Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Several other white supremacist rallies are already shaping up for the coming weeks. Cities are grappling with how they'll handle the unwelcome visitors.
A growing list of mayors have sent out statements condemning the racism that drove the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally into violence and death in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend.
“We want to send a firm, united message that hate and violence have absolutely no place in our public square,” said U.S. Conference of Mayors CEO & Executive Director Tom Cochran in a press statement. “We urge every leader, at every level of government, to be firm that in the year 2017, there is no place in America for the kinds of display we are seeing in Charlottesville, nor the violence that has resulted because of it."
Several other mayors made statements using the same language of America being “no place for” racism and bigotry, including southern mayors from Alexandria, Virginia; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Mobile, Alabama.
Yet the Charlottesville rally was neither the first nor last of its kind, and many of these same cities will inevitably become the site for some of those future rallies. In fact, forthcoming “hate” rallies are already being planned in Boston, Virginia, and another nationwide anti-Muslim rally is also slated for September.
“Charlottesville was first. Boston is next,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, president of the Boston-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. A rally is planned in the downtown Boston Common area this Saturday under the banners of white nationalism and “uniting the Right.” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has sent a message of “we don’t want you” to the organizers of that rally, yet there seems little he can do to stop it from happening.
“If these back-to-back rallies are any indication, this threat is metastasizing,” said Espinoza-Madrigal.
The question for cities is: If there really is no place for assemblies based on racial bigotry in America, in 2017, then what are they going to do about such rallies planned in the weeks and months ahead?
The cities that have monuments to Confederate and white supremacist figures will have the toughest time answering that question. For decades city leaders and historic commissions have said these monuments are only about “heritage” and history, not hate, but the rally just seen in Charlottesville tests that theory.
Confederate monument rallies are nothing new, but we can trace the modern era to 2015 when southern cities began talking and acting seriously about removing the Confederate rebel battle flags that flew above government buildings for decades. That period coincided, or likely caused Dylann Storm Roof to gun down nine African Americans inside “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic black church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. The church sits just a block from a towering statue of war secretary John C. Calhoun, a staunch defender of slavery in the 19th century.
Roof’s “manifesto” on why he felt he needed to carry out that massacre carried a similar message to the one chanted by neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates in Charlottesville over the weekend and in May: A feeling that white people were being “replaced.” This weekend’s riots may have come to an end, but the sentiment that drove white supremacists to descend upon the Lee statue in the first place has not.
“What happened in Virginia was not the culminating battle of this conflict,” wrote historian William Jelani Cobb for The New Yorker. “It’s likely a tragic preface to more of the same.”
Leading elected officials in other cities with Confederate monuments, flags, and other regalia on public display are now committing to having those things removed. In Lexington, Kentucky, Mayor Jim Gray said he is preparing to have two Confederate statues taken down from a former county courthouse lawn located on the city’s Main Street.
In Baltimore, Maryland, both Mayor Catherine Pugh and City Councilor Brandon M. Scott are pushing for legislation to speed up the removal of Confederate monuments found on city grounds. The city has studied and debated this issue for years, and last year a commission appointed by former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake released recommendations that the city keep some of the older monuments, but relocate some of the newer constructed ones. But that was before New Orleans successfully took some of its controversial monuments down (though there are still plenty more interspersed across the city), and the Charlottesville tragedy. Just today, one of Baltimore’s Confederate monuments was found splashed with red paint. Baltimore’s Mayor Pugh now has new urgency to take down those monuments and has outlined steps to do so:
In Memphis, Tennessee, where the city hosts a statue that commemorates Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forest, the city council actually voted to have it taken down in 2015. Unfortunately, the fate of the monument rests in the hands of the state, which so far has forbidden the city of Memphis from removing it.
Responding to Charlottesville, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland wrote in a string of Tweets over the weekend: “White supremacists, the KKK, and Nazis have no place in our city or any city. I’m also glad to see more people joining our cause to remove the Confederate statues in our city. We continue to work toward the day this is possible.”
The responses to Mayor Strickland’s tweets were telling of the challenges facing city leaders trying to manage armed protestors who espouse white supremacist views:
Thank you, Mr. Mayor. I trust you'll instruct MPD to disarm and disburse any armed gathering of KKK and Nazi supporters. For public safety.— MemphiSeagrove (@MemphiSeagrove) August 13, 2017
Yet MPD gives them full protection when they come & charters buses to ferry them to & from their hotel.— Zorina E. Bowen (@GreenBiotechie) August 13, 2017
There is also the question of how these cities will police these rallies. Police in Ferguson, Missouri had no problem deploying tanks and other heavy militarized weapons during unarmed protests there in 2014. It appears that police in Charlottesville took a softer approach against the clearly armed crowd.
