A Ku Klux Klan chapter holding a rally in downtown Charlottesville on Saturday afternoon says it expects 80 to 100 members and supporters to take part in the protest and that most will have guns with them.
“It’s an open-carry state, so our members will be armed,” said James Moore, a member of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which is headquartered in Pelham, N.C., near the Virginia border. Moore said that if members are attacked, they will defend themselves.
The KKK is protesting the Charlottesville City Council’s decision this year to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a public park and rename that park. Once called Lee Park, it is now Emancipation Park. A court injunction has halted the statue’s removal until a November hearing. On Thursday, a “Confederate Heroes” plaque attached to the statue was removed by city workers.
“The liberals are taking away our heritage,” Moore said. “By taking these monuments away, that’s what they’re working on. They’re trying to erase the white culture right out of the history books.”
Ahead of the 3 p.m. rally in Justice Park, Charlottesville leaders are urging calm and encouraging residents and visitors to avoid direct confrontations with the Klan. They say the Klan would like nothing more than a violent showdown, because it would bring the group attention.
“Our approach all the way through, from our police chief on down, has been to urge people not to take this totally discredited fringe organization’s putrid bait at all,” Mayor Michael Signer said. “The only thing they seem to want is division and confrontation and a twisted kind of celebrity. The most successful defiance will be to refuse to take their bait and continue to tell our story. Then their memory of Charlottesville will be of a community that repudiated them by not getting drawn into their pathetic drama.”
While Charlottesville officials and police are hoping that the rally goes off without incident, the city is prepared to respond quickly if there are problems, Signer said.
“Public safety is our most sacrosanct duty to our public and our visitors,” he said. “If any one of these people breaks any law, including those governing assault and disorderly conduct, they will be swiftly dealt with and brought to justice.”
The city is supporting numerous community groups, churches, businesses and organizations that have joined forces to present various activities, concerts and prayer services away from the protest site throughout the day. In addition, the University of Virginia has issued a statement condemning the KKK and urging members of the university community to avoid confrontation and support the other events.
Hunter Smith, owner of a local brewery, formed Unity C-Ville in response to the rally plans. Smith, 31, said he wanted to provide activities for city residents to express their solidarity on Saturday without directly confronting the marchers.
“I was concerned that a bunch of people were going to go and give these folks exactly what they were looking for, which is attention,” Smith said. “The best-case scenario is that these guys come in and have their sad little rally and talk to themselves and leave and that we demonstrate that this is not a place that will be divided.”
But others say it’s important to confront the Klan directly.
“We want them to know there’s no platform for white supremacy,” said Grace Aheron, who works for a nonprofit organization in Charlottesville and is taking part in a counterdemonstration with the group Showing Up for Racial Justice. “They say to ignore them and that they’re just a small group, but we’ve watched the rise of many people, including our current president, who hold many similar views. It’s enraging that the city would give a permit to a known terrorist organization.”
The council’s decision to remove the Lee statue has attracted opposition from a number of groups, including white supremacists. In May, the self-proclaimed white nationalist leader Richard Spencer took part in two protests against the decision, including a nighttime gathering where dozens of participants carried torches.
Reached by phone Thursday, Spencer said he had not heard about the KKK’s protest and had no plans to attend. He said that while he did not want to be associated with the group, he supported its call to keep the Lee statue in place.
Doron Ezickson, the Washington regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, says the emboldening of white nationalist groups and the KKK across the country is a concern, but he hopes their impact is limited. He also recommended that counterprotesters avoid direct confrontation that could lead to violence.
“The more attention they get, the more hope that they have to increase their impact,” Ezickson said. “We would respectfully suggest that the appropriate and smart thing to do is to come together as communities but don’t do so in a way that risks physical altercation.”