When torch-wielding white nationalists gathered in front of a Confederate statue in downtown Charlottesville last month, Mayor Michael Signer worried that the event harked back to “the days of the KKK.”
That warning has now become prophecy.
On Monday, city officials said the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan had applied to hold a rally near the statue on July 8.
A city spokeswoman said the permit would likely be approved.
“People have a constitutional right to assemble,” said director of communications Miriam Dickler.
Signer condemned the KKK rally, but also called on people to ignore it.
“This rump, out-of-state chapter of a totally discredited organization will succeed in their aim of inciting controversy only if folks take their putrid bait, and that begins with the media,” he wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “I encourage everyone to ignore this ridiculous sideshow and to focus instead on celebrating the values of diversity and tolerance that have made Charlottesville a world-class city.”
But the town famous for the University of Virginia, a campus conceived of and designed by Thomas Jefferson, is already on edge.
In addition to the proposed KKK rally, a right-wing group known as Unity and Security for America has also applied for a permit to host a rally on Aug. 12. The applications were filed on May 24 and 30, respectively, and were first reported by the Daily Progress.
Unity and Security for America is led by Jason Kessler, a local blogger who was recently fired by conservative website the Daily Caller for his support for white supremacist groups.
On Monday night, news of the proposed rallies dominated a city council meeting that was supposed to center on municipal bonds.
When Kessler approached the podium to speak, protesters flipped him the bird and sang “f--- white supremacy” until Signer had to suspend the meeting. Police had to forcibly remove at least one protester.
Charlottesville has become an unlikely front in a nationwide battle over Confederate flags and monuments.
For years, discussion has simmered over what to do with the city’s own symbol of its Confederate past: a bronze statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that stands in a downtown park named in his honor.
In 2012, when a city council member first proposed removing the statue, she received death threats and her car was covered in Confederate stickers.
Momentum shifted in 2015, after a white supremacist gunman massacred nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., spurring a nationwide effort to remove Confederate symbols.
Days after the massacre, the Lee statue was painted with the words “Black Lives Matter.” Last year, activists launched a petition to remove the statue, and Signer created a task force to review the issue.
But the statue has its supporters.
A Facebook group called “Save the Robert E. Lee Statue” has more than 16,000 followers. And in February, when the city council voted 3-2 to remove the statue and rename the park, opponents quickly obtained an injunction, stalling the statue’s demise.
In recent months, the statue has become a rallying cry for Corey Stewart, a Republican gubernatorial candidate. Stewart, who is chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and was chairman of Donald Trump’s Virginia campaign until he was fired in October, has delivered speeches in front of the statue, calling efforts to remove it “historical vandalism” and “political correctness gone mad.”
Yet it was only last month, when the torch-bearing white nationalists gathered at Lee’s feet, chanting “You will not replace us,” that the statue — and Charlottesville — were thrown into the national spotlight.
The May 13 rally was led by Richard Spencer, a self-proclaimed white nationalist who coined the term “alt-right” — a far-right movement seeking a whites-only state — and rose to prominence during Trump’s presidential campaign.
The rally led to repudiation from local officials.
“This event involving torches at night in Lee Park was either profoundly ignorant or was designed to instill fear in our minority populations in a way that hearkens back to the days of the KKK,” Signer wrote on Facebook. “Either way, as mayor of this City, I want everyone to know this: we reject this intimidation. We are a Welcoming City, but such intolerance is not welcome here.”
For his remarks, Signer, a Jewish author and lawyer, drew a hail of racist and anti-Semitic assaults on social media.
Tensions in the city are likely to build as the KKK’s proposed rally approaches, but local politicians insisted Charlottesville would get through it.
“We’ve been dealing with Confederate flaggers and white supremacists for some months now, but if they show up we’ll deal with them,” said city council member Bob Fenwick. “The city is getting very tired of outsourced hooligans who come into our City Council chambers with open carry pistols and machetes in an attempt to intimidate . . . a very strange way to show your support for a historical figure like Robert E. Lee, whose personal qualities they profess to admire.”
Kristin Szakos, the city council member who proposed removing the Lee statue back in 2012, suggested Trump is partly to blame for the situation in Charlottesville.
“Perhaps the administration in Washington has empowered them to speak more loudly,” she said, “but we will handle it accordingly.”
Spencer, who attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said he did not plan to attend the July 8 rally.
“KKK is not my scene,” he said in a text message.
“American society is fragmenting. That’s the cause of racial tension and violence. The Alt-Right is offering a way out,” he said, adding that statues like the bronze of Robert E. Lee “are symbols of our European heritage.”
“They represent gods,” he said. “Tearing them down is a symbolic genocide of the White race.”
Stewart also said he would not attend the KKK rally but still supported keeping the statue.
“It’s unfortunate that there is a horrible organization like the Klan that tries to hijack this issue,” he said. “I believe in protecting historical monuments. I believe you cannot sanitize or erase history. But for the KKK, it’s all about race. That’s not what this is all about. The KKK is a racist organization that has no place in Virginia.”
The Loyal White Knights of the KKK, which is based out of North Carolina, could not be reached for comment Monday night. Calls went directly to an answering machine that played an offensive message full of racial slurs. “Always remember: If it ain’t white, it ain’t right,” the message ended. “White power.”
But the chaotic city council meeting on Monday raised an urgent question: How will the city react to an actual KKK rally?
“I will encourage those in attendance to simply and silently turn their backs and after a few minutes just return home,” Fenwick said. “I hope it will be the night Charlottesville turns its back on hate.”