Local civil rights leaders denounce Charlottesville rally, demand change

FILE - In this Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, file photo, white nationalist demonstrators walk into the entrance of Lee Park surrounded by counter demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va. People are using social media to identify and shame white nationalists who attended this past weekend’s gathering in Charlottesville. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Ray Rickman says he sent a letter to the governor of Viriginia Monday that he wishes he sent last week.

“I suggested to him that he give Robert E. Lee, the statue, to the people organizing the rally,” Rickman said in an interview with Eyewitness News. “That, or put it in a museum where people can see it.”

Rickman, a long-time civil rights activist and former lawmaker who just opened a black history exhibit in downtown Providence, says there was nothing surprising to him about the violent, racist clashes in Charlottesville over the weekend.

“I don’t know what’s the saddest,” Rickman said. “That this type of activity continues in this nation, or that people are surprised every time it happens.”

White supremacist groups including neo-Nazis and members of the KKK gathered for the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, garnering counter-protests that resulted in the death of a young woman when a car barreled through protesters in the street. Two state police troopers also died in a helicopter crash.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Brother Gary Dantzler, a Black Lives Matter spokesperson. “The country is suffering something really big and bad right now.”

Dantzler said he and other Black Lives Matter members set out to travel to Charlottesville for the counter-protest but lost a bag of cash meant to fund their trip in an unfortunate mishap. He rallied in Providence on Sunday instead.

“I wanted to be a part of history,” Dantzler said. “To defend our country.”

Dantzler was one of many people including Democratic and Republican leaders who expressed dismay at President Donald Trump’s initial statement about the white supremacist rally on Saturday. Trump denounced bigotry and hatred “on many sides,” repeating the phrase twice, but did not explicitly denounce the white nationalist groups.

“The sides are clearly not the same,” Dantzler said. “We stand for justice and empowerment and education. They stand for hatred, murder and mayhem.”

Trump revised his statement Monday, making a stronger and more explicit denouncement of the groups that organized the rally.

“Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs,” Trump said. “Including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists.” He took no questions after making his statement at the White House.

Former KKK leader David Duke, who Trump denounced on the campaign trail after similar pressure, had said the goal of the Charlottesvile rally was to “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.” Duke slammed the president after his statement on Monday.

“It’s amazing to see how the media is able to bully the President of the United States into going along with their FAKE NEWS narrative,” Duke wrote on Twitter.

Rickman said he doesn’t know if the minds of white supremacists can be changed, but he said local leaders need to attempt to stop their actions. He suggested that Charlottesville find “middle ground” in the issue of the Robert E. Lee statue, which is slated to be taken down and was the reason behind the rally.

“Take it out of the public park where it’s honorific, and put it in the museum or give it to them,” Rickman said, although he made his own preference clear: “It belongs in the trash bin of history.”

The debate about what to do with Confederate monuments is taking place in cities all over the South.

The events in Charlottesville have also sparked concern about a scheduled right-wing “Free Speech Rally” in Boston on Saturday, which many fear could be attended by white supremacy groups.

“Boston does not welcome you here,” Democratic Mayor Marty Walsh said in a news conference on Monday, joined by Republican Governor Charlie Baker. “Boston does not want you here, Boston rejects your message.”

On its Facebook page, the group said it has nothing to do with the Charlottesville rally and that it has no ties to hate groups.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 12 hate groups in Masschusetts, including neo-Nazi, anti-LGBT, anti-Islam and black separatist groups. There is one neo-Nazi hate group in Rhode Island, according to the center.