I met William Fears in August, at the so-called “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that ended in Heather Heyer’s death. This was well before the 30-year-old gained a dose of national notoriety as one of three men arrested and charged with attempted murder of anti-fascist protesters after a Richard Spencer appearance in Florida. But Fears terrified me virtually from the jump: He wore typical alt-right garb—slacks and a blazer—and carried a flag representing the Texas chapter of self-proclaimed fascist group Vanguard America. James Alex Fields, Jr. was seen in the company of the same group before allegedly steering a Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heyer and wounding many others later that same day.
Around the time of our encounter, I was listening to Thomas Rousseau, now leader of Patriot Front—a post-Charlottesville split from Vanguard America—address assembled reporters about the forthcoming protest. The right-wing extremists expected violence, and while Rousseau said his group wouldn’t start fights, he added that “if the opposition starts something and the cops don’t finish it, we will.”
As if being in the presence of violent neo-Nazis wasn’t tense enough, this was around the time Fears turned to me and asked, “Do you have a boyfriend?”
I did not know how to respond. I was unprepared for sexual advances from a neo-Nazi, and it seemed, as it often does to women doing our jobs in such situations—even those involving less flagrantly toxic men—that there was no right move. Either I would risk escalation by talking back, or else render myself powerless by saying nothing at all.
He proceeded to ask me if I wanted a boyfriend, and followed up with, “Do you want to continue the white race with me?”
This marriage of white supremacist thinking and unvarnished sexual aggression was jarring, and thanks in part to the violence that followed, stuck with me even before I caught wind of Fears’s alleged crime in Florida. That day in Charlottesville, he proceeded to smirk as I moved to distance myself from him. “How ‘bout a smile!,” he shouted, an aggressive admonition familiar to women everywhere.
The lingering feeling of discomfort has grown even more striking since I learned about the man’s violent history with women—a problem that, while obviously not unique to denizens of the alt-right, seems to feed off the racism endemic to the movement.
Two days after the Florida rally, the Harris County, Texas, district attorney's office filed charges against Fears for an incident in which he allegedly hit and choked his then-girlfriend earlier that month. And the previous January, Fears allegedly pulled a knife on Hannah Bonner, a reverend with the United Methodist clergy, at a Texas airport. “When I faced him, I knew I was face to face with something I’d never faced before,” Bonner recalled in an interview. “To see him finally get arrested for actually trying to kill people. It’s like, yeah, I was right.”
But it’s not just Fears—patriarchy and white supremacy are foundational to the neo-Nazi groups that converged in Charlottesville and continue to organize across the country in the age of Trump. The catcalls and insults they flung at me and other marchers that weekend—including homophobic slurs like “dyke faggot” hurled at clergy members—were invariably drenched in sexism and racism. White supremacy and misogyny are intertwined, and are emblematic of Nazi movements.
During the 2017 holiday season, for example, a series of domestic violence incidents suspected of being carried out by right-wing extremists resulted in 13 deaths and injuries to more than 20. Long before James Alex Fields was arrested, his disabled mother made repeated calls to the police in 2010 and 2011 to report that he was threatening or assaulting her. And last week, Matt Heimbach, chairman of the neo-Nazi group Traditionalist Worker Party, was arrested on charges of intimidation and domestic violence against his wife.
According to Marilyn Mayo, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, starting around the 1960s, white supremacist groups in America argued that feminists organizing to upend traditional gender roles “were all Jews trying to create a different paradigm and weaken white men.” Alt-right supporters employ this same narrative today to explain hatred of trans women: A post from far-right rag Daily Stormer about a young trans girl, for instance, suggested, “Jews did this," and Discord (historically a preferred chat platform for the alt-right) logs point to a transmisogynistic obsession with genitalia.
But more pointed, contemporary calls on the far-right to “have white babies” are steeped in a newer mix of anti-blackness, anti-semitism, misogyny, and a eugenicist notion that the white race is and must remain pure in order to “repopulate.”
One month after my experience in Charlottesville, a Twitter account that appeared to be associated with Patriot Front propositioned me to “have his white babies.” Samuwell Haididi—who also appeared to be affiliated with Facebook accounts that belong to a man by the name of Cody Coombs—suggested I “might be fuckable” as long as I weren't Jewish.
