RICHMOND — Self-proclaimed white nationalist Richard Spencer led a large group of demonstrators carrying torches and chanting “You will not replace us” Saturday in Charlottesville, protesting plans to remove a Confederate monument that has played an outsize role in this year’s race for Virginia governor.
“What brings us together is that we are white, we are a people, we will not be replaced,” Spencer said at an afternoon protest, the first of two rallies he led in the town where he once attended the University of Virginia.
At the second rally, dozens of torch-bearing protesters gathered in a city park Saturday evening and chanted “You will not replace us” and “Russia is our friend,” local television footage shows. Spencer was not shown addressing that gathering, but he tweeted a photo of himself standing in the crowd carrying what appeared to be a bamboo tiki torch.
The evening protest was short-lived. About 10 minutes in, an altercation between Spencer’s group and counterprotesters drew police to the scene, and the crowd quickly dispersed, the Charlottesville Daily Progress reported.
Once an obscure Internet figure promoting white identity, Spencer coined the term “alt-right” — referring to a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state — and rose to prominence during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Although Trump denounced the alt-right, Spencer’s followers counted his victory as a win for the movement as Trump espoused hard-right stances on undocumented immigrants, Muslims and political correctness.
“You will not replace us. You will not destroy us,” Spencer said at the earlier rally, which he broadcast via Periscope video. “You cannot destroy us. We have awoken. We are here. We are never going away.”
Spencer was in Charlottesville to protest a City Council vote to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. A court injunction has halted the removal for six 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, was chairman of Trump’s Virginia campaign until he was fired.
There was no indication that Stewart, who has alienated some supporters with his focus on Confederate symbols, attended either rally. In defending the Confederate battle flag and monuments, Stewart has said he is not promoting symbols of hate but battling “political correctness” and “historical vandalism.”
Stewart did not respond to a request for comment Sunday. He kept a relatively low profile on Twitter.
“I want to wish all the mothers a very special Mother’s Day today!” he said in one of his few tweets of the day.
The rallies drew condemnation from the other four contenders for governor: former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach), and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello, both Democrats.
All are vying to succeed term-limited Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
“The ugly display of divisive rhetoric and intimidation tactics in Charlottesville yesterday . . . does not reflect the thoughtfulness and tolerance I see in my fellow Virginians everywhere I go,” Gillespie tweeted.
Wagner, who faces Stewart and Gillespie in the June 13 GOP primary, said via email: “These actions are totally unacceptable. These people are racists. They don’t represent Virginia values. I condemn their actions and beliefs. I call on all Virginians who are involved in efforts to advocate for or against Virginia’s history to act responsibly and honorably.”
Said Northam: “There is no place for hate, fear or intimidation in Virginia. The display in Charlottesville is the last gasp of a disgusting ideology. In this commonwealth, our doors are open, our lights are on and we are welcome to everyone who shares a love for it, no matter who you are or where you’re from.”
Perriello, who grew up in Charlottesville, tweeted derisively at Spencer after the alt-right leader posted video of the first protest.
“Get your white supremacist hate out of my hometown,” Perriello wrote on Twitter.
Spencer replied: “We won, you lost, little Tommy.”
“Actually, you lost,” Perriello shot back. “In 1865. 150 years later, you’re still not over it.”