In the pre-dawn hours of Monday, July 13, an anti-racist activist in Charlottesville, Virginia, awoke to find that someone, in the dark of night, had planted a flaming tiki torch on their front lawn. About half an hour later, another local anti-racist organizer would discover a blazing tiki-torch had also been placed, in his words, “very carefully and deliberately next to my mailbox.” Later in the day, another tiki-torch was found—this one unlit and abandoned by the side of a road, along with a bottle of a fuel, near the home of a third activist. The message was clear.
“Tiki torches are irrevocably linked to August 11th and 12th,” one of the targeted activists told me, referring to the mob of neo-Nazis and Trumpists who descended on Charlottesville in 2017. “And so for us here, it's impossible to see this as anything other than intimidation, and I would say you'd have to be incredibly naive not to think of it as a threat of violence… It's clearly an effort to get myself and others to stop the work we do and to frighten us.”
Three years after the Unite the Right rally, the national spotlight has moved on from Charlottesville but the white nationalists have not. Instead, openly armed “volunteers” are now posting themselves in public parks—making those parks feel much less safe, or public, to many—to protect monuments to racism.
Charlottesville residents overall, and its anti-racist activists in particular, have endured the consistent presence of neo-Confederates since Unite the Right—and many of them were also involved in that rally. And at the center of that campaign are the same two Confederate statues—one depicting Robert E. Lee, the other Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson—the neo-Nazis of Unite the Right claimed to be “defending.” While the media mostly moved on, many white supremacists dug in. The perception by anti-racist organizers that neo-Confederates have the support of local police has meant harassment, including those recent tiki-torch warnings, often go unreported to law enforcement.
Two months after Unite the Right, high-profile white nationalists again gathered at the Lee statue to reprise chants of “You will not replace us,” and to boast on social media, “We came, we triggered, we left.” That was weeks after Trump “clarified” his infamous “very fine people” defense of the Unite the Right protesters, after one of them murdered Heather Heyer, by claiming that, “I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general.”
For well over a year, Charlottesville’s courthouses were the site of numerous criminal trials of white supremacists involved in Unite the Right violence, which one activist told me “attracted a steady stream of racists who showed up to support their friends, including members of Ku Klux Klan and League of the South, which affected the mood of the town every day.” Jason Kessler, a key organizer of Unite the Right and a former contributor to the Daily Caller—the news site founded by white nationalist favorite Tucker Carlson—made a habit of appearing at the University of Virginia campus to livecast himself “making anti-Semitic remarks” and generally harass and traumatize students.
But it wasn’t just those who can be conveniently labeled “outside agitators.” (And Kessler, for the record, is a local.) Neo-Confederates from in and around Virginia have also made their presence more menacingly overt.
After two North Carolina monuments to the Confederacy were toppled in 2017, the Virginia Flaggers—an organization that spends its time erecting gigantic Confederate flags in public spaces—proposed dispatching “guards” to protect Charlottesville’s statues. (Commenters on the group’s 2018 Facebook post about the idea helpfully added, repeatedly, that vandals should be shot.) The group noted it had buy-in from Charlottesville police forces and that it “coordinated our plans with local law enforcement.”
In November of 2019, after both Confederate statues had been vandalized multiple times, activists discovered jerry-rigged camo trail cameras illegally mounted in one park, as well as a homemade “booby trap” system—complete with cow-bell alarms—ostensibly set to catch any would-be vandals in the act. That same month, local journalist and anti-racist activist Molly Conger had barely set foot in the park where the Jackson statue stands when “a man in a MAGA hat got out of his parked car and began following and photographing” her movements. As Conger crossed the park one December evening, she was verbally accosted by a man falsely claiming to be a city-hired security guard who ordered her to leave; the following night, a private security officer called the cops and stalked her movements until she departed the area.
These instances of harassment happened in tandem with months of social media threats of violence against local activists in posts that often identified them by name, made by neo-Confederates. During the same period, Patriot Front—the white nationalist group born of yet another white nationalist group that appeared at Unite the Right—papered the town in neo-Nazi flyers and stickers. And the Hiwaymen, also part of Unite the Right’s hordes, were filmed parading around with Confederate flags and nonchalantly telling a local cop they planned to “subdue” anyone they suspected of being a threat to the monuments.
