CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va., Aug 14 (Reuters) - Sandy Cook, a 70-year-old former schoolteacher, bent low in front of the slate “Freedom of Speech Wall” outside Charlottesville City Hall on Monday and wrote a message: “Resist with courage, dignity and purpose.”
Her plea was one of dozens etched in chalk on the 54-foot (16.5 m) wall following this weekend’s violent clashes in the Virginia city.
“This city is not racist” and “Unity over evil,” read two other messages.
As Charlottesville reeled from the killing of a woman during a white-nationalist rally, well-wishers left flowers at a makeshift shrine nearby in the heart of downtown.
Many of the city’s 47,000 residents blamed white supremacists for bringing violence to their normally sedate city, the home of the University of Virginia’s main campus.
“Charlottesville is a very tolerant place, which is why it’s so sad to see this happen here,” said Cook, who now works as a tour guide at Monticello, the former home of Thomas Jefferson, the United States’ third president and the city’s founder.
“I am hoping that more people will come down here and will show that we are not going to let these people take over our town,” Cook said as she gazed at the wall, which bears a carving of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech for all Americans.
On Saturday, violence broke out ahead of a “Unite the Right” rally called by white supremacists to protest the planned removal of a statue of a leader of the pro-slavery Confederate army, a symbol considered an affront to African-Americans.
After the melee, as counterprotesters were dispersing, a 20-year-old man who friends say admired Adolf Hitler smashed his car into the crowd, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Mario Jones, the 42-year-old owner of a cab company, said he had been shocked by Saturday’s event, largely because he has rarely encountered racist behavior in the city, which is 70 percent white and 19 percent black.
He said protest organizer Jason Kessler misled city officials by saying the rally was focused on the statue of General Robert E. Lee in a state that has long had mixed feelings about its slaveholding past.
“He started with a focus on the statue and a focus on preserving history, and then when he had the platform, he flipped it to white supremacy,” said Jones, who is black, as he stood outside the courthouse where the driver in Saturday’s incident was ordered held without bail.
Russ Naranjo, 45, stopped to write “Kessler did this!!” on the wall, replacing each “s” in the name with the emblem of the Nazi SS secret police.
“He is a Nazi and he brought this here and then he got in over his head and ran away,” said Naranjo, who works in security.
Kessler was punched on Sunday when he attempted to hold a press conference and was ushered away by police.
On Monday he blamed the police for the violence, saying they allowed the event to get out of control. A spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, Corinne Geller, denied that claim.
Naranjo said the hundreds of so-called “alt-right” white supremacists who attended Saturday’s rally had been emboldened by Republican U.S. President Donald Trump.
“The alt-right has sprung up because of Donald Trump and he needs to do more to denounce them,” Naranjo said.
After being criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike for failing to respond forcefully to Saturday’s violence, Trump on Monday denounced white supremacists.
While many residents and city leaders blamed the violence on white supremacists, some said both sides were at fault.
“Both sides came to fight,” said Mason Pickett, 64, the retired owner of a moving and storage company. “I think if the people on the left would have stood there calmly, the people on the right would not have kicked ass.” (Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Frank McGurty and Andrew Hay)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.