CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Workers in Charlottesville draped giant black covers over two statues of Confederate generals on Wednesday to symbolize the city’s mourning for a woman killed while protesting a white nationalist rally.
The work began around 1 p.m. in Emancipation Park, where a towering monument of Gen. Robert E. Lee on horseback stands. Workers gathered around the monument with a large black drape. Some stood in cherry-pickers and others used ropes and poles to cover the statue as onlookers took photos and video. Some of the crowd cheered as the cover was put in place.
“It’s great. It’s a good start,” said Jamie Dyer, who spoke a short time later from nearby Justice Park, where workers covered a statue of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. “They do have to go, but it is a start, and I’m glad the city has finally recognized it has to happen on some level.”
Later Wednesday, local media reported that a man with a gun strapped to his leg approached the Lee statue and began cutting the tarp with a knife.
Police asked him to stop, and he complied. He addressed reporters and bystanders, saying he thought it was illegal under state law to cover a war memorial and that doing so amounted to erasing history.
In front of TV cameras, the man starting arguing with others at the scene over what should be done with the statues and who was at fault for the violence that unfolded at the Aug. 12 rally.
The decision to shroud the statues came at a city council meeting earlier this week. Irate residents packed the meeting, screaming and cursing at councilors over the city’s response to the rally. The event, dubbed “Unite the Right,” is believed to be the largest gathering of white nationalists in a decade.
Neo-Nazis, KKK members, skinheads and members of various white nationalist factions clashed violently with counter-protesters in the street adjacent to Emancipation Park.
The fighting went on largely uninterrupted by authorities until the event was declared an unlawful assembly and the crowd was forced to disperse. Later, a car rammed into a crowd of demonstrators who were marching through downtown, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring more than two dozen others.
The man who police say was driving, James Alex Fields Jr., has been charged in Heyer’s death.
The death toll for the day climbed to three when a helicopter that had been monitoring the event and assisting with the governor’s motorcade crashed, killing two state troopers.
The rally was sparked by the city council’s vote earlier this year to take down the Lee statue. That decision is in the midst of a legal challenge, and a judge has issued an injunction preventing the city from removing the statue while the lawsuit plays out.
A state law passed in 1998 forbids local governments from removing, damaging or defacing war monuments, but there is legal ambiguity about whether that applies to statues such as the Lee monument, which was erected before the law was passed.
A hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 1.
The council initially planned to leave the Jackson statue in place but at the meeting Tuesday took the first administrative steps toward having it removed as well.
In other developments Wednesday, Christopher Cantwell, a white nationalist from Keene, New Hampshire, turned himself in to face three felony charges in Virginia, authorities said. Cantwell was wanted by University of Virginia police on two counts of the illegal use of tear gas or other gases and one count of malicious bodily injury with a “caustic substance,” explosive or fire.
University police issued a brief statement late Wednesday saying Cantwell turned himself in to police in nearby Lynchburg, Virginia, where he was being held at a regional jail pending transport to Charlottesville.
It wasn’t immediately known if Cantwell has a lawyer.
Contacted by the Associated Press on Tuesday, Cantwell acknowledged he had pepper-sprayed a counter-demonstrator during an Aug. 11 protest on the campus of the University of Virginia. But he insisted he was defending himself, saying he did it “because my only other option was knocking out his teeth.” He also said he was looking forward to his day in court.
Lynchburg police, contacted by AP late Wednesday, declined to release further information about Cantwell.
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