In recent months, as neo-Confederates react to shifting political winds and widespread uprisings against white supremacy, threats to Charlottesville’s anti-racist activists have only increased. Governor Ralph Northam signed a law overturning Virginia’s long-standing ban on Confederate monument removals in April. Before the legislation could take effect on July 1, protesters galvanized by the police murder of George Floyd began targeting pro-slavery monuments around Virginia. The United Daughters of the Confederacy headquarters was set ablaze on May 31, and numerous Confederate markers around the state were defaced or toppled. In response, activists say, armed neo-Confederates now post up nightly in each of the Confederate monument parks. In addition to openly carrying weapons, which creates a menacing presence for all local residents, they frequently call the cops on anti-racists just going about their lives in the vicinity of the parks.
Jalane Schmidt, a University of Virginia professor, community activist and local public historian had to interface with cops last month—for a second time since December—because of a call to the police made by monument guards. On June 11, as Schmidt was leading her monthly walking tour of Charlottesville’s Confederate statuary, a nearby neo-Confederate began yelling and disrupting her talk, and shortly after, police showed up and questioned both Schmidt and participants in her tour.
“The police dutifully complied with the armed neo-Confederates and stopped me—which is the real story here, how these white supremacists are weaponizing the police against community members. It feels like they’re more concerned with protecting property than protecting the public from armed vigilantes, who as we know from 2017 are the true threat,” Schmidt told me.
“I mean, [the neo-Confederate monument guards] are the ones that have these heavy armaments. We're just unarmed civilians, walking through our town. So, it doesn't feel safe. It feels like a place you shouldn't be walking through, because they are loaded for bear—just very zealous. ”
She added that the “potential for physical harm” is heightened because some of the “guards,” who are well known to the anti-racist community, have committed assaults in the past. One of those men is Brian Roland Lambert, a member of the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. In multiple incidents spanning 2017 and 2018, Lambert was charged with public drunkenness, trespassing, and destruction of property, all related to the illegal removal of the tarps placed over the monuments as a sign of mourning for Heather Heyer, who was murdered at Unite the Right. Lambert was also charged with assaulting a clergyperson, though the charge was later dropped. (A local newspaper notes that Lambert “flashed a white power symbol” at trial.) Lambert was ultimately found guilty on two charges each of trespassing and property destruction. One of the conditions of Lambert’s parole is that he is prohibited from entering the parks. Nonetheless, in November 2019, he posted this rambling 15-minute Facebook Live video documenting himself in the park where Jackson stands—after its 11 p.m. closing time, while repeatedly stating that he’s both trespassing and drunk.
Anti-racists say Lambert was also the subject of a June 28 call to police about a monument guard “pointing a rifle” at a pedestrian. Yet, journalist Lisa Provence of local outlet C-VILLE—who has written multiple pieces about the issues surrounding the monuments and the struggles between opponents and supporters—reports that Lambert has claimed, via social media, that Charlottesville police department has been supportive of the volunteer “guards.”
“Here in Charlottesville, we were able to stop an assault on our local Memorials by Antifa, with the cooperation of CPD,” Lambert reportedly wrote.
William Shifflett, another “guard,” is also a Sons of Confederate Veterans commander with reported ties to Identity Dixie, a group the SPLC connects to organizers of Unite the Right. (The organization’s website asserts they “reject the farce of multiculturalism” and will someday “retake everything.”) Last year, John Heyden self-identified as a park “guard,” telling Provence that he was not only the man who had photographed Conger, but that he had also “given license plate numbers of people coming in and out of the parks to police.” Another guard, per activists, is Virginia Citizens Defense League member Jason Gnatowsky, who tweets under the handle Jason1488, every white supremacist’s favorite numerical combination.
“The fact that they're harassing people who were just walking along the sidewalk is starting to make people really uncomfortable because people actually have to walk along that sidewalk to get to their homes in the neighborhood,” says Rory Stolzenberg, a Charlottesville resident who also sits on the City Hall planning commission. “So it's really this whole six block by two block area, just north of the downtown mall, which is now this zone where you'll get surveilled by the army of Confederates.”
Stolzenberg, who’s not an activist, told me he’s frequently observed local police officers in their vehicles parked next to “guard” vehicles, seemingly having lengthy chats.
