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Ku Klux Klan rally received with large counter-protest in Virginia

ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP | A Ku Klux Klan member shouts at counter-protesters during a rally in Charlottesville, VA on July 8, 2017.

Police in the US state of Virginia arrested at least 23 people on Saturday as counter-protesters confronted members of the white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan, who were protesting the removal of a Confederate statue.


Some fifty Klansmen had organised a rally against a decision by the city council of Charlottesville, VA to remove a statue of its native son, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who led pro-slavery forces during the US Civil War.

With certain members wearing KKK robes, bearing Confederate flags and anti-Semitic signs, the group was outnumbered by as many as a thousand counter-protesters waving anti-racism signs. Their chants of, "Shame," and "Racists go home!" drowned out the voices of KKK marchers shouting, "White power!"

Authorised under free speech laws, the rally in Justice Park lasted for less than an hour. Klan members were escorted to and from the event by armed police and separated from rival groups by metal barricades. Although at least one KKK supporter was seen carrying a holstered pistol, there were no reports of violence.

As the rally came to a close, Virginia State Police fired tear gas canisters when some protesters failed to disperse, leading to 23 arrests. Officials have not yet confirmed whether those taken into custody were counter-protesters, KKK members, or both.

Divisions in Charlottesville – known as a liberal university town in a rapidly changing and diversifying state – have flared since the city council’s 3-2 February decision to remove the Lee statue, now the subject of a legal battle. No date for the monument's removal has been set. The local government also voted to build a new memorial that would commemorate the slaves who lived in the area.

Confederacy statues and flags have been gradually taken down across the country since 2015, when a white supremacist massacred nine black worshippers at a predominantly African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Critics of such monuments and flags argue that they effectively celebrate racism by honouring leaders of the Confederacy, who fought the American Civil War in order to maintain a Southern economy reliant on slave labour. Supporters often define Confederate symbols as important expressions of a distinct Southern identity.

Tina Young, a 49-year-old lawyer at the scene on Saturday, told AFP that it was time for the statue to come down, saying that Robert E. Lee “did represent slavery, he did fight a war against our government which killed thousands and thousands of soldiers; he could have chosen the better side but he didn't."

Meanwhile, Mason Pickett, a retired businessman, lamented the city's decision to remove a symbol of the city's Confederate past.

"Statues can be good history, they can be bad history  – you may not like it and you may love it, but it's history," he told AFP.

At its zenith in 1925, the KKK boasted as many as four million members. That number has declined to some 5,000 to 8,000 nowadays, mostly in the deep South, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an American non-profit "dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry."

Nevertheless, the question of how to best commemorate the tumultuous history of the United States remains open to debate. In the words of William Faulkner, the South’s great literary icon: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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