Charlottesville, Va., community leaders may be even more concerned by the prospect of a scheduled white nationalist rally in their city next month because of what happened after Saturday’s Ku Klux Klan rally.
But at the same time, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Singer believes the way his community reacted leading up to the Klan rally could serve as a model for other cities that are visited by the KKK.
Fewer than three dozen members of a Ku Klux Klan group from North Carolina showed up in Charlottesville last weekend to protest the city council’s February decision to remove a statue honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The Klansmen, escorted to and from the rally by more than 100 police officers, were met by about 1,000 angry counterprotesters.
Mayor Singer, a group known as Unity C’ville, local business leaders, and the Charlottesville Clergy Collective had spent the week before the rally urging a peaceful response to the Klan demonstration.
“Our plan is to soak this ground with prayer. We believe the power of prayer has the ability to create good, positive energy in light of the hate that’s coming to town,” Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas of St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church told WVIR-TV three days before the Klan rally.
Singer also urged Charlottesville residents, no matter how much they hate the KKK, to just stay away.
“I encourage everyone to ignore this ridiculous sideshow and to focus instead on celebrating the values of diversity and tolerance that have made Charlottesville a world-class city,” Singer said.
Mimi Arbeit, from the Charlottesville chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, made it clear that her organization viewed the Klan rally as a threat.
“We have to show we take the threat of Klan terrorism and the rise of white nationalism seriously,” Arbeit told the Daily Progress. “They are connected to a legacy of racial terrorism in Charlottesville. The white supremacy the Klan represents is also part of daily life in Charlottesville for so many individuals.”
Mayor Singer urged his community to “not take the bait” and try to fight the Klan.
A variety of events to show opposition to the Klan without actually showing up at the Klan rally were scheduled from Saturday morning through Sunday morning.
But all of that was not enough to stop what was intended to be “a stand against hatred” from turning into a violent confrontation when the crowd of counterprotesters turned their anger from the Klan to the police.
Instead of prayer soaking the ground, tear gas and pepper spray filled the air as police fought off the counterprotesters and arrested nearly two dozen of those opposed to the Klan.
One of those arrested, Nic McCarthy, told WVIR the number of police at the Klan rally unnecessarily raised the level of tension.
“We did not want the KKK to enter the park so we linked arms and police did what they felt was necessary,” McCarthy said. “We, as citizens, also have our First Amendment rights to gather and say, ‘Actually, no, we don’t want you here.’ That’s what we were doing.”
Arbeit also blamed the police for the violence that followed the Klan rally.
“Time and again police chose to protect the Klan and use aggression and brutality towards the people who were present and towards protesters,” said Arbeit. “All of the equipment, all of the money that was used to bring in a violent police presence, and all of the police presence that was targeted against activists.”
Charlottesville’s mayor chose to focus on the positive. He wrote on his Facebook page that while an estimated 1,000 people might have shown up at the Klan rally, thousands more attended the various events that were held to give people a chance to express their opposition to the KKK without attending the group’s rally.
Singer also supported the police response to the counter-protesters at the KKK rally site.
“Despite this unfortunate event, and the fact that over 1,000 people were in attendance, many armed, only 2 people were treated for heat injuries and one for an alcohol-related issue. There were 23 arrests,” Singer wrote.
“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,” Singer concluded. “On a very hot day, we made lemonade out of a lemon – from North Carolina, no less.”
White nationalists are scheduled to be back in Charlottesville on Aug. 12 for the “Unite the Right” march. Former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke has urged his Twitter followers to be there if only because “the fake, anti-White/American news will be.”
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