Monday, July 10, 2017

The KKK Come to Charlottesville

Over a year ago, Charlottesville City Council, at the urging of some local citizens, announced an intention to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park downtown. As a result, Charlottesville has become noticed by racist groups who are agitating to "preserve history." In truth, the statue is not really a historical monument. It was erected in the 1920s and its dedication was attended by leaders who were active in oppressing the black community in Charlottesville. It's fair to say that the statue can be seen as a symbol of oppression by some people.

Fast forward to this past weekend, when the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Charlottesville. As you can imagine, there was much consternation, and a news conference in which the community was strongly discouraged from mounting a counter-protest. Instead, numerous alternative activities were planned. The argument for keeping people away was that the KKK just wants attention, so a protest is playing into their hands. In the weeks before the rally, police visited and intimidated local leftist activists. Other activists received phone calls or emails.  No doubt, the KKK get a perverse pleasure from being greeted with angry hordes, but to not show up, to me, implies complicity. Ignoring the KKK will NOT make them go away.

Even with dedicated daily knitting, this is all I had time to make.

I attempted to organize local knitters and crafters to meet me in the park the morning of the rally, to hang "yarnbombs" and show the KKK that they are not welcome here. In the end, no one but me had time to knit anything. Still, a friend of mine went with me to the park that morning and another friend met us there, to help. It turned out that moral support would be necessary.

The scene in the park when we arrived to hang the signs. Those are the police who harassed me.


I was tying one of my signs to a tree in the park when two police officers approached and asked me what I was doing. I showed them the knitting and explained. I was lectured about how if I hang signs, then the KKK would want to hang their signs, and then there would be hateful signs everywhere and we can't have that, can we? I said that if the KKK wanted to hang signs, they have the same right that I do so what did it matter? The lecture was repeated, this time prefaced by "Don't you understand that..." (Copsplaining, apparently.) Then the cop asked if I had gotten permission to hang my signs. At this point, my friend had come to stand beside me. Ask for permission to hang little bits of knitting in a public park? It had never occurred to me to ask for permission. I asked if I was committing a crime and the police said that I was not.

At this point, a random man with a black lives matter t-shirt spoke up and said that it was my free-speech right to hang my signs. The police drew back a bit and said they would call their captain and ask if it was OK. A moment later, the verdict: the police captain said I could NOT hang my signs. The entire interaction was polite, but it was close to an edge. I am certain that a police captain does not have any authority to take away my free speech rights, but I was equally certain that if I resisted, I would have been arrested. So I said, "Fine, I'll hang them outside the park boundaries." And the police conceded that I could do that, so we hung them up around the park, where I think they got more notice than they would have in the interior.




Maybe I should have resisted? Let me tell you though, in the moment, it is not easy to defy a police officer. They have guns and pepper spray and tazers and handcuffs and you are defenseless. I do wish I'd had the presence of mind to use the ACLU app that I have installed on my phone. It records any incident and immediately transmits to the ACLU, so even if your phone is taken away, they have your footage. And even though the interaction was polite, I felt harassed. The police were in a position of power, they had the upper hand and they used it to bully me about some completely harmless signs. And, as my friend Becky pointed out, the KKK had permission to bring their guns. Why is their "right" to open-carry a deadly weapon more protected than my right to express my disdain for them?  What has happened to our society when knitting is perceived as more threatening than a gun?

Later in the day was the actual rally and counter protest, scheduled from 3:00-4:00 pm. I thought the counter protest would be low key, considering the pressure to stay away, the announcement that the KKK would be armed, and the numerous people who posted on social media that they would be staying away. I arrived on the scene at 2:30 and it was an absolute circus. Hundreds of people marching and chanting. There was music and a few dancers. It was more of a festival atmosphere, and no sign of the KKK.

The scene at around 2:30 pm. Below is a tiny video that I took.


A little after three, the crowd swelled (final count, 1,000) and people started to ask, are they here yet? Where are they? Police had set up a fenced-off  "free speech zone" where the KKK would be, and the rest of us were ranged around. A state police helicopter arrived and circled the park, over and over. At 3:30, they still hadn't arrived and it seemed like they might be a no-show at their own rally.  I did see a confrontation between a few of the crowd and a man with a confederate flag bandana.




Around 3:45, the energy changed.  I didn't actually see the KKK arrive in their pen because it was so crowded, but wedged in as I was, I could just make out their flags, through the leaves. We all shouted "RACISTS GO HOME" and other sayings of that nature. For many of us, (myself included) our motivation to see the klan was curiosity.  Indeed, the scene reminded me a little of the panda exhibit at the National Zoo. What in the world does a klansman look like anyway? OK, so it turns out they look like a bunch of grown men wearing cheap Halloween costumes. Rank and file klan members wear a uniform that looks a lot like a police officer's. The leaders wear silly robes, mostly white, but one guy was in purple and another in black. They wore hoods that looked comically similar to a bishop's mitre. Their faces were exposed. You will have to search the news sites for good pictures. Mine are all terrible. Check out The DTM's facebook page for a powerful picture of local clergy marching against the klan. (Other great photos there too.) Also, check out our friend Eze Amos' page. He's a local photographer and his photos focus on the individuals in the crowd. (Below is one I embedded from his Instagram.)









