As the liberal Virginia city attempts to ‘tell the truth about race in our history’, the Ku Klux Klan, counter-protesters and Confederate loyalists clash over what that means to them
Members of the Loyal White Knights of the KKK organize a rally at Justice Park to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee. Photograph: Pat Jarrett for the Guardian
Sunday 9 July 2017 13.33 EDT Last modified on Sunday 9 July 2017 15.11 EDT
When roughly 50 members of the Ku Klux Klan rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, they were met with roaring crowd of more than 1,000 counter-protesters who shouted “Shame! Shame!” and “Black lives matter!”
The counter-protesters beat drums and waved posters with slogans, such as “KKK Sashay Away”, “Y’all SUKKK!” and “Stop Pretending that Your Racism is Patriotism”. About 500 protesters, led by a coalition of local clergy-members, marched through town singing “We Shall Overcome”. Other protesters wore Ghostbusters stickers and referred to the Klan members as sad phantoms from the past who needed to be exorcised.
But as he waited at the front of the packed crowd for the KKK members to arrive on Saturday, Kyle Printz, a 74-year-old with a Confederate flag on his baseball cap, called himself “kind of neutral” and said he did not support either the Klan or the counter-protesters, who he compared to “a bunch of clowns”.
While not part of the group, he said he would be open to the Klan’s perspective they if spoke mainly in support of the Confederacy and expressed views “partial to the south”.
Saturday’s KKK rally was one of several protests opposing the planned removal of a statute of Confederate general Robert E Lee from a city park, one part of liberal Charlottesville’s new effort to “to tell the truth about race in our history, and systemic racism”, mayor Mike Signer told the Guardian.
The Klan rally, which lasted just over a half hour, was met with overwhelming peaceful opposition from protesters young and old. But the day was also marked with deeper tensions over policing, racism, and what American children should be taught about slavery and the civil war.
After the Klan left the park, a few hundred younger demonstrators repeatedly faced off with law enforcement officers, shouting at them that they should be ashamed of their behavior.
The Klan members, some dressed in robes and hoods, had been ushered safely in and out of the park between long lines of local and state police as a helicopter buzzed overhead. Many protesters criticized these measures, shouting that the police were protecting the KKK and asking how many of their tax dollars were being spent to protect a few dozen racists.
“How much did we pay for this?” one protester shouted.
Signer, the mayor, said early on Saturday that he did not know how much the additional security and preparations for the day would cost, but that it was “expensive”. He said it was regrettable that the city had to spend so much time and resources preserving public safety in response to a “fringe group”.
After declaring the assembly unlawful, officers used three canisters of tear gas on the young protesters in an attempt to make them disperse. In a statement, a city spokeswoman said that “a large number of people” had followed Klan members to the site in which their vehicles were parked, “impeded the egress of the vehicles”, and refused to move.
Shortly before the tear gas was was fired at the crowd, a group of young African-American women from Charlottesville said they were upset at the rough way the police had treated protesters, both arresting them and knocking them down to the ground, while the Klan members were carefully guarded. Protesters chanted the name of Sage Smith, a transgender teenager who disappeared in 2012 and whose case has never been solved, as evidence that the local police do not care enough about black residents. There were 22 arrests in total, city spokeswoman Miriam Dickler said.
‘Heritage, not hate’
While the KKK members in their garish regalia were greatly outnumbered, some white residents in the crowd agreed with the Klan that the statue of the Confederate general should remain in the park, and expressed frustration with the current way their children and grandchildren were being taught about the civil war.
“If you don’t like it, don’t look at it,” Printz, who lives in nearby Culpepper, said of the Lee statue, which he called “part of history” and a “war memorial”.
“The history that I was taught in school is nothing like the history the kids are being taught today,” said Joann McCracken, 52.
Printz and McCracken both said they were frustrated by the way that schools now taught children about the civil war with an emphasis on the Confederacy’s white supremacist ideology and its fight to preserve slavery. Printz, who attended a segregated high school, said the civil war was not primarily about slavery.
McCracken and her daughter Lauren Lloyd said they were not happy to have the “scary” Ku Klux Klan in town, and that they were glad that the town had publicly organized against the racists. At the same time, she said, she also opposed removing Lee’s statue from the park.
“If they want to get rid of it, I’d be glad to take it to my house and put it in my yard,” McCracken said. “It’s heritage, not hate.”
She added: “That statue has been here for years and years and years. Why worry about it now?
“You can’t change the past, and fussing about it is just going to ruin the future for kids.”
Printz, who said his ancestors fought for the Confederacy but did not own slaves, suggested constructing a building around the Lee statue, so you could go inside and look at it if you wanted to, or walk by if you did not. “That would kind of serve everybody,” he said.
Photograph: Mapbox, OpenStreetMap
Charlottesville, the wealthy liberal town where the University of Virginia is based, has become a target for white supremacists because of its choice to publicly reckon with how slavery and race are addressed in its public spaces. As well as trying to remove Confederate statues, the effort would also include a memorial to the city’s formerly enslaved population and a more legible marker of the site where the town’s slave auction block stood, the mayor said.
