Since white nationalists marched Friday in Charlottesville, Virginia, the quiet college town has seen a nighttime brawl lit up by torches and smartphones, and worse violence that left one person dead and dozens injured.
At the center of the chaos is a statue memorializing Robert E. Lee. It depicts the Confederacy’s top general, larger than life, astride a horse, both green with oxidation.
RELATED: Capital Region responds to violence in Charlottesville
RELATED: Governor counters critics of police response to Charlottesville violence
RELATED: What we know about driver charged in Charlottesville killing
The white nationalists were in Charlottesville to protest the city’s plan to remove that statue, and counterdemonstrators were there to oppose them. The statue — begun by Henry Merwin Shrady, a New York sculptor, and finished after his death by an Italian, Leo Lentelli — had stood in the city since 1924. But over the past couple of years some residents and city officials, along with organizations like the NAACP, had called for it to come down.
One local official made a similar suggestion as early as 2012 and quickly discovered that emotions surrounding the issue run deep.
‘Ugly stuff bubbled up’
It was during the Virginia Festival of the Book, a series of readings and events held every year in Albemarle County, which includes Charlottesville.
At a talk given by author and historian Edward Ayers, a Charlottesville city councilor, Kristin Szakos, asked about the city’s Confederate monuments. She wondered whether the city should discuss removing them.
People around her gasped. “You would have thought I had asked if it was OK to torture puppies,” she recalled during a 2013 conversation on BackStory, a podcast supported by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
The response to her comment was heated, and swift. Szakos said she received threats via phone and email. “I felt like I had put a stick in the ground, and kind of ugly stuff bubbled up from it,” she said.
It was a local turning point, helped along by national events. Szakos’ comment came about a month after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, 17, in Florida. The trial and eventual acquittal of the man who shot him, George Zimmerman, helped fan the flames of the Black Lives Matter protests, which erupted into full force in 2014 following the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
By 2015, debates about Confederate flags and monuments were heating up in Southern states including South Carolina, Texas and Louisiana. Those who favored removal saw the symbols as monuments to white supremacy, but their opponents accused them of trying to erase history.
In Charlottesville that year, someone spray-painted “Black Lives Matter” on the foundation of the Lee statue. City workers cleaned it quickly, leaving only a faint outline.
Buildup to a vote
By 2016, Wes Bellamy, another Charlottesville city councilor and the city’s vice mayor, had become a champion of efforts to remove Confederate monuments. At a news conference in front of the Lee statue in March of that year, he said the City Council would appoint a commission to discuss the issue.
“When I see the multitude of people here who are so passionate about correcting something that they feel should have been done a long time ago, I am encouraged,” he said to the crowd of residents in front of him. Some clapped. Others shouted, accusing Bellamy of sowing division.
That same month, Zyahna Bryant, a high school student, petitioned the City Council asking for the Lee statue to be removed. “My peers and I feel strongly about the removal of the statue because it makes us feel uncomfortable and it is very offensive,” she wrote in the petition, which collected hundreds of signatures.
The City Council established its special commission in May 2016. Later that year, it issued a report suggesting that the city could either relocate the Lee statue or transform it with the “inclusion of new accurate historical information.”
The addition of historical context might have been welcomed by some defenders of the statues. One group, Friends of C’Ville Monuments, said on its website that statues could be improved “by adding more informative, better detailed explanations of the history of the statues and what they can teach us.”
But in February, the City Council voted to remove the statue from the park. Opponents of the move sued in March, arguing that the city did not have the authority to do so under state law.
That court case is continuing, and the statue has remained in place. It was the focal point for a gathering held in May by white nationalist Richard Spencer, who was among the demonstrators in Charlottesville this weekend. In June, the City Council gave Lee Park a new name — Emancipation Park.
‘Unite the Right’
The rally that descended into violence Saturday was organized by Jason Kessler, a relative newcomer to the white nationalist scene who is well known in Charlottesville, where he has fought against the city’s status as a sanctuary city for immigrants.
A self-described “journalist, activist and author,” Kessler also waged a monthslong online media campaign against Bellamy, whom he depicted as anti-white.
More recently, Kessler became involved in the fight against renaming Lee Park — one reason for the “Unite the Right” rally this weekend. The rally was by far Kessler’s largest undertaking yet. Last week, he won an injunction in federal court against the city, which had voted to revoke a permit for the rally.
“This is my First Amendment right,” Kessler said of the rally during a news conference on Thursday. “This is the right of every American to be able to peaceably assemble and speak their mind free of intimidation. That’s why I decided to do it.”
With the lawsuit over the Lee statue still unresolved, it remains unclear what will become of it. The violence this weekend was one of the bloodiest fights over the campaigns across the South to remove Confederate monuments, and the statue remains a lightning rod in Charlottesville. Spencer, for his part, has promised to return.