Several dozen torch-wielding protesters gathered in Charlottesville’s Lee Park just after 9 p.m. Saturday, chanting “You will not replace us,” “Russia is our friend” and “Blood and soil.”
After about 10 minutes, Charlottesville police arrived at the scene following an altercation between protesters. The crowd quickly dispersed with no further incidents, according to police.
In April, Charlottesville City Council voted to sell the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that stands in the park, but a judge earlier this month issued an injunction that prevents the city from doing so for six months.
The city’s decision has drawn considerable consternation from Southern heritage groups, Republican gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart and a number of others in Virginia and elsewhere.
Richard Spencer, a University of Virginia graduate and a white nationalist who popularized the term “alt-right,” wrote about the event at the Lee statue, as well as one earlier in the day at the city’s statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in Jackson Park, in several Twitter posts.
Right-wing blogger Jason Kessler, who led an unsuccessful attempt to oust City Councilor Wes Bellamy over controversial tweets Bellamy posted prior to being elected, also posted about the events. Several photos posted by Spencer and Kessler appear to correspond to the scene at Lee Park as witnessed by a Daily Progress reporter.
In a statement, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer called the event “either profoundly ignorant or was designed to instill fear in our minority populations in a way that hearkens back to the days of the KKK. Either way, as mayor of this city, I want everyone to know this: we reject this intimidation. We are a welcoming city, but such intolerance is not welcome here.”
On Twitter, Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, called the “outrageous protests in Charlottesville this evening by apparent white supremacists” unacceptable.
“Whoever these people were, the intolerance and hatred they seek to promote is utterly disgusting and disturbing beyond words,” Erich Reimer, chairman of the Charlottesville Republican Party, said in a statement. “This is a time for our community to come together on our common values of liberty, equality and justice for all, in stark contrast to them.”
Police were unable to confirm exactly who or what groups were at Lee and Jackson parks on Saturday night.
On May 2, a judge issued an injunction against the city, which had decided to remove the Lee statue. Charlottesville will not be permitted to sell the statue within the next six months, as litigation proceeds.
The judge, however, did not apply the injunction to the city’s plan to rename Lee and Jackson parks. The city also will not be barred from initiating a master planning process to redesign the two historical districts where the parks are located.
The plan also includes a concept to build a new memorial in Jackson Park to those who were enslaved in the city.
In filing a lawsuit against the city’s decision to sell the Lee statue, the plaintiffs — a collection of local residents and the Virginia Division Sons of Confederate Veterans — allege the city’s vote to remove the statue violates a state law that protects war memorials.
The Monument Fund, to which some plaintiffs in the case have ties, disavowed the demonstration and said it was not involved in it.
Elliott Harding, an attorney who is involved with the group and the litigants in the case against the city, confirmed in a text message that a statement posted from the Facebook page Save the Robert E. Lee Statue was issued by associates of The Monument Fund.
“Neither Save the Robert E. Lee Statue nor The Monument Fund were in any way involved in these events and only learned of them though media reports,” the statement said.
“We remain committed to preserving the Robert E. Lee Monument in its park through the legal process in the courts because of its historic and artistic value.
“We soundly and completely reject racism, white supremacy, and any other identity based groups that preach division and hate no matter which side of the issue they happen to support.”