Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer held onto a candle and hope that racists cannot gain a foothold in his college town at the start of this week, one night after white nationalists evoked “the days of the KKK” with a torch-lit rally to save a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“Candlelight vigil against hate in Cville,” Signer (D) wrote on Twitter after the Sunday event. “These are the kind of ‘torches’ I like to see.”
The hopeful mood did not last long.
Signer, a Jewish author and lawyer who became mayor in January 2016, soon drew a hail of racist and anti-Semitic assaults on Twitter. They began Sunday and kept coming Monday.
“I smell Jew,” one message said. “If so, you are going back to Israel. But you will not stay in power here. Not for long.”
The attacks were only part of the fallout from a startling weekend in Charlottesville, where white nationalist Richard Spencer led two rallies Saturday. His appearances continued to reverberate Monday in the Virginia governor’s race, as the candidate who based his campaign around Confederate symbols remained conspicuously mum.
Corey A. Stewart, one of three Republican gubernatorial contenders, made the preservation of the state’s Confederate memorials a rallying cry for his campaign. There is no indication that he attended the rallies. But unlike the two other Republicans and two Democrats in the race — all of whom condemned Spencer’s explicitly racial appeals — Stewart did not comment as the events made national news.
“Only a jerk would talk politics on Mother’s Day,” Stewart tweeted Sunday — although earlier in the day, he had tweeted about his plans to cut taxes and create jobs.
Gillespie, the front-runner in the GOP primary race, chided Stewart for his silence on the “ugly display of hateful rhetoric and intimidation tactics.”
In a blurry, live Facebook video on Monday evening, Stewart denounced a laundry list of targets: “fake news like The Washington Post”; “weak establishment Republicans” like his chief GOP rival, Ed Gillespie; his Democratic rivals, for not condemning their party’s “long history of racism”; sanctuary cities; “corporate monopolies like Dominion Virginia Power”; and Charlottesville City Councilman Wes Bellamy, who stepped down from the Virginia Board of Education over a series of tweets he made between 2009 and 2014 that included gay slurs, references to sexual assault and anti-white comments. Stewart made no mention of Spencer.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello, a Charlottesville native, went on Monday to Lee Park, where the statue stands, and called for an end to Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday recognizing the Confederate leaders and for a state commission on “racial healing and transformation.” The other Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, also supports scrapping Lee-Jackson Day.
Once an obscure Internet figure promoting white identity, Spencer rose to prominence during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. He coined the term “alt-right” — referring to a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state. Trump denounced the alt-right, but Spencer’s followers have counted his victory as a win for the movement as Trump espoused hard-right stances on undocumented immigrants, Muslims and political correctness.
On Saturday, Spencer led two rallies in the town where he once attended the University of Virginia. He was protesting a City Council vote in February to remove a statue of Lee from the downtown park. A court injunction has halted the removal for six months.
“What brings us together is that we are white, we are a people, we will not be replaced,” Spencer said at an afternoon protest, which he broadcast via Periscope video. “You will not replace us. You will not destroy us. You cannot destroy us. We have awoken. We are here. We are never going away.”
At a rally that night, dozens of torch-bearing protesters chanted “You will not replace us” and “Russia is our friend.” Spencer tweeted a photo of himself standing in the crowd carrying what appeared to be a bamboo tiki torch.
On Sunday, the regular protest outside Richard Spencer’s office and apartment in Old Town Alexandria took on an added level of concern as word spread about the previous night’s events in Charlottesville.
“People brought it up. They were kind of alarmed,” said Jonathan Krall, one of the organizers of the Grassroots Alexandria protest group, which is part of the Indivisible network. “There were these pictures of torch-wielding Nazis. That’s scary. That’s straight out of a B-movie.”
Krall and others, who didn’t want to be named because Spencer’s supporters have attacked opponents online, said they got strong support from Alexandria residents to keep up the pressure on Spencer and his alt-right allies with the biweekly protests, posters that welcome everyone to public and private spaces, and efforts to make sure police are not targeting minorities.
Although the Alexandria City Council and mayor in November 2016 declared itself a “hate-free zone ” with “no place for intolerance,” activists like Krall think the city could do more.
“Spencer is the symptom of white supremacy which exists in our society,” Krall said. “The solution to him is to improve inclusion in our society for everybody … and until we take those steps, people like Spencer will be empowered.”
Stewart has also held several rallies at the Lee statue and elsewhere, criticizing the planned removal as “historical vandalism” and unfurling the Confederate flag at several events. He is chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and was chairman of Trump’s Virginia campaign until he was fired in October for participating in a protest “establishment pukes” at the Republican National Committee headquarters.
Signer voted against removal of the statue, saying in a written statement ahead of the vote that he would prefer to add monuments to civil rights victories to tell “the full story of race through our public spaces.”
“I’d rather rebut them and overcome them than purge the public realm of irritants to our values,” he said in an interview Monday.
Signer said the Twitter attacks were the first time he had faced anti-Semitism in public life — although he “definitely experienced attacks from trolls on Twitter” after writing some “pretty critical pieces about Donald Trump.”
A U-Va. lecturer and author of a book about demagogues, Signer has written two opinion pieces on how the president fits that description, including one for The Washington Post.
“I absolutely believe this is linked to the sort of politics that the Trump campaign trafficked in,” he said. “If you remember that closing argument ad, when they talked about global financial conspiracies keeping regular people down, there was very clear messaging.”
Signer said he was not upset by what he called “the politics of bullies.”
“In a time when you’ve seen legitimacy conferred on a really toxic politics of intimidation from the top down, including the sort of blessing of the alt-right movement from the White House, I think it’s a sign you’re doing the right things when these trolls try to attack you from anonymous accounts,” he said.
On Twitter, Signer responded to the attacks with a mix of defiance and humor.
“Here is what this great country faces in this age of @realDonaldTrump-a sitting mayor subjected to anti-Semitism. I will not be intimidated,” he said in one tweet.
“This garbage white supremacy won’t even be a footnote in our history. #leave #resistance #welcomingcity,” said another.
To someone offering a supportive tweet — “Mr. Signer, I am so embarrassed that you received this message from an American” — he replied: “Well, let’s not be too sure. Could have been a Russian.”
Fenit Nirappil and Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.