Richard Spencer — the white supremacist known for popularizing the term “alt-right,” getting booted from CPAC, and being punched in the face during Donald Trump’s inauguration — led protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday over the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Some local groups and individuals are waging a legal battle to keep the statue, citing its historic and artistic value, but the several dozen protesters who attended Spencer’s rallies made it very clear that their main concern was race — specifically, the need to protect their “white heritage.”
On Saturday afternoon, a group of protesters wearing white shirts and waving Confederate flags marched through the city, which is home to the University of Virginia. “We’re not white supremacists. We are simply just white people that love our heritage, our culture, our European identity,” Orry Von Dize told NBC 29.
“What brings us together is that we are white, we are a people, we will not be replaced!” shouted Spencer, who attended UVA.
Later that night, the message got even less subtle. Around 9 p.m., torch-wielding protesters showed up in Lee Park and chanted slogans like “You will not replace us,” “Russia is our friend,” and the Nazi-era phrase “Blood and soil.”
According to the Charlottesville Daily Progress, the event was short-lived. After about ten minutes, Spencer’s group clashed with counter-protesters and police dispersed the crowd.
Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer condemned the rallies in a statement posted on Facebook:
This event involving torches at night in Lee Park was 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.
Signer, who is Jewish, said he was the target of anti-Semitic tweets on Sunday. “You’re seeing anti-Semitism in these crazy tweets I’m getting and you’re seeing a display of torches at night, which is reminiscent of the KKK,” Signer told Reuters. “They’re sort of a last gasp of the bigotry that this country has systematically overcome.”
Charlottesville is one of several cities that has seen protests in recent months over attempts to remove symbols of the Confederacy. In April, the Charlottesville City Council voted to sell the statue of Lee, but following local resistance a judge issued an injunction preventing them from doing so for six months.
Plaintiffs in the case posted a statement on Facebook disavowing Spencer’s group, and Saturday’s protests. “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,” they said. “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.”
Hundreds gathered on Sunday night for a counter-protest to “take back Lee Park.” The Daily Progress reported that three people were arrested, including right-wing blogger Jason Kessler and someone who assaulted Kessler “by spitting on him.”
“We will not let you come in and take over, and have your way,” Don Gathers told the crowd. “I don’t care who’s in the White House, I don’t care who’s in Congress … We are going to take control of this city and we are going to do it the proper way, the legal way. It might take six months to take care of this situation, but we’re not going to give up the fight.”