After the protest
These three had style


And then, perhaps half an hour after they arrived, the police escorted them away. Some of the crowd raced away to follow them to their cars and I was tempted, but I also was really craving a glass of wine. Most of us dispersed and I went to the pub where Jon had been the whole time, and had a lovely chilled glass of Sauvignon blanc. It's a good thing I didn't follow the protesters who stayed behind, because they were tear gassed by the police. Official media accounts say that they were tear gassed because they blocked the road and refused to let the KKK cars pass. Eyewitness accounts of people I trust say that protester were peacefully mingling after the KKK had gone, did not immediately disperse when ordered to by police, and were gassed. Seamus, who had been at the protest with his friends, was in the vicinity of the gassing, but farther away and doesn't have a clear account of what happened.

Please know, if you hear that the protest in Charlottesville was a violent Antifa demonstration, you are being lied to. People brought their babies and their dogs. The local clergy were there in force. While there were certainly protesters from out of town, overall this was a community protest. There is a disappointing amount of local disdain about the protest. It is embarrassing and shameful, apparently, that people chose to shout down a hate group. It is disheartening, to say the least, to read these disparaging remarks about an event I enthusiastically participated in and support.

To recap: in a city that is self-styled the "capital of the resistance," residents were pressured not to protest the KKK, activists were visited by and intimidated by police prior to the rally, KKK were allowed to bring their guns, but I was not allowed to hang my knitting, KKK was allowed to overstay their permit by about twenty minutes and were given police escort to and from a safe space created for them, and peaceful counter protesters were gassed by police and criticized as shameful and embarrassing.


14 comments:

  1. I was on High Street when the VSP came out in full riot gear. I was maybe 25' away as they lined up across from the park. Seeing them ready for the worst was truly terrifying. Once the racists were escorted by the VSP into the park, I left. I understand that there were concerns about actual violence but I question why the racists received so much consideration from the VSP and CPD.

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    1. I am asking myself that same question.

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  2. I'm grateful the po-po saved the city from the unimaginable dangers of rogue knitted signs.

    Too bad Wes Bellamy was too busy to show up.

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    1. I was particularly irritated at how he made it all about how it was his anniversary.

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  3. I found this an interesting read on the subject.
    http://monasticinkwell.com/the-kkk-took-my-cville-away

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  4. Thanks for sharing your story, and for knitting your fabulous signs. I have been asking people to not judge what happened in the aftermath of the rally w/ the cops and the teargas, until they have heard accounts from people who were there on the street. I observed much of it, from the throwing of the first tear gas canister to the cops finally laying off and regrouping in the park. It's like they decided to do an exercise in riot control on a perfectly manageable crowd, and once their experiment was over they casually backed off. I was standing right there but did not hear the dispersal order. I don't think many did. It was a serious over-reaction by the cops. My question is, why were the state police handling this, and not the local city police? And also, per the comment above, why the hate for Wes Bellamy? Doesn't it figure that the one black person on city council has to receive so much hating.

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    1. Speaking as a citizen of Charlottesville, my dislike of Wes Bellamy is not related to the color of his skin, but the content of his character. When he ran for office, he did not mention statue removal once - he ran on universal preschool as his big issue. That, his habit of grandstanding along with his past history of those ugly tweets leave me ashamed to have him called a 'city leader'.

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    2. It was certainly very loud, so I can see that many would not have heard the order to disperse. I didn't take the comment above as an expression of hate. Recently, Wes Bellamy attended a neighborhood forum meeting for Belmont and Woollen Mills. There was a very limited time and a long line of people waiting to speak. We were told that the meeting would end at 8:00 pm regardless of whether or not everyone had a chance to speak. We had to stand in line to wait to speak and many were elderly and infirm, particularly the man in front of me. Wes Bellamy spoke for several minutes about himself, taking up the citizens' precious time. He demonstrated a callous lack of concern for our needs.

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  5. I agree with everything you wrote, Becky. I also believe that since he was the person who enjoyed bringing so much attention to the removal of the statues that the least he could do is show up at the rally.

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  6. As far as city council is concerned - every single one of them betrayed us. They sanctimoniously told us not to protest, they arranged special parking and police protection for the klan. They should have had the courage to protest with us. Tom Periello was there and I really respect him for coming. He did the right thing and every single Charlottesville city councilor should be ashamed.

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    1. Agreed. And the more I read about the next one, the happier I am we are out of town that day.

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  7. That looks like a prodigious amount of dedicated knitting. I am in awe of your ability to produce so many in so little time. It is appalling that yarn bombing is seen as threatening. But the world seems to become a weirder place every day.

    I read your account last Monday, with my heart in my throat, hoping it turned out okay. But I couldn't comment then because I was reading it on my phone - tiny screen. Thank you again and again for doing what you are doing.

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  8. You are brave and wonderful. I'm pleased you and the good guys came out in force to SHAME those jerks. And excellent job standing your ground. We are too easily swayed too nice and too passive I fear (by "we" I mean liberals in general, not you in particular).

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