In the middle of Emancipation Park in Charlottesville on Saturday, two young women, one white and one black, took each other’s hands and held them tightly, and with their other hands they gripped the steel barrier in front of them.
A few feet away, a young white man with a buzzed haircut and sunglasses leaned towards them over a facing barrier. “You’ll be on the first f*****g boat home,” he screamed at the black woman, before turning to the white woman. “And as for you, you’re going straight to hell,” he said. Then he gave a Nazi salute.
For the third time in a few months, white nationalists had descended on the small, liberal city of Charlottesville in the southern state of Virginia, to protest against the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee.
This time they came under the banner of the so-called “alt-right”, for a rally they called “Unite the Right”. They were a motley crew of militia, racists, and neo-Nazis, and some who said they simply wanted to defend their Southern history.
They gathered early in the morning at Emancipation Park – formerly Lee Park – where the statue sits, some dressed in full tactical gear and openly carrying rifles. Others wore black shirts, helmets, and boots.
In a column they surged into the park, using sticks and their fists to shove aside anti-fascist counter-protesters. Then they blocked off the entrance with shields. Inside, David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, grinned and waved as the crowd, almost entirely white and male, cheered him on, chanting his name and putting their arms up in Nazi salutes.
They had reason to be pleased. They were in the middle of the largest gathering of white nationalists in America for decades.
In the park, in a pen ringed by steel barriers, they shouted anti-immigrant, anti-semitic and racist slogans and targeted white women counter-protesters, calling them “traitors” who “needed to get subjugated”. Outside, anti-fascist protesters threw bottles of water at the white nationalists and chanted “Off our streets, Nazi scum”. Pepper spray, used by both sides, filled the air.
Eventually, riot police moved into the park and the streets around it, pushing everyone back. The governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency and the rally was cancelled. The national guard began to close off the area, but not before a driver ploughed into a crowd of counter-protesters two blocks away, killing a young woman and injuring 19 others.
‘One long prayer’
Twenty-four hours earlier, Reverend Brenda Brown-Grooms closed her eyes and prayed for peace. Sitting in a side room at St Paul’s Memorial Church, while volunteers undertook non-violent resistance training next door, she prepared herself for a “reckoning” the following day in her home town.
“This is physically a very beautiful place, it has always been my template for what a city should look like,” she said. “But I’ve always understood that this beautiful place is also quite ugly. And the statue has become the match point for that ugliness.”
Reverend Brown-Grooms was born in Charlottesville in 1955. She grew up in Vinegar Hill, a black neighbourhood since razed to the ground in one of a series of redevelopment programmes that pushed the black community out of the city and into housing projects.
As a girl, under segregation, she did not dare set foot in the white neighbourhood which was home to Emancipation Park – then Lee Park – and she had never been there until May, when the KKK came to town and lit torches under the statue.
“This summer has been one long prayer here in Charlottesville,” she said. “And now today we are praying again, we are praying that the alt-right don’t start something tonight, ahead of the rally.”
Within a few hours, her prayer went unanswered. About 200 white nationalists gathered after dark in Nameless Park, down the road from where she sat, and marched through the University of Virginia campus holding torches and chanting racist slogans.
At the base of the university’s statue of Thomas Jefferson, on the Main Street side of the campus, they clashed with university students who had come to confront them. The air was hot from the torches and acrid from smoke.
“The heat here is nothing compared to what you’re going to get in the ovens,” shouted Robert Ray, a writer for the white supremacist website Daily Stormer. “It’s coming,” he spat.
“White supremacists walking through my university with torches, I never thought I’d have to see this in America in my lifetime,” said one of the counter-protesters, a student who did not want to be named.
SOURCE: Joel Gunter