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Confronting White Supremacy: Lessons From a Counter-Rally at the Birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan

Charlottesville, Virginia, is confronting the real terrorism of racial violence and we can stop it, say rally organizers.

On Saturday, July 8, members of the Ku Klux Klan arrived at a park in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. Police violently removed counterprotesters who were blocking the Klan from entering the park. (Photo courtesy of Laura Goldblatt)

On Saturday, July 8, members of the Ku Klux Klan arrived at a park in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. Police violently removed counter-protesters who were blocking the Klan from entering the park. (Photo courtesy of Laura Goldblatt)On Saturday, July 8, members of the Ku Klux Klan arrived at a park in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. Police violently removed counterprotesters who were blocking the Klan from entering the park. (Photo courtesy of Laura Goldblatt)

Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 54th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Laura Goldblatt, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Mimi Arbeit, an organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice, a group working to end white supremacy and make reparations in the city of Charlottesville.

Sarah Jaffe: We are talking on Saturday [July 8] after the conclusion of a rally by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the counter-rally that you helped organize. Tell us about how the rally went.

Laura Goldblatt: I think today people in Charlottesville showed up in an act of community of self-defense when the city showed that they would not defend us, nor would the police. In that sense, we celebrated our strength as a community and our ability to stand with each other and provide some measure of safe space in the midst of a really hostile moment.

People showed up at the park early in the day. People started with prayers and more and more people gathered. There was music. There were people with signs. There was this beautiful crane installation of a thousand cranes because cranes are a Japanese sign of solidarity. It is believed that if you fold a thousand cranes, you will be granted a wish. So, people embedded in the cranes their wishes to end white supremacy.

There were thousands of people there. It was a really moving show of the community coming out despite the fact that the city had officially discouraged people [from] coming and instead organized a variety of alternative events. Then, the police provided safe passage for the Klan to enter the park. They violently removed protesters who were standing at the entrance that the Klan had intended to use in order to prevent them from entering and from endangering our community. Police brutally removed those protesters, but nonetheless, activists remained chanting at the Klan and lingered long after, following the police as the police, again, provided safe passage to the Klan back to their cars.

Then, following that, the police set off several chemical agents, including several in the vicinity of activists who they had injured in pushing them away or pushing them down. Those activists were in the direct line of those chemical agents and could not move because they were wounded.

We delayed the Klan. They showed up. Their permit was from 3 pm to 4 pm and they didn’t even get into the park until like 3:55pm…. we could not completely prevent them from entering…. It would have been a bigger victory, but yes, we delayed them. There were like eight of them and thousands of us. We are stronger than them; there [were] more of us than them, and the state and the threat of racist terrorism can’t keep us away.

Mimi Arbeit: Charlottesville mobilized yesterday. The people of Charlottesville came out in high numbers with strong spirit and really showed the vibrancy of our collective energy to resist intimidation and initiate change. What we did see was that the police were there to protect white supremacy. The police chose the Klan over our people. That is excruciating.

Let’s go back a little bit. Tell us about the history of the Klan in this area. Why did they decide to have this rally here now?

Goldblatt: Part of the reason that the Klan is coming back is because of the city council vote to remove the Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee statues from two public parks in the area. The Klan has a really long and intimate history with those statues. The Klan was formed [in Charlottesville] in 1921 at Thomas Jefferson’s grave at Monticello. So, they are very closely tied with a long history that goes all the way back to the founding of the United States as a sovereign nation in terms of the history of white supremacy.

Then, the Klan, with various supporters, put up these statues. They were actually put up overlooking what, at the time, were two prominent Black communities as a way to intimidate people of color and Jews and immigrants in the area. They served as a kind of warning. In a lot of ways, the Klan coming back today to this particular park and to rally around this statue was a kind of homecoming for them and shows us the ties between historical white supremacy and its persistence in the city to this day.

