As Confederate Statues Come Down, U.S. White Supremacists Are Going Underground

A plan to remove a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee sparked the infamous 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville in 2017. As statues are being removed across America today, far-right groups are lurking in the shadows and experts are concerned

Amir Tibon
Washington
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Protesters rallying near the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, June 13, 2020.
Protesters rallying near the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, June 13, 2020. Credit: JAY PAUL/REUTERS
Amir Tibon
Washington

WASHINGTON – The intersection of Washington and Prince streets in Alexandria, VA, is one of the busiest in the city’s historic Old Town district. Every day, thousands of drivers navigate the junction, and for more than a century they passed a large statue there honoring Virginia’s Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War.

Last week, without prior warning the bronze statue was taken down. It happened early Tuesday morning, after another night of protests and clashes in nearby Washington following the death last month of George Floyd. The nonprofit organization that owns the statue, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, sent a construction crew to remove it to an unknown location. 

Virginia was one of 11 Confederate states that seceded from the rest of the United States by 1861. Commemorations honoring the soldiers and leaders of the Confederate armies were common in the state in the decades after the war ended. The statue in Alexandria – called “Appomattox,” after one of the war’s last major battles – was erected in 1889. 

In recent years, as Virginia’s politics shifted to the left and the state became a stronghold of the Democratic Party, there have been calls to remove statues throughout the state that commemorate Confederate soldiers. One such incident in Charlottesville – following a council decision to remove the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from the city – was met with a far-right demonstration in August 2017 that became a symbol of American tensions under the Trump presidency. However, when “Appomattox” was taken down in Alexandria last week, no far-right groups took to the streets to demonstrate.

City workers draping a tarp over the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 23, 2017.
City workers draping a tarp over the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 23, 2017.Credit: Steve Helber / AP

It’s unclear why the United Daughters of the Confederacy decided to remove the statue at this specific time. For years, the organization had resisted previous attempts by the city to remove the statue, claiming it was part of Alexandria’s heritage. One likely option is the nonprofit decided to act now following incidents all over the country where protesters, enraged by Floyd’s death in police custody and amid calls for racial justice, took down or vandalized similar statues. 

In some southern cities, like Jacksonville and Louisville, statues were removed by local governments. In others, like in Richmond, Virginia, protesters either damaged or completely knocked down statues.

Charlottesville – the alt-right's 'failure'

When Charlottesville decided to remove its statue of Lee in 2017, the reaction from far-right groups was swift and forceful. Hundreds of them, from all over the country, gathered in the college town and turned its picturesque streets into a war zone, in what came to be known as the "Unite the Right" rally. They marched with torches, chanted “Jews will not replace us” and tried to attack the historic synagogue downtown during Shabbat evening prayers. 

Clashes with the police and local counterprotesters became a national tragedy when white supremacist James Fields ploughed his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing local resident Heather Heyer. In addition, two state troopers who were monitoring the situation, Berke Bates and Jay Cullen, died when their helicopter crashed on the outskirts of town. 

These events were traumatic for the entire country, but in recent weeks no American city has had to face a similar reaction after removing local Confederate statues.

People protesting for the removal of a Confederate statue of John B. Gordon at the Capitol in Atlanta, Georgia, June 9, 2020.
People protesting for the removal of a Confederate statue of John B. Gordon at the Capitol in Atlanta, Georgia, June 9, 2020.Credit: DUSTIN CHAMBERS/REUTERS

Joanna Mendelson, associate director at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told Haaretz this was not a coincidence. For most white nationalists, she explained, Charlottesville is considered a failure – and not something that should be repeated in the near-future. 

“They see it as a failure because it didn’t shift the needle of societal change, it didn’t make any of their ideas more popular or acceptable,” Mendelson said. “The fallout from the event was bad for them, in terms of public opinion and also on a personal level. In the months afterward, we saw in their chat groups and websites that people were saying: ‘We should avoid this kind of thing in the future; we shouldn’t hold large protests and alert our enemies of what we’re planning.’” 

