Though white supremacist activity has plagued colleges nationwide, the University of Virginia has been caught up in a firestorm beyond what has typically been seen in recent months, such as controversial fliers being tacked up around campus or outspoken speakers invited.
Protesters affiliated with what many consider to be racist and hateful groups -- the Ku Klux Klan and supporters of the so-called alt-right -- in the past two or so months have descended on Emancipation Park, formerly known as Lee Park, in Charlottesville, normally a progressive college town best known as the home of the University of Virginia.
They’re protesting the city's decision to remove a Confederate marker, a statue of Robert E. Lee. The groups' proximity to the campus, combined with the area's history in the Confederacy, has caused fear for some students, particularly students of color.
In May, Richard Spencer, an inflammatory figure who helped found the “alt-right” movement -- characterized by its white nationalist views -- led a rally by torchlight in the park less than two miles away from the university, from which he graduated.
He posted photos to Twitter, images reminiscent of the KKK -- one of himself staring directly into the camera, his face lit by the torch he was carrying, another with the hashtag #SaveLeeandJackson.
The KKK has also planned to protest at the park July 8.
Both gatherings prompted statements from the university's president, Teresa A. Sullivan.
Sullivan in May said that while the university respects the right of free expression, the rally clearly meant to intimidate the black community. She said that such intimidation is “inconsistent with the values we profess.”
Recently, she urged the UVA community to avoid the KKK members’ rally -- she said confrontation with them would only feed into “the publicity that they crave.”
“There is irony in the timing of the KKK rally, which falls only four days after Independence Day, when we celebrate our nation’s hard-won freedom and our founding belief that all people are created equal and entitled to unalienable human rights. As a community, let’s remain confident that the voice of justice and equality will drown out the voice of hatred in the end,” Sullivan said in her most recent statement.
A university spokesman attempted to organize further interviews with officials but, citing the holiday weekend, could not find any to speak.
The Charlottesville City Council voted to sell the statue last month, a move to stop honoring the Confederacy. Earlier this year, it approved removal of the statue, sparking national backlash among those who revere Confederate history.
Student groups at UVA condemned Spencer’s appearance the park.
The university's Democratic and Republican clubs released a joint statement saying they would stand against racist and white supremacist actions.
“Those who were protesting do not represent the beliefs of the members of our organizations and the ideals we all share as Americans including those of equality, inclusion and tolerance. This heinous attack is directly aimed at minority members of our Charlottesville and UVA communities and is contrary to everything we stand for. The university Democrats and college Republicans will work harder than ever to ensure that hatred, racism and bigotry have no place on our grounds.”
Adam Kimelman, chairman of UVA’s Republicans, said in an interview that publishing the statement together removed partisanship from the equation and represented a stronger stance.
He said though the GOP students have not collectively taken a stance on the Lee statue, many actually felt that the statute should remain because of its historical significance. Kimelman said the cost of removing it also is a factor.
But his group does not support the white supremacist rallies or their message. Though some students have organized counterprotests to the KKK’s, Kimelman is asking students to ignore the protesters.
“We don’t want to give them recognition or any attention,” he said. “They are a disgusting organization that deserves to be relegated to history, and a counterprotest would only increase the likelihood of danger.”
Republicans, even outside the group, have requested that Kimelman make a statement differentiating the GOP presence on campus from Spencer's followers, he said.
The council that represents students referred to Spencer’s ideology as a “disgrace” in a post on Facebook. The rally was “repugnant,” the council wrote, echoing language from Sullivan’s statement, calling it an attempt to intimidate minorities in the community.
The UVA Student Council president, Sarah Kenny, said she was pleased that Sullivan had released a statement but called it “unexpected.” Asked if the university response had been adequate, she said the institution needs to “walk the walk a bit more.”
She believes its status as a public institution hamstrings it more so than private counterparts, but said that in the coming year, she expects more attention to issues of diversity and inclusion.
“The spotlight is really on us to not only reject this rhetoric but to go above and beyond,” Kenny said. “We can both respect First Amendment rights and condemn these actions and stand up for an inclusive environment. We have a challenge, but we have an opportunity to keep putting pressure on the administration.”
Tensions have grown on campus throughout the year, not just because of the rallies, both past and forthcoming, Kenny said. The university has seen a record number of hate-related incidents, like the appearance of racist fliers on campus, which happened as recently as April.
A slew of student organizations, many representing minority populations, released a statement and called on the administration to condemn the fliers.
“Our community of trust, like any community, does not function effortlessly,” the statement reads. “It must be actively upheld by all students and institutions at this university. In the same vein, if we hope to root out bigotry from our grounds, then that will require active allyship from nearly every student, organization and institution present.”
White supremacy is on the rise at colleges but largely stems from groups unaffiliated with campuses, according to a report from the Anti-Defamation League this year. By early March, the league had documented more than 100 incidents on college campuses -- 65 from this year. Most were fliers or posters from white nationalist groups that were hung or distributed on campus, the report found.
Students opposed to the white supremacist demonstrations have worked with Charlottesville officials and coordinated with city groups. Some students are working with the relatively recently established chapter of SURJ, or Showing Up for Racial Justice, which Kenny described as far leftist and quite vocal at city council meetings. SURJ has demanded that the council revoke the permits that allowed the rallying at the park.
For the coming rally, some students have signed on to a counterprotest, at which attendees plan to wear black shirts and turn their backs on the KKK -- a showing of disgust for their message, but in a peaceful way, Kenny said.
While Kenny understood Sullivan's request to stay away from the rally, she said some students are fed up with being polite -- they want more action.
"There are deep feelings of pain and fear," she said.
Spencer plans to return to the park for an alt-right rally on Aug. 12, which will also feature controversial alt-right blogger and Charlottesville resident Jason Kessler.
Spencer has spoken at a number of colleges, including Texas A&M University last year. To counter, the institution organized an event at the same time at his talk. Notably, Spencer also addressed Auburn University’s campus earlier this year. The university tried to block him, citing safety concerns, but the student who had paid for Spencer to use Auburn’s facilities secured a court order allowing Spencer to speak.