No matter how ready you think you are to see an actual Klansman, you aren’t. Not that the Klansman is easy to see. Standing on tiptoe several rows back in the crowd, I can glimpse some of the white robe, which is more than enough for me. Someone tells me that when she got close enough to see, she began to cry. It sounds dramatic, she adds, apologetically.
The Klansmen—around fifty of them—are here in Charlottesville on a Saturday in early July to protest the imminent removal of statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from two city parks that until recently bore their names. (The parks’ names have now been changed from “Lee” to “Emancipation” and “Jackson” to “Justice.”)
For the Klan, this event is a sign of its decline. Back in 1921, a few months before the unveiling of the statue of Jackson that’s overlooking this whole affair, the local newspaper proudly announced that “the fiery cross, symbolic of the Isvisible [sic] Empire and of the unconquerable blood of America, cast an eerie sheen upon a legion of white robed Virginians as they stood upon hallowed ground and renewed the faith of their fathers.… The Ku Klux Klan has been organized in this city.” Its members were, as the article said, “Charlottesville’s leading business and professional men.”
But what is the Klan now? A faded image of itself, surely. These people aren’t community leaders by any stretch. At first glance, the entire struggle now is over images: statues, white hoods, and Confederate flags. Removing the statues is as symbolic as keeping them—a gesture toward Charlottesville’s black population that seems to fall just short of actual material aid. (In fact, though this information hasn’t dominated the news, the city council has also passed an equity package, which dedicates around $4 million to, among other things, public housing, educational opportunities, and further development of a local African American heritage center.)
Still, there’s an undeniable electric shock that comes from seeing a Klansman: There’s something real here, you think. Those white robes still have power.
There’s something real here is precisely what I don’t think about a month later, when I start watching a live video of Unite the Right ralliers preparing to march across the University of Virginia campus with torches. Like the Klan, Unite the Right is here to protest the removal of the monuments, and to agitate for “white rights.”
If anything, I expect one of the fidgeting young men—maybe the one with a tiny swastika pin on his polo shirt—to ask himself, “What am I doing here?” and take off. The situation is undeniably comic. But as they continue to march with their risibly misappropriated bamboo tiki torches, chanting “You will not replace us” (and sometimes “Jews will not replace us”), they quickly become less funny. When they surround the woman who is recording the video I’m watching and the screen goes black, they’re not funny at all.
The next day, many of the Unite the Right ralliers show up at Emancipation Park carrying little wooden shields. I snap a picture of one man carrying a shield that says Deus Vult (“God wills it”) in one hand and a Confederate flag in the other. When the participants are ordered to disperse practically before the rally can even start, one begins to yell at white counterprotestors, “Y’all are all hypocrites!” He makes eye contact with me as he says it. Given the other options on the table, there are worse things.
These people, too, don’t seem altogether real. More dangerous, to my eyes, are the private militia members who have come to the rally heavily armed and looking ready for combat. They view themselves, as one tells me, as the self-appointed keepers of the peace. But one of the kids behind a wooden shield is James Alex Fields, and in a few hours he’ll ram a car into a crowd of people on Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall, killing one counterprotestor, thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer, and injuring nineteen others. It doesn’t get more real than that.