Tension in Charlottesville continued Tuesday morning as a North Carolina man carrying a Confederate flag and with a semi-automatic rifle slung over his shoulder stood vigil at the foot of the Robert E. Lee statue at Emancipation Park, drawing an angry crowd.
The statue — and the effort to remove it — has been the focal point of increasing unrest that came to a head Saturday when a car crashed into a crowd and killed a woman following clashes between white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups and protesters.
Allen Armentrout said he came to Charlottesville to honor and defend the Confederate general, but said he completely disagrees with the views expressed at the weekend’s Unite the Right rally and condemned the events that resulted in the death of 32-year-old Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer.
Once word got out that Armentrout was standing in Emancipation Park with a Confederate flag and a gun just two days after Heyer’s death, several people rushed to confront him.
As the crowd grew, so did the anger and frustration.
Signs with Heyer’s name rested at the foot of the statue as residents shouted at Armentrout, standing just feet away.
“I couldn’t believe he was here,” said Kate Fraliegh, a city resident who showed up at the park on Tuesday. “After all that’s gone on in the city, how insulting, how rude, how dangerous, how incompetent, how foolish for him to come here and show a flag that was treasonous in its time supporting slavery. People in those days may have thought it was patriotic, but it certainly isn’t patriotic anymore.”
Several people stood in front of Armentrout chanting “Racist go home,” “terrorist go home,” and “tear it down” in reference to the statue.
Charlottesville City Council approved removing the statue from Emancipation Park, then known as Lee Park, with a 3-2 vote in April. A lawsuit was filed the next month to prevent the removal of the Lee statue.
Some confronted Armentrout directly, giving him the finger as he occasionally saluted the statue and looked straight ahead. Some told him Heyer’s blood is on his hands for supporting the Confederate symbols, and that his presence was unwanted as they tried to mourn her loss.
A few Charlottesville police officers responded as the crowd continued to grow, monitoring the situation until they asked Armentrout if he would like leave. He agreed and was escorted back to his vehicle, Lt. Steve Upman said in an email.
Before the crowd arrived, Armentrout said he came to Charlottesville to let people know there are people who are not white supremacists who support the Confederacy and Lee. Many Confederate flags were visible Saturday in Emancipation Park before an unlawful assembly was declared, as well as during the July 8 Ku Klux Klan rally.
“It hurts my heart that people come out here and misappropriate Robert E. Lee and the Confederate flag for their personal agendas,” he said. “I’m out here to honor my ancestors and honor the men who died under the command of Robert E. Lee, and I think me being out here shows that I hope to accomplish the fact that the world can see that there’s non-racist pro-Confederate people out there that love freedom and independence.”
Armentrout said he was ashamed of what he saw unfold in Charlottesville on Saturday, and hopes James Alex Fields Jr., the man charged with ramming his car into a crowd of people that killed Heyer and injured 19 others, serves time.
One of the very first people to directly confront Armentrout was city resident Peter Norton, who for several minutes talked with him.
“I don’t like people walking around in parks in my town with automatic weapons,” he said. “I’m also, though, a person who doesn’t think we solve problems with angry attacks, so I thought I’d begin by listening at least.”
After the two finished talking and Norton walked away, he said he believes it’s worth talking to those with whom you disagree in order to understand them.
“[Martin Luther] King [Jr.] demonstrated the power of nonviolence, the possibility of reconciliation, the possibility of redemption, and I think deep underneath the warped, mentally afflicted perverted views that we’ve seen expressed here this weekend, somewhere under that mud there’s a decent human being, and I don’t think we’ll reach them unless we try listening,” he said.
“Now, to be fair, if this had been one of those more outrageously Nazi, hate Jews type thing, I wouldn’t have bothered because I know you can’t reach such a person. But this guy seemed like he was willing to listen and be listened to.”