Several Ku Klux Klan opponents have been arrested at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Dozens of Klan members were protesting against a city council decision to remove a statute honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
The group was guarded by scores of police but outnumbered by hundreds of counter-demonstrators who waved signs denouncing racism.
The anti-KKK protesters raised their voices in chants and shouts, drowning out speeches from the white supremacists, live video feeds on social media showed.
“It’s an open-carry state, so our members will be armed,” said James Moore, a member of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which is headquartered in Pelham, N.C., near the Virginia border.
At least one person who participated in the Klan rally against the statute removal could be seen with a holstered pistol.
Moore said that if members were attacked, they would defend themselves.
The Klan is protesting the Charlottesville City Council’s decision this year to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public space and rename the area Emancipation Park.
A court injunction has halted the statue’s removal until a November hearing.
On Thursday, a “Confederate Heroes” plaque attached to the statue was removed by city workers.
“The liberals are taking away our heritage,” Moore said. “By taking these monuments away, that’s what they’re working on. They’re trying to erase the white culture right out of the history books.”
The Klan group that brandished Confederate flags and signs with anti-Semitic messages was separated from crowds by a ring of fencing and a heavy police presence.
Protesters blocked the entrance to the rally space, and police made several arrests in order for the KKK to get through.
After the rally, KKK members were escorted from the park.
Confederacy statues and flags have been removed from public spaces across the United States since 2015, after a white supremacist murdered nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church.
Critics of the monuments say they foster racism by celebrating leaders of the Confederacy in the pro-slavery South during the U.S. Civil War. Supporters say they represent an indelible part of U.S. history and part of regional heritage.
“Our approach all the way through, from our police chief on down, has been to urge people not to take this totally discredited fringe organization’s putrid bait at all,” Mayor Michael Signer said. “The only thing they seem to want is division and confrontation and a twisted kind of celebrity. The most successful defiance will be to refuse to take their bait and continue to tell our story. Then their memory of Charlottesville will be of a community that repudiated them by not getting drawn into their pathetic drama.”
Community groups, churches, businesses and organizations joined forces to present various activities, concerts and prayer services away from the protest site throughout the day.
In addition, the University of Virginia issued a statement condemning the KKK and urging members of the university community to avoid confrontation and support the other events.
Hunter Smith, owner of a local brewery, formed Unity C-Ville in response to the rally plans. Smith, 31, said he wanted to provide activities for city residents to express their solidarity on Saturday without directly confronting the marchers.
“I was concerned that a bunch of people were going to go and give these folks exactly what they were looking for, which is attention,” Smith said. “The best-case scenario is that these guys come in and have their sad little rally and talk to themselves and leave and that we demonstrate that this is not a place that will be divided.”
But others believe it’s important to confront the Klan directly.
“We want them to know there’s no platform for white supremacy,” said Grace Aheron, who works for a nonprofit organization in Charlottesville and is taking part in a counterdemonstration with the group Showing Up for Racial Justice.
“They say to ignore them and that they’re just a small group, but we’ve watched the rise of many people, including our current president, who hold many similar views. It’s enraging that the city would give a permit to a known terrorist organization.”