Mayor of Charlottesville calls Pro-Confederate rallies 'horrific'

A group of white nationalists carried torches Saturday night in Charlottesville, Virginia while protesting the planned removal of Confederate statues in the city -- an incident that has provoked anger and frustration from politicians and activists.

The torch wielders -- reported to be several dozen by local paper Daily Progress -- were reacting to a November 28 city council vote to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Charlottesville’s Lee Park, the public space where the protest took place Saturday.

A court injunction has halted the removal of the statue for six months, but that didn't stop the protesters, led by avowed white nationalist Richard Spencer, from chanting slogans like "we will not be replaced," “Russia is our friend” and “blood and soil ” at the site of the statue.

Mike Signer, the mayor of Charlottesville, expressed his disgust with Saturday’s protest in an interview with ABC News.

"I think it's horrific," he said of the protests. "We're a city that proudly values our diversity."

Signer noted that the demonstration coincided with the park’s Festival of Cultures, event, which was created to celebrate the "cultural and linguistic diversity" of the local community. It isn’t clear whether or not the timing was deliberate, he said.

"It's always a balance about how much oxygen you want to give these alt-right bigots," Signer said, referring to questions about how to respond to the actions of Spencer and his followers. "It's important to say that these were just Tiki torches. Based upon what I'm seeing online, the people involved in this have a juvenile mentality and are beneath our contempt."

Signer issued a statement about the protests to the Daily Progress saying the protest was "either profoundly ignorant, or designed to instill fear in our minority community."

ABC News on Sunday reached out to the Spencer-run National Policy Institute, a think tank focused on white supremacist issues, for comment, but did not receive a response.

Signer said that on Saturday there was an altercation between protesters and counter-protesters, and that he expects the police to perform "due diligence" in determining whether or not evidence exists that a federal hate crime took place, given the racially-tinged atmosphere surrounding the incident.

A request by ABC News for comment from the Charlottesville Police Department about the mayor's concerns was not immediately returned.

Signer on Sunday sparred with some of Spencer's supporters on Twitter, whom he called "anonymous trolls." He also endured anti-Semitic remarks on the social media platform.

"I'm pretty thick-skinned," the mayor said, "but this is the first time I've encountered something like this."

John Edwin Mason, a history teacher at the University of Virginia who lives within walking distance of the park, told ABC News that he views the protest as an attempt by newer "American fascists" like Spencer to sync up with more traditional racist groups like the KKK on the issue of preserving confederate history.

"Richard Spencer doesn't give a damn about Robert E. Lee," Mason said. "He sees an opportunity here."

Toppling of Confederate monuments is part of a trend that gained speed and momentum after a mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, when avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in a bible-study session.

In the aftermath of the massacre, calls came from both Republicans and Democrats in South Carolina to take down a Confederate battle flag that flew atop the statehouse in Charleston.

Mason served as vice chair on the Blue Ribbon Commission that has pushed to remove the statues. He is African-American, but doesn't view the protests as a targeting black people in Charlottesville.

He said the black community in Charlottesville is "relatively small," and that he feels the protesters were responding to the agenda of "white liberals and leftists" who had pushed to emphasize diversity in the community.

Signer proclaimed the city a "capital of resistance" in January, following the inauguration of Donald Trump, and he vowed at an event held in downtown Charlottesville to provide assistance to immigrants who need visa help.

Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim-American soldier who died in combat in Iraq and who gave a widely-discussed speech at the Democratic National Convention in July, was among the residents who spoke at the mayor's event.

"Having fire at night conjures images of the KKK, but it also stirs up images of Nazis," Mason said -- referring to images of Nazi storm troopers marching with torches prior to and during WWII.

He added that he attends a primarily African-American American church in the city, and that he spoke to neighbors who were neither surprised nor scared by the events that occurred in Lee Park the night before.

"Nobody here is intimidated by these jokers," Mason said with a chuckle.



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