WASHINGTON — A Ku Klux Klan group from North Carolina is likely to be given the all-clear to hold a rally next month in a downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, park that’s at the center of a political and legal firestorm over the removal of Confederate monuments in Virginia.
The mayor of the small city where tensions between groups of protesters have boiled over in recent weeks, has a message for citizens who may be angered by the display: Don’t take the bait.
“This is a fringe group of an already discredited organization that is coming out of state to try and basically stage a sideshow here,” Mayor Mike Signer, a Democrat who has served as mayor since January 2016, told WTOP in an interview Wednesday. “And we have a lot to celebrate in this city.”
“We are not going to play into their hands. I’m trying to encourage people not to give them the division and confrontation that groups like this flourish on,” he added.
The permit application for 100 people to rally July 8 in the Charlottesville park that contains a statue honoring Confederate general Robert E. Lee, was filed by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan on May 23, city communications director Miriam Dickler told WTOP.
The group’s application is likely to be approved, she said, because the permitting process is largely focused on the logistics of a public gathering and does not evaluate the content of a planned rally.
“So, this is not a matter of us saying, ‘Go ahead and do it.’ This is a matter of us making sure that when something happens, it’s happening in the best way possible that doesn’t impede the day-to-day lives of the citizens of Charlottesville,” Dickler said.
Signer said public safety during the planned rally would be of the utmost importance.
He also said he met with two dozen clergy members who are working on an event to celebrate tolerance and diversity that will serve as a “counterpoint” to the planned KKK rally.
The rally application was submitted to city officials less than two weeks after self-avowed white nationalists held a torchlight rally in Lee Park, chanting slogans, such as “We will not be replaced” and “blood and soil” that some residents said conjured up images of the KKK and Nazi rallies.
The city is home to 45,000 residents and the University of Virginia.
The past few weeks have seen several heated confrontations between anti-racist activists and avowed white nationalists at downtown rallies, according to local media reports.
The Charlottesville City Council voted in February to remove the statue of Lee, but the move has been tied up in legal challenges.
Earlier this week, the city council unanimously voted to rename Lee Park and another downtown city park honoring Confederate General Stonewall Jackson as Emancipation Park and Justice Park, respectively. The vote came after a rowdy public hearing, during which protesters attempted to shout down a local blogger with links to white nationalist groups.
“There were folks in the crowd who were really trying to shout down speakers who were talking who they disagreed with,” Signer said. “They were using extremely vulgar language and hand gestures. I mean, this was on a … televised city council meeting, which kids are watching at home and they had middle fingers stuck in the air and a lot of profanity.”
Signer said he found the man’s public speech “toxic” but said that he had a right to speak at the hearing.
“A core premise of the First Amendment is that even bad ideas get to get out there and they’ll be defeated by good ideas in the free realm of the marketplace of ideas,” Signer said. “We have a real tension right now about that happening here and around the country.”