Mendelson also said President Donald Trump’s reaction to Charlottesville – in which he famously said there were “very fine people” on both sides – was a source of encouragement to them. That mattered less, though, when they realized it did not lead to a shift toward them in public opinion.

Charlottesville caused far-right groups to “shift to different tactics,” Mendelson noted. “But those tactics can be just as dangerous. Some of the activists we’re monitoring are talking now about a perfect opportunity to unleash violence and use the civil unrest to destabilize society. They’re talking about attacking by surprise – the opposite of the very public approach they took in Charlottesville in 2017.” 

Mendelson said she was most concerned about a scenario in which current tensions lead one disturbed individual to carry out a “lone wolf attack.” That kind of attack, she said, is much more difficult to prepare for and to prevent than a large gathering like the one in Charlottesville. 

A caged statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis is strapped to a truck after being removed from the state capital in Frankfort, Kentucky, June 13, 2020.
A caged statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis is strapped to a truck after being removed from the state capital in Frankfort, Kentucky, June 13, 2020.Credit: BRYAN WOOLSTON/REUTERS

The removal of Confederate statues, Mendelson explained, feeds directly into white supremacists’ “narrative of loss. In their view, the white population is losing the United States to minority groups, and they blame the Jews for leading that process. So when a city takes down its Robert E. Lee statue, or when NASCAR and the Marine Corps both announce on the same week that they are banning the display of Confederate flags – they see it as proof of their narrative.” 

'Sea change'

Mike Signer was Charlottesville’s mayor from 2016 to 2018, a period that covers the decision to remove some of the city’s Confederate statues, the far-right reaction to it and the aftermath. Signer told Haaretz this week that seeing U.S. cities across the country remove statues that commemorate the Confederacy, three years after the far-right march in Charlottesville, was a sign of progress. 

“I think it’s a remarkable and profound sea change in public opinion,” Signer said. “As Charlottesville showed, opinion on these monuments has been divided across white and black communities. But those opinions now belong to a different era.” He noted how there was a “consensus, from the Marines to NASCAR, that any remnants of Confederate celebration should be removed.” 

In Charlottesville’s case, he said, the decision to remove the statues was made by a commission of residents, which discussed the issue for months and held 17 public hearings before giving its recommendations to the city council. The commission, he noted, recommended keeping the statues within the city’s limits and using them in order to teach the history of Virginia as a slave-holding state. 

Protesters rallying against racial inequality and the death of George Floyd, near the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, June 13, 2020.
Protesters rallying against racial inequality and the death of George Floyd, near the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, June 13, 2020. Credit: JAY PAUL/REUTERS

Signer himself supported that recommendation, but found himself in the minority position on the city council. However, after the far-right march in August 2017, he also changed his mind. He stated that the statues had become “totems of terror” and could no longer remain within the city.

Signer was particularly targeted by far-right groups for being Jewish. “I was attacked by David Duke and his followers, received a cartoon with my face photoshopped into a gas chamber with Robert E. Lee pushing the green button, and voice mails of Hitler ranting in Nuremberg,” he recounted. Signer described those attacks and his perspective on the events of August 2017 in his recently published book, “Cry Havoc: Charlottesville and American Democracy Under Siege.” 

Almost three years after the events in his hometown shocked America and the world, Signer seems to share Mendelson’s belief that, overall, Charlottesville was a failure for far-right groups. 

“The brutality and violence of the alt-right movement was exposed in Charlottesville, and due to efforts like our successful lawsuit with Georgetown University to stop paramilitary groups from invading the city again, they are on the defensive,” he said. “With that said, they remain extremely dangerous – especially through vigilante violence as seen in the Tree of Life massacre [in Pittsburgh], so we must not relent. And the federal government especially needs to do a stronger job fighting domestic white nationalist terror.”

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