As Donna Minkowitz, who writes and researches white nationalism for Political Research Associates explained in an interview, such advances are colored by the fact that many of the men recruited into modern white nationalist movements were radicalized online. She pointed in particular to the “Manosphere,” the network of message boards and blogs where men discuss masculinity and the sexual conquest of women—not always in ways that encourage or condone violence, but often so.
In many ways, the reversal of women’s rights and feminism broadly is a driving force for recruitment on the far-right, along with the white supremacist conceptualization of what they call the “white ethnostate.” That fantasy is reliant not only on gaining sexual power over white women, but also imposing reproductive control over black women and women of color. “They have this whole theory that white people are dying out and will be overwhelmed by the numbers of people of color, and they’re terrified white people will be oppressed,” Minkowitz said. “They wouldn’t allow white women to have abortions, but will force abortions” on women of other races.
Alt-right leader Richard Spencer echoed this sentiment last year in a video on YouTube. “We want to be eugenic,” he said, later adding, “The idea that every being that is human has a right to life… that’s not how we think as identitarians!”
Part of the problem here is white men feeling entitled to a lot from the world. As Keegan Hankes, a senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center, explained in an interview, white men in America are often taught from a young age that they will have the economic and social circumstances they desire: a great job, money, profound relationships. When struggling white men see these successes visited on other communities, they might regard it as an “embodiment of their declining prospects,” as Hankes put it. Their assumption of status and privilege has been upended, and by this logic, real societal problems such as economic inequality can be blamed on communities of color.
Of course, there are a fair number of women who buy into the alt-right's conception of the deeply sexist fantasy that is an ethnostate. "We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” Ayla Stewart, a Utah blogger known as “Wife with a Purpose,” told alt-right booster Lana Lokteff on the radio last year.
“Women have a role [in the movement] in guiding the children and making them be supportive of their parents' views,” Mayo explained, adding that women have long been involved—if also marginalized—in white nationalist activity in America.
The far-right's systems of domination and power also form the basis for a so-called “White Sharia” movement employed by fascistic and Nazi groups. The term, which Minkowitz has described as “the idea that the sexuality, reproduction, daily life, and right to consent of white women should be controlled by white men in the white supremacist state,” is said by the Daily Stormer to have emerged as an “ironic” alt-right meme. This is another poisonous concept with which I became personally acquainted: Fears’s own Twitter bio—before it was suspended—read, “Charismatic leader of a White breeding cult," and the Patriot Front associate Haididi once referred to me on Twitter as a “White Sharia war bride.”
In an interview, George Ciccariello-Maher, a visiting scholar at NYU’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, explained this concept of “White Sharia” as both an “obsession with this racial sexual power that they dream of having ... because they deeply dream of being barbaric,” as well as a racialized misunderstanding of Islam. Sacco Vandal, an ex-marine who writes for his own website as well as other white supremacist sites, provides a chilling window into the vile idea: “Our men need harems, and the members of those harems need to be baby factories,” he wrote.
Essentially, in this worldview, the only purpose of white women like myself is to breed.
The “Unite the Right” rally was obviously a wake-up call for many Americans about the resurgence of white nationalism in the Trump era. But it was also a window for me personally into the toxic masculinity endemic on the far-right. When I found out about Fears’s arrest in Florida months later, I was relieved to finally be able to identify the person who violated me that day, while simultaneously thrown back into the state of adrenaline and rage I experienced when I first encountered him on August 12. I was also unprepared for the lasting impact attending a political protest would have on my everyday life.
After the gunshot-laden aftermath of the Richard Spencer appearance in Florida last October, Fears was held for some time at the Alachua County Jail in Gainesville on a $1 million bond. His legal representation there, Eric Atria, declined to comment for this story, and Fears was eventually extradited to Texas, where he was indicted by a grand jury on February 20 for “Assault of Family Member - Impeding Breathing.” According to Fears’s court-appointed attorney in Texas, Patrick J. Ruzzo, he faces serious prison time if found guilty on the domestic-violence charge.
"At this point, as in all of the criminal cases I handle, we’re conducting an independent investigation of the facts,” Ruzzo said, declining to comment further for this story. Fears’s next court date was set for April 10.
No matter how his case plays out, I don’t expect to cross paths with William Fears again any time soon. But it’s clear there are plenty of others like him out there—and frighteningly little prospect of the kind of political or cultural intervention that might rein them in.
Follow Erin Corbett on Twitter.