(Reuters) - The mayor of the Virginia college town of Charlottesville was the target of anti-Semitic tweets on Sunday after speaking out against white nationalists who converged on a local park carrying blazing torches the night before.
Mayor Mike Signer said two protests led on Saturday by Richard Spencer, a leader of the “alt-right” movement, came on the same day the city held its annual Festival of Cultures event, which celebrates diversity in the home of the University of Virginia.
“You’re seeing anti-Semitism in these crazy tweets I’m getting and you’re seeing a display of torches at night, which is reminiscent of the KKK,” Signer, who is Jewish, said in a phone interview. “They’re sort of a last gasp of the bigotry that this country has systematically overcome.”
Signer issued a statement on Saturday criticizing the torch-carrying marchers as either “profoundly ignorant” or aiming to instill fear.
“I smell Jew,” posted an anonymous Twitter user with the handle “Great Patriot Trump.” “If so, you are going back to Israel. But you will not stay in power here. Not for long.”
The protesters converged on Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee Park, where a statue of the Confederate general that the city council voted to remove is located. The city also voted to remove a statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, located in another park. Both changes have been put on hold amid ongoing litigation.
The Charlottesville protests were the latest of several in the U.S. South in recent months over the removal of statues celebrating leaders of the Confederacy, the slave-holding group of states that broke with the North in the early 1860s, prompting the 1861-1865 Civil War.
Spencer, an avowed white nationalist, is credited by some with coining the term “alt-right” to describe online and social media communities on the far right that include white supremacists.
Trump, as president-elect, condemned an alt-right conference in Washington in November organized by Spencer where some attendees gave Nazi salutes and yelled “Hail Trump!” after a speech about white nationalism.
At the Saturday afternoon rally, Spencer led chants of “You will not replace us.”
Later that night, he tweeted a photo of himself holding a burning tiki torch, his face illuminated with the hashtag “torchlight.”
The Charlottesville Daily Progress reported that chanters also cried: “Russia is our friend,” and “Blood and soil.”
Spencer did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Reuters. The torchlight protest lasted only about 10 minutes, when police arrived on the scene after violence erupted, the newspaper said.
Charlottesville police did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Signer said officers would be investigating to see whether any laws were broken.
In recent years, a string of Southern states have moved Confederate-era monuments to museums, an effort that intensified after a white supremacist killed nine blacks in a South Carolina church in June 2015.
Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Calif.; Editing by Frank McGurty and Peter Cooney