Arbeit: To talk about history, let’s start with the person who is credited with the founding of Charlottesville, which is Thomas Jefferson, who also founded UVA, the University of Virginia. Thomas Jefferson popularized white supremacist ideology in this country. The history of enslavement, the history of Thomas Jefferson raping Sally Hemings is connected to the history of the Lee and Jackson statues that uphold the violence of the confederacy and the oppression of slavery, and the Klan is part of that history, too.

What we need to do in Charlottesville is to confront the legacy of Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson is still celebrated. There is a festival weekend dedicated to celebrating him. The president of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, references Thomas Jefferson time and again. There are so many things named after Thomas Jefferson. The people of Charlottesville need to confront and be able to betray the racist, rapist legacy of Thomas Jefferson in order to truly be ready to do the work of racial justice.

On Saturday, July 8, anti-racism organizers formed a counterprotest to a KKK rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo: Eze Amos)On Saturday, July 8, anti-racism organizers formed a counterprotest to a KKK rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo: Eze Amos)

You mentioned briefly the response of the city government to the Klan deciding to have this rally and the police protecting them. Talk a little bit about the different attempts that were made to stop this from happening.

Goldblatt: People had been to city council meetings and had demanded that this permit be revoked as a matter of public safety and we reiterated that demand for August 12 — which will be an even larger white supremacist really in newly named Emancipation Park, which was formerly called Lee Park — where we are going to see even more groups, groups that have a real commitment to violence and have been violent at other similar events across the nation. So, activists attended city council meetings and demanded that these permits be revoked as a matter of public safety.

People wrote letters, sent emails, wrote editorials and the city had said that this is constitutionally protected free speech and that they cannot revoke the permit and these groups are allowed to come despite the threat that they pose to public safety. Instead, the city has said, “You should just ignore them. We will provide other events for you to go to,” but, of course, historically, ignoring white supremacy has not been a winning strategy.

Tell us about the organizing that has been done on that front since the city refused to revoke the permit. Talk about how the counter-rally came together today and the ties in the community that are growing out of this organizing.

Goldblatt: There were a bunch of groups that came together to organize. It was a larger coalition than we had seen so far in terms of different groups. One group that was organizing was SURJ — Standing Up for Racial Justice. There was a Black Lives Matter chapter that was organized. There was a recently formed group called Congregate C’ville, which is a group of faith leaders who are really concerned about white supremacy and racial justice and have come together in an act of solidarity with these other groups.

We saw that there are these other groups — EPiC: Equity and Progress in Charlottesville — which plugs a lot of the events and some people had cross-pollinated between the two groups. And even some people from the Indivisible chapters of Charlottesville had come to organizing meetings. There are also some other local activists who lent their hands. We had a lot of people working on a lot of different fronts.

It was a really, really large rally. It took a lot of organizing. All these different groups were meeting on these various topics. Everything from action plans, security, to medics, to jail support and then attentive legal response. We only really came together as a larger coalition with certain representatives yesterday and got to talk through how we were taking care of each other and things like that.

Arbeit: Showing Up for Racial Justice is committed to mobilizing white people to do the work of dismantling white supremacy and supporting the Movement for Black Lives. We have been working in Charlottesville on a number of levels to have conversations to make sure that white people are paying attention and engaging and also doing the deep healing work to open ourselves to seeing the lies of white supremacy and to reconcile the harm that has been done for centuries, and working in coalition with brilliant and powerful activists in all different kinds of groups. Some people working sometimes with organizations, sometimes representing themselves, a lot of people just coming out to do the work as individuals, as community members, because it is essential work to do.

You said there is going to be another larger rally in August.

Goldblatt: Yes.

What are some lessons that you took away from how this rally went that you are planning to put into the planning for the next one?

Goldblatt: One lesson is that our community is strong and that we are looking out for each other and we are here to protect each other despite the fact that it is very clear that the city and the police are not there to protect us. That is an old activist lesson, but one that I think was reiterated across today. The police are here to protect capitalism. They are here to protect white supremacy, and we shouldn’t be surprised that we see these racist policies in our criminal justice system with things like bail bond and the fact that people can be held because they are too poor to get themselves out of jail, or the ways that people [are] prosecuted for drug crimes in the area.

