The Ku Klux Klan paid a visit to Charlottesville over the weekend in what was perhaps the most anticipated event of the year for the city. Thousands of people came out—some to protest indirectly through celebration, and others who wanted to look the KKK in the face. WMRA’s Jordy Yager and Emily Richardson-Lorente were there.
Scores of state and local police gathered on Saturday morning among dozens of metal barricades that snaked their way through Justice Park. It used to be called Jackson Park for the giant Stonewall Jackson statue in its center. In fact, the Klan was coming to protest the park’s renaming, and the proposed removal of a Robert E. Lee statue just two blocks away.
As bomb-sniffing dogs circled the park, small religious and spiritual groups gathered, weathering the calm before the impending storm that would draw more than 1,000 protesters, culminating in riot gear, tear gas, and the arrest of 22….
But before any of that, across town, folks were gathering for a different purpose.
Here at the IX Art Park, it's a potluck, not a protest. This is just one of many community events happening today, all designed to give residents a reason to keep away from the KKK.
MAYOR SIGNER: The goal has been don’t take the bait.
That’s Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer. Since the Klan rally was first announced, he’s encouraged people to stay away. And he’s helped spearhead a full day of alternate events through an effort called “Unity Cville.”
MAYOR SIGNER: And all of this is meant to give people a really rich, wonderful alternative to the display of hate and division, this kind of sideshow that has come to our town from this … totally discredited organization.
One of the potluck participants is 72-year old Jackie Davis. She feels differently than the mayor about confronting the Klan.
JACKIE: They need to understand that most people in this country don't agree with their ideas.
She’ll be protesting later with a small cardboard sign that reads, “Check your DNA.”
She’s black, but she’s not afraid.
JACKIE: I’m not scared. If I would be scared, I’d be scared of the police. Historically police have been on the side of the Klan.
EMILY: What would be the best case scenario in your mind?
JACKIE: Well, this is already the best case scenario for me — I mean there’s free food, great music, everybody's having a wonderful time, there's all kinds of different people here. That's what we need.
After the potluck ends, some of the participants head to the Sprint Pavilion on the pedestrian mall. There’s a free concert here, beginning an hour before the rally.
(MUSIC) “This land is your land, this land is my land …”
Caroline Hines is playing on the lawn with her 3-year old daughter. But they’re not at all interested in attending the KKK rally.
CAROLINE: Not at all. There's no way in the world you could convince me to be anywhere near there.
But a few blocks away, at the First United Methodist Church, several hundred people are taking a different approach.
LEADER: “… if you see the police acting aggressively, pull out your phone and document it …”
BLAISE: “I don’t believe we should assume that the police are going to be doing bad things, I think we should assume that they’re here to help us.”
That’s Blaise Gaston, he’s a local furniture maker and one of the many white folks here sporting a Black Lives Matter t-shirt.
BLAISE: I guess I've grown up in the civil rights movement since I was this high and it’s sort of terrifying.
With a half hour left before the Klan is set to arrive, Blaise and everyone else here is preparing to march on Justice Park, where they plan to protest peacefully, despite the mayor’s advice to stay away.
BLAISE: I wanted to see it for my own eyes. And I'm not sure I agree with him, I think the more people there, showing that we disapprove of them is … better.
A few minutes later, they’re off, headed 3 blocks away, prepared to face the KKK.
(SINGING: “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine …”)
By 3 o’clock more than 1,000 people have flooded Justice Park and the surrounding streets.
CROWD: Racists go home!
Hundreds of police form a human funnel, allowing about 50 members of the Loyal White Knights of the KKK to march into a penned off area near the base of the Jackson statue.
There, a Klansman shouts racist remarks into a microphone hooked up to a small speaker. He’s completely drowned out by the crowd.
Several plastic water bottles, oranges, and even tomatoes get thrown at the Klan. One Klansman carries a holstered handgun on his hip. And their imperial commander Amanda Barker makes her rounds to the media as the group’s spokeswoman.
AMANDA BARKER: I’m white, I’m proud of that statue…
After about 45 minutes, the Klan leaves the park. A police helicopter hovers above as the massive crowd swarms around the Klan, which protected by the police, finally leaves, peaceably.
It’s then that things turn south. In front of the city and county courthouses, a group of protesters refuses to clear the downtown street.
Police launch three canisters of tear gas towards the crowd. People race to find water to flush out their eyes.
Eventually the streets empty out, but not before police arrest 22 people. Police Chief Al Thomas in a statement lauded the event as a success, saying: “Order was quickly restored and our community remains safe.”
But for some, the real work hasn’t even begun. Charlottesville resident Rosia Parker urged people to go beyond protests of the statues, and dig into the deeper work around the longstanding systemic racism that exists in the city.
ROSIA PARKER: You can’t turn it into a world class city if you haven’t dealt with the racism that’s been hidden and now been uncovered, but it’s a shame that it had to be uncovered through a statue. When there’s more pressing issues in Charlottesville, that we have more than just that statue.