“It certainly seems like something that's pretty sketchy,” Stolzenberg told me “Obviously the guards have every right to sit in their cars in the area. And they also, of course, have the right to call the police if they see something suspicious. But the casual rapport they have together really suggests there's a deeper relationship there. It really makes me wonder if they're calling specific police officers rather than general dispatch, so they can get ones that are friendly to them who will then do their bidding or chase people away or whatever they're trying to do.”
“Guard” recruitment seems to be handled by the Save the Robert E. Lee Statue Facebook page. “We again thank the Volunteer Monument Guards who have thus far managed to keep the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson located in Charlottesville, Virginia free from further graffiti or damage,” a post from June 18 reads. “No one is paying these guys for what they are doing; they are self-funded, and managed. They are not motivated by hate or racism but by respect – respect for American Veterans; respect for American History; and respect for American Sculpture.” A post from July states, “if you are local and are able to volunteer, please private message this page - the time to stand up is now.”
The page’s “About” section links to the website for the Monument Fund, one of the 13 plaintiffs in a 2017 lawsuit seeking to block the City Council from removing the Lee statue on the grounds the body’s vote violated state law. (A local activist once described the group to me as “an upscale crowd of seersucker suit and pearl-wearing preservationists.”) Activists have noted the “odd bedfellows” class pairing of monied gentility getting the unpaid, unwashed neo-Confederate masses to volunteer for the actual labor of standing guard.
But Charles “Buddy” Weber, an attorney who is both an individual plaintiff and a spokesperson for the lawsuit’s plaintiff group, told me that the page isn’t run by the Monument Fund itself, but by one of its supporters. I asked Weber if having armed vigilantes in the parks, considering the precedent of Unite the Right, was cause for concern. He noted that the Monument Fund has done nothing to either “encourage or condone” the guards being armed.
“We’ve seen a lot of vandalism, tens of thousands of dollars, done by vandals,” Weber added. “The guards, even if they’re armed, are behaving lawfully. And those doing violence to the statues are not—they’re committing a felony. We decry violence, we don’t like violence, we don’t want violence. We want this to be lawfully resolved. But those who want [the statues] removed have to also act within the bounds of the law.”
The Charlottesville police department did not respond to questions about whether the presence of armed guards in parks is a concern; the number of calls the department has received about potential park vandals; the accessibility of the parks to ordinary Charlottesville residents as long as armed guards are there; and if the department is worried about the potential for violence escalation as the statues move closer to their inevitable removal date. But in December of 2019, department spokesperson Tyler Hawn seemed to defend the guards’ presence and actions.
“The Charlottesville Police Department recently received information that private citizens are walking through the parks during hours when the park is open to everyone,” Hawn reportedly wrote in a statement to Provence. “These citizens have been seen wearing reflective safety vests, and are believed to be concerned over the recent vandalisms at both parks. The police department has not received a report of any of these citizens acting inappropriately.”
“The fact that the police have this close rapport with [the “guards”], and are apparently unwilling to look into their improper behavior means that there’s no recourse if they continue this campaign of intimidation,” Stolzenberg told me. “So, you hope that the Commonwealth attorney would step in and both investigate their behavior, cite them and refer their parole violations to a judge. But also, subpoena these police officers' personal records and see if there has been improper coordination between them and the vigilantes.”
On August 6, the County Board of Supervisors will be voting on the removal of a third Confederate marker, a “Johnny Reb” statue located on the grounds of a local courthouse. Should the body vote for removal, which anti-racist activists told me was a real possibility, tensions will likely grow more heightened. Fuel for those fires is also sure to be poured by Donald Trump, whose recent executive order on monuments and consistent defense of racist “very fine people” are par for his political course. For Charlottesville’s activists, all this increases the potential for threats, intimidation and perhaps even violence.
“When the statues were put up and for decades afterwards, there was this presumed consensus, and people like me were dismissed as malcontents,” said Schmidt. “We were labeled ‘divisive’ because we deigned to puncture that presumed unanimity, which it never was anyway—they didn't ask Black people what they thought of these statues when they put them up. But defacement of objects that are held to be sacred reveals this public secret. It forces everyone to talk about it.
“When these Confederate statutes are defaced, it exposes the public secret that the Civil War was about slavery, and that the installation of these statutes was about maintaining white supremacy. For neo-Confederates, that pulls the frame of meaning into very uncomfortable territory. It's no longer about their honorable grandparents and great grandparents. It breaks that open into a discussion about slavery and Jim Crow. And they don't like that. They don't want their honorable pasts to be sullied by association with all that.”