Toward the end of a rally organized by Charlottesville clergy in response to an anticipated event that would have shown support for the city’s statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, a brief confrontation between a City Council candidate and a social justice activist raised eyebrows.
While a circuit court judge last month issued a temporary injunction to prevent the removal of the statue, the controversy over the Lee statue and protests around it continue to divide the community.
Following the torch-lit white nationalist protest in Lee Park on May 13 that drew national attention, faith leaders banded together Wednesday morning to confront racism in a peaceful manner.
“We were called here as representatives of the church universal and to stand for peace, love and justice — something that we can all get behind,” said the Rev. Phil Woodson, of Charlottesville First United Methodist Church.
“People that are part of the ongoing work of ending racism in the city put out a call, understanding there was intended to be a gathering to protect the statue, which implicitly means to uphold white supremacy in our community,” said the Rev. Tracy Howe Wispelwey, of Westminster Presbyterian Church.
The rally that the clergy members organized to preempt statue supporters featured liberal activists and church groups carrying Black Lives Matter banners and similar signage.
The event remained peaceful under the watchful eye of about 20 Charlottesville police officers and detectives — including Chief Al Thomas and Deputy Chief Gary Pleasants — but a brief flare-up drew attention away from the waning crowd in front of the Lee statue.
As the rally was winding down, Kenneth Jackson, an independent candidate for City Council who is opposed to the removal of the Lee statue, and activist Veronica Fitzhugh argued about the confrontational tactics that have been used against right-wing activists and avowed white nationalists in recent weeks.
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In recent days, the tactics of local left-wing activists have been called into question following a number of incidents.
Jackson said the demonstration Wednesday was unnecessary, particularly in light of recent events.
“I think this is divisive because there’s no reason for them to be here,” he said as the event was getting started.
A week after the torch-lit demonstration, several white nationalists who participated in the event were confronted by about a dozen activists. The group, which included Fitzhugh, called them Nazis and ordered them to leave the Downtown Mall.
And recently, flyers featuring the personal information of those nationalists and other right-wing activists have appeared in the downtown area. The flyers were made by activists associated with Showing Up for Racial Justice Charlottesville.
Jackson and several others have said they are concerned because some of those flyers and online social media posts about them have allegedly said “kill Nazis.”
“We came out here today to stop hate, to stop people from posting signs, harassing others and talking about killing people,” Jackson said moments before his argument with Fitzhugh. “You can’t have love when you do that. That’s not love.”
While talking with Jackson on Wednesday, Fitzhugh said she did not suggest killing anyone.
However, she said she would not respect “Nazis’ rights,” adding that she believes that violating the law in some cases is necessary for righteous movements.
“There are some things that are worth being wrong for ... that’s how laws are changed. That’s how civil rights happened,” she said.
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“The situation is not a joke anymore. My family is in fear for their lives right now,” said David Caron, a man who was identified in the flyers, which included the home addresses of alleged “local Nazis.”
Caron is an associate of right-wing blogger Jason Kessler, founder of Unity and Security for America, an organization that advocates for federal restrictions on immigration from non-Western countries.
Kessler was among the small group of right-wing activists and nationalists that Fitzhugh and others confronted earlier this month downtown, demanding that they “go home.” Kessler also was identified in the flyers.
Kessler attended the rally in the park Wednesday but said he was only there to support Jackson.
“I’m not looking for any unnecessary trouble. When the time comes for us to demonstrate again, we will demonstrate. But I’m not interested in getting into a turf war with these people,” he said.
On Wednesday, ProPublica, an investigative journalism nonprofit, reported that Kessler spoke before the May 13 rally during a luncheon in Pen Park. Kessler has said he attended that day’s events as a journalist for The Daily Caller, which is widely read in right-wing circles.
His article now includes an editor’s note that says he made a speech stating his support of the white-nationalist organizations that had gathered in Charlottesville that day. That group included Richard Spencer, president of the white-nationalist National Policy Institute and a leader of the so-called “alt-right” movement.
The Daily Caller’s executive editor also told ProPublica that it had suspended its “freelance relationship” with Kessler.
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The violent feelings directed toward white nationalists is not coming solely from groups like SURJ.
“I’m here waiting for the white supremacists to show up because I’m in a bad mood today and I need an excuse to hit somebody,” said Laurens Martin, a “tramp” who considers Charlottesville one of his “home bases.”
“I heard about the event with the torches the other night and I was really sad I wasn’t here,” he added.
Standing next to Martin, Jeffrey Thompson said he does not agree with trying to remove the statue, but he expressed animosity for white nationalist groups.
“They’re just going off with some German-Nazi bull-crap. And that’s all it is,” Thompson said.
“I believe in the freedom of cultures, but that’s just one culture that needs to go away,” he said, citing groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Brotherhood.
Observing the demonstrators from a distance, both Martin and Thompson said they were unaware beforehand that rallies had been organized in the park Wednesday.
As they continued to watch the rally, Thompson alleged that white supremacists have recently harassed his homeless uncle by setting fire to his belongings.
Moments later, his frustrated uncle arrived but declined to speculate on who had been setting fire to his clothes and bedding.
Police spokesman Lt. Steve Upman said in an email Wednesday that authorities had received a report of “clothes on fire in Lee Park” on Tuesday night and that there were reports of a blanket and an air mattress being set on fire earlier this week.
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Even among the faithful demonstrators, clergy members offered different opinions about the Lee statue and what should be done about the calls for its removal.
Howe Wispelwey said she thinks that removing the Lee statue is one way to dismantle white supremacy.
“In my mind, that’s one of the things that means,” she said.
Woodson said his congregation has mixed feelings about what should be done with the Lee statue, which he said has become a “focal point for disruption” in the community.
“What I’ve learned through my conversations is that, beyond the statue, what people truly want to address are issues of systematic and complicit racism that still permeates throughout culture and society,” he said.
“It’s difficult to have those conversations while we continue to focus on the statue.”