The vote to remove the statue of Lee, a beloved historical figure in Virginia, has sparked a legal battle and multiple protests from attention-seeking, far-right groups, including, in May, a gathering of alt-right activists led by Richard Spencer who clustered around the statue with flaming torches, an image that attracted international coverage.
“I see this as analogous to internet trolling, where the trolls’ victory is to pull you into their twisted sick orbit,” Signer said of the Klan’s rally. He had been urging residents – and the media – not to “take the bait of this fringe group”.
The Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a North Carolina-based group, were 45 minutes late to their own rally on Saturday. The main event, which prompted weeks of local preparation, lasted barely more than a half hour.
Some at the protest said they were heartened by the overwhelming community response against the Klan.
Lorenzo Branch, 55, drove for an hour to join the “beautiful rainbow coalition of people standing for the right of equality. It’s beautiful to see everybody standing together as one,” he said.
Standing next to him, Michael Elder, 51, from Charlottesville, said, “My biggest disappointment is that there are not enough minorities here having our voice heard on issues that affect us directly.” The crowd of protesters, which was largely white, “is not reflective of the issues”. Elder, who is black, said it bothered him that KKK members were willing to drive two and a half hours to express their hatred, but that more of his neighbors had not shown up to confront them.
Some progressive activists said the Klan rally and the counter-protest had energized a new, more direct approach to confronting racism in Charlottesville, and that they disagreed with the arguments that locals should just ignore the KKK and not give their protest their attention.
“That’s been the city’s approach to racism for decades – to ignore it and hope it goes away,” said Mark Heisey, 29, a farmer from Charlottesville.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest
‘We’re the only organization in America who are fighting for white civil rights,’ Douglas Barker, a Klan member from Hampton Bays, New York, told reporters. Photograph: Lois Beckett for the Guardian
Like other protesters, Heisey said he hoped the energy built confronting the KKK would be channeled into local reforms, including police reform and addressing gentrification that has harmed residents of color.
During their brief rally in the center of a Charlottesville park, Klan members, some in satin robes and hoods, shouted “White power!”, gave Nazi salutes and waved Confederate flags. Several carried posters with antisemitic slogans. At least one robed Klansman gave a speech, but it was almost impossible to hear what was being said over the chants and jeers of the crowd. The Klan members were separated from the protesters by a double row of barriers guarded by law enforcement officers. Journalists circulated in the fenced-off space between between the two groups, some thrusting microphones in the faces of the few Klan members who were willing to approach the barrier to give interviews.
“We’re the only organization in America who are fighting for white civil rights,” Douglas Barker, a Klan member in a wrinkled white satin gown, told reporters. He said he was from Hampton Bays, New York.
Barker, who was wearing sunglasses and had a long ponytail half-hidden under his robe, looked nervous as he faced a cluster of microphones. A red-faced man behind him repeatedly bellowed “White power!” and shouted a racial slur as Barker talked to the cameras.
Some of the group’s leaders, while still wearing traditional Klan garb, had adopted the more politically correct type of white nationalist rhetoric recently popularized by the “alt-right”.
“We don’t hate black people, we truly don’t,” Chris Barker, the violet-and-gold robed imperial wizard of the Loyal White Knights of the KKK, told reporters. “I’m not a white supremacist, I’m a white separatist. I believe everybody should stick with their own race.
“That’s God’s law,” he said, “We’re not supposed to mix races.” Asked which part of the Bible mandated such segregation, he said: “I don’t have it off the top of my head.”
His wife, Amanda Barker, was one of at least nine women of about the roughly 55 Klan members present. She told reporters that if the battles over confederate statues continued, their group might begin protesting other statues. “If they keep removing ours, we’re going to start retaliating,” she said.
“We’re not trying to support any type of violence,” she said. Her message to black residents of Charlottesville, she said, was: “Just like they love their heritage, we’re going to love ours.”
Jack White, a pathbreaking African-American journalist who had covered the civil rights movement, was standing in the crowd, and he scoffed when asked how the rally compared to the civil rights era.
“What kind of pathetic loser do you have to be to join the KKK in the 21st century?” he said. “This is almost comical.”
White said he believed the “alt-right”, a collection of internet-savvy far-right nationalists, racists, misogynists and antisemites steeped in online trolling culture, were a much more serious threat today than the Klan.
During the rally, a few people threw water bottles and at least two tomatoes over the heads of law enforcement officers and into the Klan enclosure, but the standoff between Klan and protesters was otherwise peaceful.
Before the Klan appeared, Printz, the 74-year-old from Culpepper, said he thought the Klan itself was “different now” than it was in the past, and “really weak”, and that black residents had little reason to be concerned about having the group in town.
“I don’t think they’re as racial as they used to be,” he said before the group arrived.
By the end of the rally, Printz said he was unimpressed with the group’s uniforms and thought the were making the Confederate flag “look bad” and associating it with racism.
“That doesn’t look like white power to me,” he said.