By Joe Heim,
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A rally here by the Ku Klux Klan and its supporters to protest the Charlottesville city council’s decision to remove a statue honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee began amid a tense counterprotest Saturday afternoon.
Members of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which is based in Pelham, North Carolina near the Virginia border, gathered at Justice Park, situated in a quiet, leafy residential neighborhood in downtown Charlottesville. They shouted “white power” and some wore white robes.
About two dozen Klansmen were escorted to the location by police in riot gear to protect the rally-goers from counter protesters who greeted them with jeers of “shame.” Some of the Klan members arrived armed, openly-carrying handguns in holsters at their belts.
The rally was held about a block away from Emancipation Park — the renamed Lee Park — where the statue of Lee astride a horse still stands. Charlottesville police reported that vandals had painted messages in green and red paint on the statue overnight.
More than one hundred officers from the Virginia state police, Albemarle County police and University of Virginia police were prepared to assist Charlottesville police in maintaining order.
Charlottesville, a city of close to 50,000 and home to the prestigious public flagship campus of the University of Virginia, had become increasingly tense as the rally approached. “A CITY ON EDGE” read the banner headline in the local paper, The Daily Progress, on Saturday.
City leaders organized diversionary events elsewhere in the city and encouraged residents and visitors to not confront the KKK members directly. While many took that advice, others wanted to make sure the rally participants heard their voices.
Though the council voted to remove the statue, a court order has stopped the city from acting on that decision until a hearing next month. Some observers predict a protracted legal battle that would further delay the removal.
In an editorial last month, city councilwoman Kristin Szakos said the council voted to remove the statue and join a “growing group of cities around the nation that have decided that they no longer want to give pride of place to tributes to the Confederate Lost Cause erected in the early part of the 20th century.”
The Klan says the city’s decision to remove the Lee statue is part of a wider effort to get rid of white history.
“They’re trying to erase the white culture right out of the history books,” Klan member James Moore said on Thursday.
Brandi Fisher, of Ridgeley, W.V., drove five hours to attend the rally.
“I don’t agree with everything the Klan believes, but I do believe our history should not be taken away,” said Fisher, 41. “Are we going to remove the Washington and Jefferson memorials because they were slave owners?”
Ezra Israel, 32, who is African American, says the statue should stay up as a reminder of slavery and the people who supported it.
“It’s hiding history to take it down,” he said as he made his way to the rally. “We need to leave it up so people can see it and see that we were oppressed and we’re still a product of that today.”
Toung Nguyen, an immigrant from Vietnam who moved to Charlottesville as a child in the early 1980s, believes the money that will be spent on removing the statue could be better used improving the local school system. But he says racism has gotten worse in the last couple of years and he understands why many believe the statue needs to go.
“It’s just disappointing that we still have to deal with this kind of nonsense,” Nguyen said. “Our country feels like it’s going full circle.”
Charlottesville is already planning for another protest next month. Several white nationalist groups have a permit for an August 12 rally also calling for the council’s decision on the statue to be reversed.
T. Rees Shapiro contributed to this report.