Mayor of Charlottesville calls pro-Confederate rallies 'horrific'

PHOTO: Torch-wielding protesters gathered at Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday night, May 13, 2017.PlayAllison Wrabel/The Daily Progress
WATCH Torch-wielding white nationalists hold a protest in Virginia

A group of white nationalists carried torches Saturday night in Charlottesville, Virginia, while protesting the planned removal of Confederate statues in the city — which has provoked anger and frustration from politicians and activists.

The torch wielders — reported to be several dozen by local paper The Daily Progress — were reacting to a Nov. 28 City Council vote to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Charlottesville's Lee Park, the public space where the protest took place Saturday.

A court injunction has halted the removal of the statue for six months, but that didn't stop the protesters, led by avowed white nationalist Richard Spencer, from reportedly yelling chants like "We will not be replaced," "Russia is our friend" and "Blood and soil" at the site of the statue.

Mike Signer, the mayor of Charlottesville, expressed his disgust with Saturday's protest in an interview with ABC News.

"I think it's horrific," he said of the protests. "We're a city that proudly values our diversity."

Signer noted that the demonstration coincided with the park's Festival of Cultures event, which was created to celebrate the "cultural and linguistic diversity" of the community. It isn't clear whether the timing was deliberate, he said.

"It's always a balance about how much oxygen you want to give these 'alt-right' bigots," he said, referring to questions about how to respond to the actions of Spencer and his followers. "It's important to say that these were just tiki torches. Based upon what I'm seeing online, the people involved in this have a juvenile mentality and are beneath our contempt."

Signer issued a statement about the protests to The Daily Progress saying the protest was "either profoundly ignorant or designed to instill fear in our minority community."

ABC News on Sunday reached out for comment to the Spencer-run National Policy Institute, a think tank focused on white supremacist issues but did not receive a response.

Signer said that on Saturday there was an altercation between protesters and counterprotesters and that he expects the police to perform "due diligence" in determining whether evidence exists that a federal hate crime took place, given the racially tinged atmosphere surrounding the incident.

The Charlottesville Police Department released a statement Sunday saying that officers answered a call about suspicious activity in Lee Park and that the first officer on the scene found "100 to 150 people in the park, many of whom were carrying tiki-style torches."

As the officer approached the group, he saw several members of the group arguing with a man, the police statement said. People in the group were chanting, and the man was yelling at them "to leave my town," police said.

The officer ordered everyone to clear the park and called for additional units. As other officers arrived, everyone began to leave the park without incident, and there were no assaults, injuries or damage to the park reported, the police statement said.

"Extra patrol was conducted for the remainder of the evening, with no additional incidents being reported or observed," the statement said.

Signer on Sunday sparred with some of Spencer's supporters on Twitter, whom he called "anonymous trolls." He endured anti-Semitic remarks on the social media platform.

"I'm pretty thick-skinned," the mayor said, "but this is the first time I've encountered something like this."

John Edwin Mason, a history teacher at the University of Virginia who lives within walking distance of the park, told ABC News that he views the protest as an attempt by newer "American fascists" like Spencer to sync up with more traditional racist groups like the KKK on the issue of preserving Confederate history.

"Richard Spencer doesn't give a damn about Robert E. Lee," Mason said. "He sees an opportunity here."

Removing Confederate monuments is part of a trend that gained momentum after a mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, when avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African-Americans at a Bible-study session.

In the aftermath of the massacre, calls came from both Republicans and Democrats in South Carolina to take down a Confederate battle flag that flew on statehouse grounds in Charleston.

Mason served as a vice chairman on a blue ribbon commission that has pushed to remove the statues. He is African-American but doesn't view the protests as a targeting black people in Charlottesville.

He said that the black community in Charlottesville is "relatively small" and that he feels the protesters were responding to the agenda of "white liberals and leftists" who pushed to emphasize diversity in the community.

Signer proclaimed the city a "capital of resistance" in January, after the inauguration of Donald Trump, and vowed at an event held in downtown Charlottesville to provide assistance to immigrants who need visa help.

Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim American soldier who died in combat in Iraq and who gave a widely discussed speech at the Democratic National Convention in July, was among the residents who spoke at the mayor's event.

"Having fire at night conjures images of the KKK, but it also stirs up images of Nazis," Mason said — referring to images of Nazi storm troopers marching with torches before and during World War II.

He added that he attends a primarily African-American American church in the city and that he spoke to neighbors who were neither surprised nor scared by the demonstration in Lee Park the night before.

"Nobody here is intimidated by these jokers," Mason said with a chuckle.

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