called the World Church of the Creator.

Members of a white supremacy group, one bleeding from a gash on his head, gather in a parking lot at the corner of East King and South Queen streets after clashing with anti-fascists, Jan. 12, 2002. File photos by John Pavoncello

Recalling the events from more than 15 years ago, former York City Mayor John Brenner spoke Monday, Aug. 14, about how the movement’s founder, Matthew Hale, tried to take advantage of York City’s publicity as its former mayor, Charlie Robertson, faced trial in the murder of a black woman during the city’s 1969 race riots.

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Hale and Jason Kessler, the white-nationalist blogger who organized the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, “think they can take advantage of the publicity and they can recruit other knuckleheads to join their cause,” Brenner said. “They’re trying to spew their hatred and infect the minds of others.”

Kessler has said he organized the rally in response to Charlottesville's decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a city park.

Knowing Hale’s message would attract these “knuckleheads” to his speech at Martin Library on Jan. 12, 2002, Brenner said his administration — only days old at that point — and the York City Police Department coordinated with law-enforcement agencies across the county and state to prepare for the impending clashes.

PA State Police in riot helmets block East Market Street after a controversial appearance by World Church of the Creator founder Matthew Hale at Martin Library, Jan. 12, 2002. File photos by John Pavoncello

Nearly 100 city officers were joined by 300 troopers from the Pennsylvania State Police on the day of Hale’s rally, with police outnumbering those involved in the many simultaneous skirmishes breaking out across the city, Brenner said.

“It was very eerie, but safety was the priority, and we didn’t want to take any chances,” Brenner said. 

“I thought we handled it well. We had very small amounts of property damage,” and no one was seriously injured, Brenner said.

Looking for a spark: Hale came to York City in 2002 because he thought his message would resonate among residents with Robertson’s trial the talk of the town, Brenner said, reiterating that white-supremacist zealots look for a spark they can use for publicity.

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But when Hale made it to his speech — thanks to a police escort from now-Lt. Gene Fells — he “saw the message wasn’t resonating here and people didn’t want to be part of it,” despite some hardcore supporters posted outside the library, Brenner said.

After the violent bust-ups before and after his speech in January 2002, Hale tried multiple times to host another in the city, but his attempts to secure event permits were repeatedly rejected by city and county officials.

Though Hale never returned to the city — and is now serving a 40-year federal prison sentence for an unsuccessful murder-for-hire plot against a federal judge — several other white supremacists were able to speak their piece in York City in 2002.

A dozen white supremacists gathered in the city on April 20, 2002, for a public observance of Adolf Hitler's birthday, but they were met by nearly twice as many protesters.

City and county officials closed down parks that day to stop racists from using them for any rallies.

Anti-fascists and members of a white supremacy group clash following visit to York by Matthew Hale, January 12, 2002. File photos by John Pavoncello

About six months later, Gerald McManus, a self-described director for the Nationalist Movement, drove from upstate New York to address the York City Council.

McManus was greeted with indifference when he reached York City. No supporters or protesters were at the meeting, and council members refused to dignify his appearance by speaking about him. McManus left after speaking for less than five minutes.

Though there is always the potential for a spark to reignite racial tensions, Brenner said, he is confident York City residents have made it clear they do not want white supremacists in their town.

“The people of York stood up, not once, not twice, but three times,” Brenner said. “They stared them in the eyes, stood up to their hatred and said ‘That’s not who we are.’”