Mayor Mike Signer had a quorum of councilors today outside City Hall, but it wasn’t for a City Council meeting. A band played Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” as hundreds of Charlottesvillians assembled at noon below the statues of three presidents, along with a handful of vocal protesters, and Signer declared Charlottesville the “capital of the resistance.”
President Donald Trump’s January 27 executive order barring refuges from seven predominantly Muslim countries was the catalyst for this and other protests both here and throughout the country.
Signer assembled a dozen speakers, including Gold Star father Khizr Khan and Pam Northam, wife of Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam.
The mayor said he’d met with a dozen local refugees over the weekend and listened to “the fear, the confusion, the anxiety” caused by the president’s order. “They are hearing the message America doesn’t want them,” said Signer.
He invoked poet Emma Lazarus and said, “We are a place that embraces your huddled masses yearning to be free.”
And he listed four actions he’d be taking, including working with senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine’s staffs to get specific help for local immigrants and refuges, providing volunteer legal assistance, discussing with the commonwealth’s attorney how to protect residents, particularly if federal enforcement “becomes more draconian” in the coming weeks, and asking the city’s Human Rights Office to address xenophobia and harassment on the streets.
The latter issue became an immediate clash of constitutional freedoms, with at least one protester talking loudly as Signer and other speakers addressed the crowd, and frequent council speaker Joe Draego spotted packing heat. When another attendee shouted, “He has a gun!” Draego noted it was his Second Amendment right.
Charlottesville police spokesman Steve Upman says no arrests were made from the crowd he estimates at 500.
At the beginning of the rally, Signer urged, “If anyone tried to disrupt these proceedings with messages of hate, drown them out with messages of love.” He suggested protesters make use of the nearby Free Speech Wall.
That didn’t deter blogger Jason Kessler, whose commentary inflamed many of those standing near him, and who drew a shout of “Shut up, Jason!” when Khan began to talk.
Khan, whose UVA alum son, Captain Humayun Khan, was killed serving the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2004, said, “We will continue to speak against the darkness, the dark chapter that is being written in our country. We will not let that happen.”
Karim Ginena with the Islamic Society of Central Virginia, pointed out, “Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant.” He drew a laugh when he said, “Two-thirds of President Trump’s wives are recent immigrants.”
Harriet Kuhr, the director of the local branch of International Rescue Committee, said, “The refugees coming here are the victims of terrorism and are desperate to find safety.” A Syrian family arrived here two weeks ago, she said, and family members who were supposed to join them are blocked by the new restrictions.
“Is this the America we stand for?” she asked, and received a resounding “no” from the crowd.
Northam acknowledged the continuing drone of hecklers, and said, “I’m a teacher and I’m real used to talking over people.”
UVA Vice Provost Jeff Legro lamented “the exceptional talent from around the world that cannot get here,” and Rabbi Tom Gutherz, the child of refugees, expressed his dismay with the “shameful” executive order.
“I am very tired of Christianity being hijacked by the voices of hate,” said the Reverend Elaine Ellis Thomas from St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church.
Following a final prayer, Signer returned to the mic: “This is not an end, this is a beginning.”
He said the event was not a partisan one. “This is an American thing. This is a Virginia thing.” And he ended the capital of the resistance rally with shouts of “USA! USA!”
Signer drew some criticism from the Charlottesville chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, which in a statement questioned the timing of the rally as “politically expedient” for the mayor amid the wave of national protests, while taking place just hours before the first public meeting of Equity and Progress in Charlottesville, a new group political group that seeks to involve more marginalized members of the community.
SURJ also objected to Signer “co-opting the language of ‘resistance'” while not acknowledging the many other activists that have stood up against white supremacy and racial injustice.
Updated 5:05pm with SURJ statement.
Updated 2/1/17 with additional photos.
Correction 2/1/17: The Islamic Society of Central Virginia was misidentified in the original version.