Oliver Laughland, The Guardian, May 14, 2017
A small group of torch-wielding protesters, including the white nationalist “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer, descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday evening to protest the sale of a statue commemorating the Confederate general Robert E Lee.
Charlottesville’s city council voted in April to remove the statue of Lee, who led the Confederate army of northern Virginia in the south’s fight to secede from the union and retain slaves in the late 19th century. But a judge placed a six-month stay on the decision following an appeal from a collective of local history groups and Confederate advocates.
The group of a few dozen people were dispersed quickly by police and no further incidents were reported, according to local news. The group briefly chanted “You will not replace us!”, “blood and soil”, and “Russia is our friend” – according to videos posted on social media and local reports. Local police reported minor verbal confrontations between two opposing groups but confirmed no arrests had been made.
The Charlottesville mayor, Mike Signer, derided the event in a statement branding it “either profoundly ignorant or … designed to instill fear in our minority populations in a way that harkens back to the days of the KKK”.
The statement continued: “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.”
In an interview with the Guardian, Spencer said on Sunday that the use of garden torches was not designed to evoke the memory of the KKK’s notorious use of flaming torches, but was instead “a way to communicate with the dead”.
“None of the Klan or the National Socialist party has a monopoly on torches or the beauty of that spectacle of flames at night,” Spencer said, clarifying that some members of the crowd had brought “candles stuck through paper plates” as well as garden torches.
“No one has a monopoly on this aesthetic. It’s a beautiful aesthetic.”
He added: “It evoked a kind of mystical and even religious-like experience. At night it was more solemn, it was a way, and I don’t want this to sound too goofy or anything, but it was a way to communicate with the dead.”
Spencer said the event had been planned in March “over cocktails” and in explaining the chants in support of Russia added: “There is a common brotherhood that stretches from Portugal to Siberia, and includes North America. Even though we’re very different, we obviously have common ancestry and there’s that tie of blood.”
The movement to remove Confederate monuments around the American south accelerated after the murder of nine black churchgoers during a brutal hate crime in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015. Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, attacked the prayer group and was later convicted on multiple federal charges in 2016. He has been sentenced to death.
Following the crime, photographs emerged of Roof posing with his Glock handgun and the Confederate battle flag, eventually leading the then South Carolina governor, Nikki Haley, to remove the flag from the grounds of the state house.
Similar moves are under way in New Orleans as the mayor continues the removal of four Confederate monuments that has led to large protests in the city.