CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA—In the blistering afternoon heat of Justice Park, a member of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan yelled “white power!” and threw up Nazi-esque salutes as he waltzed around in the public space hoisting a Confederate battle flag.
He and about 30 to 50 other members of the group, headquartered in Pelham, North Carolina, had journeyed to the sunlit, cobblestoned city of Charlottesville on Saturday to protest the city council’s decision to remove the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee located in the neighboring Emancipation Park. They were escorted into the park by a horde of police officers, some in riot gear, who formed a pathway for them to walk (robes and all) through a mass of people there to counter-protest the Klan’s event.
Once the Klansmen made it into the park, about 45 minutes later than their scheduled 3 p.m. arrival, they stood inside a barricaded area—some smoking cigarettes, a few opting to speak briefly to the media—and waved flags, occasionally yelling at the hundreds of city residents a few feet away from them, who were also barricaded in their own area.
Three men hoisted a banner emblazoned with the Klan’s website and the image of a hooded figure pointing out with the words “Loyal White Knights Ku Klux Klan Wants you!”
A Klansman who identified himself as Douglas Barker told the media on-scene that “They’re trying to erase our history and it’s not right what they’re doing,” in reference to the planned removal of the Lee statue.
By around 4:25 p.m., after a raucous chorus of “boo” and “go home,” the Klan took their flags, hitched up their robes and left.
Ever since the Klan filed paperwork with the city to have the event, in which they claimed that an estimated 100 would attend the protest, Charlottesville, its citizens, activists, clergy, and politicians have tried to devise a strategy to oppose the group’s presence.
Mayor Mike Signer had strongly suggested that residents stay away from Justice Park, and that participating in counter-programming held throughout the city—including specific events hosted by Albemarle-Charlottesville NAACP and the Charlottesville Clergy Collective—would send a stronger message. Signer also urged outsiders not to inflate the influence and power of a small hateful group.
“What I believe as a result of this attack on us is that we should not be intimidated, if anything redouble our progress towards becoming more inclusive,” Signer told The Daily Beast on Saturday morning. “You see how much outsize attention a few attention seeking radicals can get in this era.”
Tom Perriello, who served in the House of Representatives for Virginia’s 5th district, which includes Charlottesville, told The Daily Beast that he thought it was important for people to show up and oppose the Klan.
“It is necessary for communities, particularly those of privilege, to stand up to overt hate meant to scare the vulnerable,” the recent gubernatorial candidate said. “But it is equally important to not let a few extremists in hoods distract us from fighting structural and pernicious racism being propagated from the White House down.”
There was no stopping the protesters, anyway.
The city estimated that some 1,000 or more residents showed up hours before the event was set to begin to make it painfully clear that the Klan was not wanted in their city. They held up signs saying “Smash Racism,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Fuckkk Off.” Some stood resolutely at the barricades as a march through the park began like two men representing the Virginia Defender, a community newspaper whose stated goal is giving voice to the voiceless.
George Purvis, 68, held a sign which read: “RVA Stands with CVille. No KKK! No Confederate Statues!”
“They’re basically symbols of racism and white supremacy no matter what the defenders say,” Purvis told The Daily Beast, speaking broadly about Confederate statues. “It just seems so obvious to me that it’s something that needs to be addressed.”
Charlottesville has become a hotbed for Confederate statue defenders over the last few months with a Richard Spencer-led march earlier this year and the startling success of longshot gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart, a former staffer for the Trump campaign who focused a lot of his rhetoric on preserving the monuments.
Signer, however, wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post explaining his decision to vote against the statue’s removal that “We shouldn’t honor the dishonorable Confederate cause, but we shouldn’t try to erase it, either.” He argues that the presence of the statue allows everyone to be reminded of the history of Charlottesville, and of the country. Removing the Lee statue would, Signer posited, amount to sweeping the Confederacy under the rug.
This sentiment was not shared by many in attendance on Saturday—a loose mix of concerned residents, Black Lives Matter groups, antifascist factions, and Democratic socialists.
Solidarity Cville, a local activist group, used the moment to lead a march around the park and present a list of demands to Signer and the City of Charlottesville, including the demand that the permit for an upcoming August event featuring Spencer, be revoked.
“These newer white supremacy groups that try to present themselves as respectable in whatever way are no different than the KKK,” Mimi Arbeit, who works with the group, told The Daily Beast, referring to the August event.
“What I want to say to national outlets today is that as goes Charlottesville so goes the nation,” she added. “If we can be targets of violence and intimidation, then you can be targets of violence and intimidation.”
After the Klan members left the event, some protesters followed them to a garage where they were preparing to leave the city. Taking issue with the fact that police officers were shepherding the members out, like an arrival party of Robocops, protesters approached the line of police asking why they were doing this. The police officers released tear gas to get the large crowd to disperse.
As the proceedings died down, with a few small skirmishes between protesters and police, some 23 people were arrested by the evening.
Signer viewed the day as a success for the city saying in a Facebook post: “All in all, I believe that we came out of this difficult day stronger than before—more committed to diversity, to racial and social justice, to telling the truth about our history, and to unity. On a very hot day, we made lemonade out of a lemon—from North Carolina, no less.”
While Signer praised the police for their work during the day, Solidarity Cville was far from pleased with their actions.
“Police provided the Klan safe passage out of the park, while a community member called to the police, ‘Do your job, and protect us.’ Today and every day, the police were there to protect white supremacy,” the group said in a statement provided to The Daily Beast.
The rallying cry around Confederate statues, the white supremacist groups they attract and the particular instances of protests in Charlottesville are far from over.
In just a month, it will be fought again on the same ground.