Respect Equality

This data scientist and Charlottesville survivor uses her skills to track down neo-Nazis

White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the “alt-right” clash with counter-protesters as they enter Emancipation Park during the “Unite the Right” rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Story at a glance

  • After getting pepper sprayed during the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, Emily Gorcenski has used her background as a data scientist to keep track of white nationalist court cases.
  • Gorcenski’s website First Vigil has catalogued hundreds of criminal cases and connected the dots of dangerous neo-Nazi networks.
  • The recent wave of Confederate statue removals inspired her to also start When They Came Down, a catalogue of each felled monument or memorial.

The summer of 2017, headlines erupted with news of the Unite the Right rally, as a congregation of white supremacists and neo-Nazis came together to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who led the Confederate army during the Civil War. The rally quickly became violent, with many injured and one dead. 

One of those caught in the onslaught was Emily Gorcenski, a data scientist who had come to the University of Virginia campus to protest. There, she was pepper sprayed by one of the Unite the Right rally’s speakers, outspoken white nationalist Christopher Cantwell, who later pleaded guilty to assault and spent 3 1/2 months in prison. Cantwell was also banned from the state of Virginia for five years. 

First Vigil

After, Gorcenski decided to fight back the best way she knew how, building First Vigil with the help of her fellow activists. First Vigil, a list of court cases tied to white nationalists, tracks the charges, the defendants and provides the date and location of the next hearing. These crucial facts are compiled by First Vigil for journalists and researchers to track the cases, but the site is also publicly accessible.

Since creating First Vigil and amassing a large follower count on Twitter, Gorcenski’s critics have been fond of calling her and those who do work with First Vigil “doxxers,” or those who reveal someone’s identity on the internet. Gorcenski says that because First Vigil uses public court documents, the information is fair game. 

“First Vigil is based entirely on public records data, sourced directly from court systems,” she told Vice. “It cannot therefore be used as a doxing tool, as it is merely covering things that are already in public record. The tool does not provide names and addresses, contact numbers, familial connections … potential witness or victim information, or anything like that. The language on First Vigil is clear that all people are innocent until otherwise proven guilty.”

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Using First Vigil, the anti-fascist researcher has now catalogued hundreds of criminal cases and connected the dots of dangerous neo-Nazi networks. It’s a task that becomes increasingly important as white supremacist groups around the country feel emboldened — leading to the violent recent events in places like Kenosha, Wis., and Portland, Ore. During the first presidential debate, when asked to condemn white supremacists, President Trump instead told the Proud Boys, a male-only neo-fascist organization, to “stand back and stand by.” 

“When you hear the president of the United States saying things like that they should … stand by, that type of signaling to be ready for violent clashes does nothing but empower hate groups,” Charlottesville, Va., Police Chief Rashall Brackney told CBS News

When They Came Down

Just as Gorcenski has been using her data engineering powers to track fringe political activity, she’s also been using it more recently to track progress as Confederate statues come down across the country — partially in thanks to the powerful wave of Black Lives Matter protests that erupted this summer following the death of George Floyd. 

Her latest project, When They Came Down, features a collaborative database to track the ongoing statue removals.

“The statue that inspired the site was the one that they threw in the river in England — in Bristol! The larger idea behind this project is that when statues come down, it builds and adds to rather than removes history,” she told The Guardian. 

“I lived in Charlottesville in 2017, when there was a rally there, Unite the Right, which was ostensibly in response to statues coming down after the city council voted to remove them. Obviously, it became about other things.

“In the month after the rally, all around the United States, we saw something like 24 statues come down. It was a big moment, and it petered off a bit from there. Plus, removing statues is cathartic. Charlottesville still has four deeply racist statues, and I think their days are numbered. When they do come down, that will be a great moment of healing,” she said.

Most recently, a Charlottesville statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee called “At Ready” was removed from its pedestal at the Albemarle County courthouse after 111 years. Albemarle says it was one of the first counties in Virginia to take action under a Virginia law that authorizes localities to remove, relocate, contextualize or cover war monuments or memorials located on public property. 

“One thing I’ve tried is to make this site feel like a people’s history,” Gorcenski said about When They Came Down. “I want these stories to stay told. In Charlottesville, 10 years from now, I want people to be talking about how statues came down, about Heather Heyer’s death, about the rallies. I want to make sure the stories are told about Zyahna Bryant, who started the initial petition for statue removal, and about Jalane Schmidt’s walking tours. Those stories are what real history is about. People put energy into making changes in their communities, and individuals and activist organizations have been working on these issues for a long time. I want to make sure that is not forgotten.”