I think those are two big lessons that were strong. That the police are not necessarily for us.… But the other lesson we learned is that these monuments are symbols of white supremacy in Charlottesville and it is not enough to call for their removal. We have to push for these material demands. We have to say, “You cannot get rid of one without getting rid of the other,” and that these two things are linked. We are using this as a way to catalyze communities in Charlottesville.

Arbeit: Yes, it is interesting that you say that. The rally coming up in Charlottesville is the August 12 Unite the Right March on Charlottesville. This is planned by a set of new white supremacist groups … that have been on the rise more recently. The Klan, specifically as the Ku Klux Klan, is not named, but these newer white supremacist groups are no different from the KKK, except they pose an even greater threat of violence.

Ignoring new white supremacist groups today led to their gain in political power, led to their gain of the presidency, and has led to harassment and violence nationwide.

Ignoring the Klan in the 1920s allowed them to terrorize and murder Black people, and ignoring new white supremacist groups today — these ones that are coming in August [to] Charlottesville — led to their gain in political power, led to their gain of the presidency, and has led to harassment and violence nationwide. We must confront and disavow this march on Charlottesville that is scheduled [for] August 12. The local community is asking Mayor [Mike] Signer and the City of Charlottesville to revoke the permit for the August 12 rally. This is essential for racial justice and for community safety.

Talk a little bit about the things that you want to see change see down in Charlottesville, the organizing beyond just confronting the right.

Goldblatt: I mentioned some of the changes to the criminal justice system. We have what we call JADE — Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement. This is a really inequitable system that targets people of color and gives them really serious criminal sentences for small possession for personal use and has been used to decimate poor [communities] and communities of color in Charlottesville in ways that have disenfranchised and decimated inherited wealth for generations. That is one thing we see. Same thing with the bail bond system.

We are at a crisis for public housing in Charlottesville. I should mention that PHAR — the Public Housing Association of Residents — is really active here. They have been doing a lot of self-advocacy, but also … through their support behind this rally. They have put forth a really robust and compelling plan for what public housing should prioritize and what it should look like. But we see instead that the city has been favoring developers and have been trying to basically ghetto-ize the city’s poorest residents. Those policies need to change. They need to take real action to solve this public housing crisis and make sure that our most vulnerable communities have access to safe jobs and to safe places to live.

We want the August 12 permit revoked. We want the statues removed. And we want them to change the ways that the foster care system works because we see that people of color lose their children at really astonishing rates. It is totally racist to take these kids out of homes where they are loved and to put them into these really unstable circumstances because of a sense that certain kinds of homes don’t meet a white standard of what they should look like.

If Charlottesville can mobilize in resistance, communities across the country can also mobilize in resistance.

Arbeit: This is a mobilizing moment. Particularly for white Americans, this moment can be a life-changing moment to see how much deeper we need to go for Black lives to matter here and to see the threat of violence and the possibility of movement-building. I want people to see that if Charlottesville can be a target of racist violence and intimidation, communities across the country can also be a target of racist violence and intimidation. If Charlottesville can mobilize in resistance, communities across the country can also mobilize in resistance.

How can people keep up with you and the work that the coalition is doing, especially leading up to the August rally?

Goldblatt: We have a website: People should check us out there. They can follow us on Twitter @SolidCville. They can also check out the Black Lives Matter chapter in Charlottesville by liking their Facebook page. Same thing with SURJ: Standing Up for Racial Justice, the chapter in Charlottesville. I don’t know if Congregate C’ville has a Facebook page yet, but hopefully they will soon, if they don’t. They can follow all of those.

We are planning not to be idle between now and August 12. We are going to continue to advocate for our cause, advocate to have that permit revoked, but also to advocate for changing these policies that Charlottesville — like other places in the country — is confronting this real terrorism of racial injustice and racial violence and we can stop it. We can make this change and we can have a community that provides good jobs and a sense where people are able to watch out for each other and to support each other rather than having to deal with police oppression and brutality.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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