Standing in Charlottesville, Va is a 26ft (7.9m) statue of General Robert Edward Lee. Unless an observer knows its historical significance, it is a fairly innocuous statue. The memorial is merely a man sitting atop a horse mid-stride. On Friday, August 11, this sculpture became a lightning rod for protests and riots in this small southern city.
General Robert E. Lee was a Confederate General who commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War from 1862 to 1865. While many argue about secondary reasons behind the Civil War, the fact that the Confederacy was Pro-Slavery has never been in question. Because of this, statues honoring Confederate leaders have become symbols of racism and hate. It is, for this reason, this that the city council of Charlottesville voted to remove the statue on February 6th, 2016.
Protests about its removal began almost immediately. Complaints from local citizens moved Judge Richard Moore to impose a temporary 6-month injunction. Richard B. Spencer (a prominent figure of the alt-right) held a tiki-torch lit rally in Emancipation Park on May 17th. The demonstration was peaceful and the protesters were dispersed by police with no incident. Later, in July, a second protest was held by the Ku Klux Klan. This gathering erupted in violence but was put down with tear gas and 23 arrests.
A protest organized by Jason Kessler on August 11, 2017, was called “Unite the Right.” Kessler is a former journalist and member of “the Proud Boys”, an ultra-nationalist group. Turnout for “Unite the Right” was by far the largest of the three protests and passed with little attention. However, problems arose the next day. Saturday, August 12th with the appearance of counter-protesters demanding the removal of the Robert E Lee statue. Tensions quickly mounted as angry counter-demonstrators clashed with the white supremacists. Fights between the two groups broke out as the situation devolved into a riot. Those opposed to the statue’s removal waved Nazi flags and Confederate flags fanning the flames of anger among the counter-protesters. Fear surged as those promoting white power also legally and openly carried firearms.
Police attempted to quell the violence. During the chaos, 20 year old James Alex Fields Jr. intentionally drove a Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-demonstrators killing Heather Heyer and injuring 35 others. Mr. Fields then sped off in reverse. He was later tracked down by police and arrested. He faces charges of 2nd-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, hit-and-run and may be charged as a domestic terrorist.
The August 11 chaos finally dissipated through effective police intervention. Shortly after crowds were dispersed Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency. There were multiple arrests and many wounded but the streets were under control. No police officers were seriously injured during the protests, though two died en route to the rally in a helicopter crash. The details of the crash have not been released to the public.
While riots raged in Charlottesville, most U.S. residents were horrified by scenes of Neo-Nazis and other white supremacists parading through the street. Particularly troubling for many was that these groups were championing President Trump. Former KKK Leader David Duke said “We are determined to take our country back… We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump”.
This is not the first time Trump has had issues with white supremacists. During his campaign, he reluctantly refused the support of David Duke and the KKK. While Trump’s base does not consist solely of racists and nationalists, many racists and nationalists are a part of his base. To make matters worse, President Trump made a statement soon after the August 11 event that angered many. He stated: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.” His refusal to actually point specifically to the Neo-Nazis or KKK sparked a political firestorm. This blunder has led to attacks from both Republicans and Democrats.
Two days later Trump amended his statement and said, “Those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, new-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” This strong response was too little, too late for many Americans. The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, called Trump’s statement “far from sufficient”. Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer said, “His statement today was more Kumbaya nonsense…Only a dumb person would take those lines seriously”.
Trump attempted to defend himself by turning to Twitter. “Made additional remarks on Charlottesville and realize once again that the #Fake News edit will never be satisfied…truly bad people!” (6:29p-Aug 14, 2017) In further defense, Mr. Trump called an impromptu news conference on Tuesday, August 15th. As reporters pressed him for answers, he dialed back the condemnation against the Neo-Nazis and Alt-Right, returning to his original statement.
The Trump administration had hoped this press conference would turn the conversation away from Charlottesville and towards the White House agenda. However, when questioned further about his slow response and initial statement Trump decided to double down. During a heated exchange with reporters, the President stated, “I think there is blame on both sides.” “What about the ‘alt-right’, do they have any semblance of guilt? What about the fact they came charging with clubs in hands, swinging clubs, do they have any problem? I think they do…You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that, but I will say it right now.” Trump continued arguing his stance by comparing the statue of Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson with those of George Washington and Andrew Jackson.
For now, the Robert E Lee statue still stands in Charlottesville, Va. The 6-month injunction continues to stand giving the small city time to decide what to do. While many statues have been removed, there are quite a few left in what was once the Confederacy. Ultimately what has come out of this mess isn’t the fate of a statue in a park, it has caused a rift in Mr. Trump’s base. Only time will tell what the damage to his presidency will ultimately be.