Kumbaya moments at Lee Park—sort of

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Bible in hand and on bended knees, activist Veronica Fitzhugh asks Jason Kessler, whom she's called a "Nazi," for forgiveness.
Staff photo Bible in hand and on bended knees, activist Veronica Fitzhugh asks Jason Kessler, whom she’s called a “Nazi,” for forgiveness. Staff photo

Charlottesville religious leaders staged a counterprotest this morning at Lee Park in anticipation of a gathering of Confederate supporters that didn’t happen. And when two foes met amid the hymns and prayers, all was not forgiven.

According to a press release, the Confederates were supposed to be at the park at 10am. Members of the religious community, including Methodists, Unitarians and Sojourners, met at First Methodist Church before 9am and proceeded singing into the park.

More than 70 people gathered in front of the statue of General Robert E. Lee and sang,”We Shall Overcome,” “Give Peace a Chance” and “This Little Light of Mine” for more than two hours, while calling for racial justice, love and unity.

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People of faith gathered in Lee Park to support racial justice. Staff photo

At the same time off to the side, a handful of those who favor keeping the statue of Lee, an issue that has turned the park into a flashpoint that drew white nationalists two weeks ago, were not part of the unity the organizers advocated.

Western-heritage defender Jason Kessler said he was there to support City Council candidate Kenny Jackson.

Jackson, a native Charlottesvillian and an African-American, wants to keep the Lee statue, a position for which he said he’s been called an Uncle Tom. He pointed out that most of the people wanting to remove it—and assembled for the counterprotest—were affluent whites.

“When Dr. King came here,” said Jackson, “he talked about peace and unity. He didn’t try to make white people feel guilty about the past.”

And about the group of white activists with Showing Up for Racial Justice, he said, “They make us feel like we’re stupid and need special help,” he said.

The statue, he said, “is not an issue for the black community.”

And he denounced those who have been putting up posters around town with photos of Kessler and others, calling them Nazis.

Activist Veronica Fitzhugh’s peacemaking moment was rebuffed when she asked Kessler to hug her.

Instead, Kessler accused her of posting the “Know Your Nazi” posters around town. “It’s one thing to talk about love and peace, but this woman has been putting up fliers with my name and address, saying we’re Nazis, listing our places of business and telling people to harass us,” he said.

Ten days ago, Fitzhugh, wearing a pink wig, screamed in Kessler’s face for him to “fucking go home” when he sat at a table on the Downtown Mall May 20. Today, wearing a black mantilla-like scarf, she got on her knees before him and asked, “Are you going to forgive me?”

“I want you to leave me alone,” replied Kessler.

Jackson continued to object to the posters he claimed urged people to kill Nazis.

“What I said was, ‘Nazi go home,'” said Fitzhugh.

“Let him talk,” interjected Mason Pickett, a City Council regular who has his own adversarial relationship with SURJ, two of whose members quickly were in his face as police officers approached and intervened.

“It is not against the law to yell at people,” said Fitzhugh. Among the cops standing nearby was Chief Al Thomas, but when she asked, no one answered her question about the legality of screaming at people.

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Chief Al Thomas and Major Gary Pleasants are on hand, along with about 20 other cops at Lee Park. Photo Eze Amos

Jackson mentioned a May 20 video of Fitzhugh and others shouting at Kessler. “On the video you were cursing and abusing,” said Jackson, who pointed out that was illegal and indicated he knew that from personal experience.

There were some less confrontational discussions between those holding opposing viewpoints.

Artist Aaron Fein said he came to listen to other people. “Certainly there were people with whom I found common ground I didn’t expect, and other opinions weren’t changed.”

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Jason Kessler passed on an opportunity to hold hands in public. Photo Eze Amos

When a speaker from the larger religious group asked everyone to grab the hand of a neighbor, Fein stood in a small circle with Jackson’s group, which was also holding hands. Fein held one hand extended to Kessler, who kept his own firmly in his pocket.

Kessler told some of those talking to him that he supported Jackson because he wasn’t into “white guilt.” He pointed to the spiritual adherents and said, “These people are trying to wipe white people from the face of the earth by 2050. They want to displace white people.”

Brittany Caine-Conley was one of the organizers of the event. “I’m here because I think it’s imperative people of faith organize against racism,” she said. “It’s one of the imperatives of Christianity.”

“We need to stop hate,” echoed Jackson. “We need to stop posting signs that talk about killing people.”

As many of those in the park dispersed, Chief Thomas, when asked how it went, said, “We only have one goal—that everyone stays safe and respectful.”

Correction: Aaron Fein was misidentified in the original version.

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