For the second time in six weeks, Charlottesville is bracing for a protest of its decision earlier this year to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. White nationalists, white supremacists and members of alt-right groups will gather in the city at noon Saturday for the Unite the Right rally to voice opposition to the decision and assert itself as a movement.
The planned event — and one held July 8 by the Ku Klux Klan for the same purpose — has sparked fierce opposition in this town of close to 50,000. Large counterdemonstrations are planned by a collection of faith-based groups, civil rights organizations, local businesses, and faculty and students at the University of Virginia, which is located in the city.
The convergence of potentially thousands of protesters and counterdemonstrators has left many city leaders, residents and business owners worried about possible violence and property damage in the typically tranquil community.
“With large crowds of individuals with strongly held and potentially opposing beliefs, there is also the potential for conflict,” the city’s communications director, Miriam Dickler, wrote in a news release. “Those who live and work in the area of these events should exercise their best judgment on the day of the rally and should avoid the area if they have concerns.”
As it did with the Klan rally, the Charlottesville Police Department is coordinating with the Virginia State Police and Albermarle County law enforcement agencies. The Virginia National Guard issued a statement saying it is monitoring the situation and will “rapidly respond and provide assistance to local law enforcement if needed to keep citizens safe.”
The protest was originally scheduled to take place in the heart of the city at Emancipation Park, formerly Lee Park, where the city has ordered the removal of the Lee statue. (A Charlottesville judge ruled in May that the statue cannot be moved for six months, and the next hearing is scheduled for Aug. 30.)
Earlier this week, however, city officials declared that the protest should be moved to McIntire Park, a little more than a mile from the city’s downtown core, because of concerns about crowd size and the ability of the police to ensure public safety.
But Jason Kessler, a local blogger who organized the rally, said in an interview Tuesday that the event “is absolutely not changing venues.”
“The genesis of the entire event is this Robert E. Lee statue that the city is trying to move, which is symbolic of a lot of other issues that deal with the tearing down of white people’s history and our demographic replacement,” Kessler said.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville civil liberties organization, wrote to the city Tuesday insisting that Kessler be allowed to hold his rally at Emancipation Park, saying that the city’s decision to move the rally “raises serious First Amendment concerns.”
“While the message of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally may raise strong feelings of opposition among area residents and political leaders, that opposition can be no basis for government action that would suppress the First Amendment rights of demonstrators who have acted according to the law,” the organizations wrote.
The two organizations filed suit against Charlottesville on Thursday in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Virginia, saying that the city violated Kessler’s constitutional rights when it revoked the permit for his rally at Emancipation Park.
No matter where the event is held, there is widespread concern about what it will bring.
“I would say the mood around here is pretty grim,” said Ross Mittiga, a University of Virginia instructor who ran unsuccessfully earlier this year in the Democratic primary to unseat House Minority Leader David Toscano (D-Charlottesville). “Many people are concerned about the potential for violence this weekend.”
Richard Spencer, a leading white nationalist who led a torch-bearing rally at the Lee statue in May and who will be speaking at Saturday’s rally, says he, too, is concerned about violence, but he worries it will come from antifascists, or “antifa,” activists.
“You can’t engage the antifa in dialogue because they have proven they are willing and eager to use violence,” said Spencer, a University of Virginia graduate who now lives in Alexandria. The removal of the monuments, he said, is “a metaphor for white dispossession and the erasure of our history and culture and identity.”
Spencer said that those attending the rally should refrain from throwing the first punch, but, “obviously, if you’re attacked, defend yourself.”
Some city leaders and University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan have urged counterprotesters to avoid interacting with the rallygoers and to attend alternative protest events instead. But a wide swath of counterprotesters say that’s not the right approach.
“I don’t think the ‘ignore them’ strategy is going to work,” said Jalane Schmidt, a professor at the University of Virginia who has been among those leading the call for the Lee statue to be removed, “because they’re organizing. You don’t just ignore evil and expect it to go away. That’s the coward’s way out.”
Brittany Caine-Conley, a member of Sojourners United Church of Christ in Charlottesville, has been active in the effort to have the Confederate statues removed. She led church members in a counterprotest at the Klan rally last month, and on Saturday she will do the same at the Unite the Right rally with Congregate Charlottesville, an organizing group that is bringing together counterprotesters from a wide range of religious backgrounds.
Caine-Conley echoed Mittiga’s concerns about what the community is expecting.
“People are scared,” she said. “They are becoming more aware of the magnitude of this event and more aware of the violence that is done by the alt-right. And so people are anxious and afraid.”
But Conley said there was also a growing feeling in the city that people need to make a stand now against the white nationalists and white supremacists. “They are really getting the idea that this is a capital M moment for our city and our nation,” she said.