Beating. Hanging. Shooting.
These are the sorts of threats that Charlottesville Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy, a 30-year-old African American, says he has received in recent weeks from far-right activists before “Unite the Right”, which is expected to be one of the largest white supremacist rallies in the US’ recent history.
“I‘ve been told I‘m going to be hung from a tree, that I‘m going to be shot, that I‘m going to be beat up,“ he tells Al Jazeera. “You name it, every kind of n-word – I‘ve been called it online.“
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Charlottesville, an otherwise sleepy city of 46,000 in central Virginia, is bracing for an influx of hundreds of far-right activists – among them white supremacists and neo-Nazis from across the United States on Saturday to protest against the planned removal of a Confederate monument.
Although locals, anti-racist activists and anti-fascists are expected to hold a much larger counter-demonstration, Unite the Right will be attended by an array of groups: the alt-right, the Traditionalist Worker Party, the League of the South, Identity Evropa, Vanguard America, the National Socialist Movement (NSM) and the Proud Boys, among others.
The far-right groups have enlisted the Warlocks, a One Percenter motorcycle gang, for protection.
Since the city council voted in April to remove a statue of Robert E Lee, the foremost Confederate military leader during the US Civil War, far-right activists have turned Charlottesville into a nexus for protests and counterdemonstrations.
Saturday’s rally will be the third of its type in Charlottesville in the last four months. Asked why the far right has focused on the city, Bellamy points to plans to remove the statue and a fund to invest millions of dollars into marginalised communities.
He adds: “I also think one of the bigger reasons is that we have a young, black vice mayor who is unapologetic in his blackness and who’s been getting a lot of support.”
Following a similar rally in May, a slew of anti-Semitic and racist tweets was directed at Mayor Mike Signer, who is Jewish, after he published a post condemning the event.
Although the city has mandated Unite the Right to move the protest to a different park, organiser Jason Kessler, who is a member of the ultra-nationalist Proud Boys group – who describe themselves as “Western chauvinists”, told his followers on Periscope that “there is no way” the rally won’t be held at Emancipation Park, where the Robert E Lee statue is located.
“[The Robert E Lee Statue] is the first and foremost reason that we’re having this rally, is for that park and for that statue. It’s about white genocide. It’s about the replacement of our people, culturally and ethnically,” he said. “And that statue is the focal point of everything.”
Anticipating clashes, the city is expected to deploy police, sheriff’s deputies and riot-equipped officers from the Virginia State police.
‘Time to stand with communities of colour’
Unite the Right has been billed as an attempt to seek common ground between a host of far-right groups, many of which have found themselves at odds with one another in recent months.
Those expected to attend the event include far-right figures Mike Enoch, a blogger and host of the Daily Shoah podcast, and Richard Spencer, a leader in the alt-right, a coalition of far-right groups that includes white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
Before the rally, David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), called on his supporters to descend on Charlottesville.
In a blog post on its website, the neo-Confederate organisation said the rally would “affirm the right of southerners and white people to organise for their own interests just like any other group is able to do, free of persecution”.
Matthew Heimbach, leader of the white supremacist Traditionalist Worker Party, issued an anti-Semitic plea for supporters to join Unite the Right, calling on them to stand up to the “Jewish power structure”.
“I’m inviting all nationalists and patriots to join us on August 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia, to take a stand not just for our Confederate monuments but for our European identity,” he said in a video posted on YouTube, saying that white Americans “will not be replaced”.
Along with Black Lives Matter, anti-racist and anti-fascist groups are expected to hold much larger counterdemonstrations.
“We invite you to choose to believe in the fight for justice and the solidarity of community,” Black Lives Matter said in a statement. “We invite you to take part and together face this consolidation of hate groups, and the risk of police use of excessive force, with nonviolent direct action.”
Citing expectations of violence, Teresa Sullivan, the president of Charlottesville’s University of Virginia, has urged students not to attend the counterprotest, according to local media reports. “There is a credible risk of violence at this event, and your safety is my foremost concern,” she said.
But local activist Emily Gorcenski says it is important for people to show up and voice their opposition to Saturday’s rally.
“It’s time that people who live here and enjoy the wonderful community, that we recognise the contributions of people of colour in the community and the traumas that were inflicted on them in the past,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that the event could “mark a turning point not just in local but national politics”.
‘Free speech as a smokescreen’
In recent months, Confederate monuments like the statue in Charlottesville have become key venues for the alt-right and other far-rightists.
In May, alt-right leader Richard Spencer led a rally of torch-wielding far-right activists at the monument, although several hundred counterprotesters outnumbered them.
We are not opposed to their free speech; we are opposed to their bigotry and their violence.
Last month, more than 1,000 counterdemonstrators outnumbered the KKK – a white supremacist group that has a lengthy history of lynching African Americans – as they protested against the statue’s removal.
After the KKK members departed, police clashed with counterprotesters, arresting 23 of them.
Gorcenski, who has also received a slew of violent threats online, argues that Confederate monuments were “installed to impress fear among communities of colour”.
“There is [a] question [of] how legit we will allow this alt-right movement to get,” she adds, dismissing Unite the Right organisers’ claims that their rally has been called to voice support for freedom of speech.
“They use free speech as a smokescreen to pass on their bigotry, and they don’t show up defending the free speech of black, queer or trans activists,” Gorcenski explains.
“We are not opposed to their free speech; we are opposed to their bigotry and their violence.”
‘Equity not equality’
Todd Moye, a history professor at the University of North Texas, dismisses the argument that preserving Confederate monuments is a historical necessity.
“The people who erected the Confederate monuments in the first place had a very specific goal in mind: To assert that the South was white man’s country, and that it remained so even after their armies lost the civil war,” he told Al Jazeera.
When Dylann Roof martyred the Charleston Nine, he ripped the sheet off the Confederate fetishists.
A nationwide debate over Confederate monuments and the Confederate battle flag erupted in 2015 after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“When Dylann Roof martyred the Charleston Nine, he ripped the sheet off the Confederate fetishists,” Moye explained. “He told us something we already knew: this fetish is, and always has been, about white supremacy.”
The election of right-wing President Donald Trump has energised the far right, with hate crimes and bias incidents soaring in the aftermath of the vote.
In the 10 days following Trump’s victory, the Southern Poverty Law Center monitor recorded an average of 87 hate incidents a day, or some five times the daily average recorded by the FBI in 2015.
Saturday’s rally comes as clashes between far rightists and their opponents increase in both frequency and intensity.
On August 6, violent clashes broke out between anti-fascists and alt-rightists in Portland, Oregon, as the former confronted a rally organised by the local far-right group, Patriot Prayer.
In Berkeley, California, Trump supporters and alt-right protesters clashed with anti-fascists on April 15, using makeshift shields, sticks, batons, pepper-spray and other weapons
In February, anti-fascist activists shut down a speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California – Berkeley when they set fires and hurled rocks at the building where he was scheduled to speak.
Back in Charlottesville, Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy hopes the uptick in activism will translate into a long-term commitment to fighting racism. “I hope that on August 13, people will be ready to go and do the work in the community,” he concluded.
“I believe in equity, not equality. Personally, I’m going to push for equity until the day I die … and we’re going to look to remove these symbols of hate from the middle of our city.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_