Leading the group was Richard Spencer, the white supremacist who invented the alt-right concept. The protest is the latest mobilization in opposition of the removal of Confederate symbols, which are seen by many as a legacy of the south’s practice of slavery and enduring racism, and as symbols of historical identity by others.
Either way, the torch-bearing protesters bore an uncomfortable resemblance to gatherings of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), an organization that has been in decline since the 1970s.
“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 harks back to the days of the KKK. Either way, as mayor of this city, I want everyone to know this: we reject this intimidation,” said the mayor of Charlottesville, Mike Signer, in a statement.
In the event, the protest was short-lived. The white fundamentalists had been in the park for just 10 minutes when a group supporting the removal of the statue showed up and a scuffle ensued, prompting the police to step in to break up the demonstration. On Sunday night there was a counter-rally and fresh incidents between supporters and detractors of removing Robert E. Lee. Three people were arrested.
Meanwhile, Richard Spencer denies any personal affinities with the Ku Klux Klan and rejects all comparisons with the racist organization. “Any time that we defend European identity [...] these assorted dorks call us a collection of names,” he said in a telephone interview.
Spencer said that other groups also use tiki torches, and that the goal was to create “a mystical, communal and solemn” atmosphere. He argued that the references to Russia were not a tribute to Vladimir Putin, although he praised the Russian president for putting “the interests of Russians first.” The reference was meant as a defense of “a broader European world” that would serve as an umbrella for white “civilization,” he said.
You can tear down the statue but it won’t make any difference in the racial fragmentation of the United States
Richard Spencer, white supremacist
Spencer, 39, heads the National Policy Institute, a think tank whose goal is to defend “the legacy, identity and future of the people of European origin.” In 2010 he came up with the term alt-right, defined primarily by a rejection of immigration, which he sees as a threat to whites’ demographic superiority and to the political establishment.
With Donald Trump’s presidential victory, the concept has been dragged out of the gutter and gained traction in mainstream society. The Republican president has made overtures to the racist right, which feels endorsed by Trump’s rhetoric against immigration and political correctness.
Two weeks after the November election, Spencer called Trump’s victory “an awakening.” At an event in Washington, he used Nazi symbology to celebrate the win: “Heil Trump. Heil our people. Heil victory,” he proclaimed. A few attendees raised their arms in response. Following the act, Trump’s team was forced to publicly distance itself from the alt-right, which has the sympathy of Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist.
Spencer denies being a racist, instead arguing he defends preserving what he defines as “white privilege.” He also refutes accusations that he is pro-Nazi. He says he was trying to be a provocateur at the November event, and that he was being ironic when he used the same language once employed to praise Hitler. “It was really an attempt to throw back in our enemies’ faces all these insults that they hurl at us,” he says. “Any time that someone stands up for white people in the world, he is called a Nazi.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has long monitored extremism in the United States, describes Spencer as one of the “most successful” young white nationalists and an intellectual, elegant, suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of the past. “Spencer advocates an Aryan homeland for the supposedly dispossessed white race,” and calls for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to halt the “deconstruction” of European culture, says the Montgomery, Alabama-based institution.
General Lee led the Confederate Army in northern Virginia until the Union’s victory ended the Civil War in 1865, preventing secession by the southern states. Like other Confederate leaders, he remains a divisive figure, representing southern identity in the collective imagination, but also controversial because of his support for slavery.
The American South has been doing some soul-searching regarding Civil War symbols ever since white supremacist Dylann Roof, who liked to pose with the Confederate flag, killed nine black people at a church in Charleston (South Carolina) in 2015.
After Charlottesville approved selling the Lee statue, a group of descendants of Confederate soldiers took the decision to court
After Charlottesville approved selling the Lee statue, a group of descendants of Confederate soldiers took the decision to court. In early May, a judge halted the removal for six months until the case was settled. The issue has even become a matter for debate at this year’s gubernatorial race in Virginia.
Spencer claims that removing the Lee statue is “an attack against all white people.”
“It is a declaration that your past does not matter, that your identity will not be the identity of America’s future,” he said. Meanwhile, supporters of taking down the monument say that this is the best way to heal the racial wounds of the past.
“You can tear down the statue but it won’t make any difference in the racial fragmentation of the United States,” says Spencer. “There are tensions between the races. These will never disappear, they are part of the way the world works. What we are doing is taking our own side, taking the side of our people.”
English version by Susana Urra.