“Several times, a group of assault-rifle-toting militia members from New York State, wearing body armor and desert camo, played a more active role in breaking up fights,” reports ProPublica.
“There remain lots of questions about the way the police conducted themselves yesterday and whether they were adequately prepared for what they confronted,” says Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “I would hope that city mayors and local law enforcement would learn from this experience, about the way in which white supremacists might attempt to hijack the space where these [Confederate] monuments are located and using the intention of removing those monuments in some places as staging grounds for the kind of things we saw yesterday.”
In New Orleans, where a decades-long grassroots campaign to remove white supremacist monuments culminated with the removal of four such statues just this past May, there were negotiations with local police along of the way. When organizers of the #BringEmDownNOLA movement would announce a direct action against a white supremacist monument in the city, police often called them in for meetings ahead of those actions to negotiate what would happen, and what protection would look like. Confederate monument defenders showed up in New Orleans for their own rallies and camped out with guns and other weapons in full display. But there were no casualties in New Orleans like the kind found in Charlottesville, where three people died.
City planning—and the First Amendment
There are also questions about whether city efforts to make their policing easier will be thwarted by the courts. Charlottesville ordered Unite the Right to move its rally from Emancipation Park for safety reasons. But in a last-minute ruling, a court overruled the city. The ACLU jumped in to defend the white supremacist activists’ rights in Charlottesville on free speech grounds and is now catching heat from people who believe that the blood spilled in Charlottesville is on those civil liberties attorneys’ hands.
The state of Virginia is currently reviewing a permit for a protest rally planned for Richmond on September 16, on Monument Ave, that, again, is in defense of a statue commemorating Gen. Robert E. Lee. There are five Confederate monuments on this drag of Downtown Richmond. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has not committed to taking them down, but he did recently appoint a commission to study them.
There is no doubt that Confederate supporters will rally, but what Charlottesville has proven, if nothing else, is that some of them are not afraid to spill blood. The question is whether state officials and courts will consider this reality if Richmond decides to alter this permit request and faces legal challenge.
As a young, African American mayor who was only recently elected, Stoney likely does not have the political capital to make a call as bold as that of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, to remove them. Also, there is perhaps no more contested ground than that found in Richmond, given it was once the Confederate capital, and there is a whole tourism industry built around Confederate memorabilia in the city. Confederate heritage and neo-Confederate groups have invested heavily in having such regalia installed not only in Richmond but around the state.
It is now clear that so-called “Alt-Right” rallies are not just about Confederate statues. The people joining these rallies have also been raging about immigrants from Mexico, the Middle East, and Muslims, and anyone else accused of “replacing” white Americans
Farhana Khera, Executive Director of the national nonprofit Muslim Advocates says her organization has been tracking anti-Muslim rallies that have been happening since well before Charlottesville, many of them involving armed activists. She’s particularly concerned about a nationwide rally coming up on September 9, coordinated by Act for America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls the “largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in America.”
“We are calling on local officials, including mayors, to do everything in their power to create safe spaces and to protect the safety of their residents because as yesterday's events unfortunately remind us, not everyone who's involved in organizing or participating in a rally is interested in peaceful protest,” says Khera. “Some are coming to create havoc and mischief and even kill and assault their fellow Americans.”
For the rally planned this weekend in Boston, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice sent a letter to city officials asking them to postpone the gathering until they’ve developed a comprehensive public safety plan, to avoid another Charlottesville-level fracas happening. Lawyers’ Committee president Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, said his staff and local Boston partners have been tracking the organizers of the Boston rally and found that many of the same speakers and influencers participated in the Charlottesville rally.
“We cannot be the next Charlottesville,” said Espinoza-Madrigal on a press call. “In Boston, and in communities across the country, well-intended people are distancing themselves, saying that what happened in Charlottesville cannot happen outside of the South. Yet even in progressive Massachusetts we have experienced the fourth highest spike in hate crimes in the country. In the absence of federal leadership and oversight we urge all communities to push for local and state solutions to these pressing civil rights and hate crime problems.”
City leaders face both political and financial risks in determining how they’ll handle certain future rallies, but they will have to decide. While a few mayors have spoken up against white supremacists, and for Confederate monument removal, many other mayors are silent. But they are not immune to what happened in Charlottesville.