Corey Stewart, a Republican gubernatorial candidate and Prince William County Board of Supervisors chairman, organized a rally in front of Charlottesville City Hall Tuesday to protest the recent vote to remove the Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee from Lee Park.
Stewart said he began planning this rally shortly after he was “mobbed” by protesters in Lee Park on Feb. 11. Stewart had previously traveled to Charlottesville to speak against the removal of the Lee statue the weekend after the vote, but was met with dozens of protesters in favor of removing the Confederate monument.
Protesters could be heard chanting, “white supremacy has got to go!” in a Facebook Live video Stewart posted on his campaign page Feb. 11.
Stewart said he believes Council’s vote to remove the statue is an example of extreme political correctness.
“Political correctness is killing free speech in America,” Stewart said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily Tuesday. “This decision by the Charlottesville City Council is the epitome of the badness of political correctness.”
The measure passed by a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Mike Signer and Councilor Kathy Galvin voting against the statue’s removal.
Stewart said he organized the rally to defend Virginia heritage and call the state’s attention to Council’s vote. During his speech, he said if elected as governor, he would support a law to prohibit the removal of war memorials throughout the Commonwealth.
“I’m hoping to engage more and more citizens to oppose this political correct madness and I hope to pressure the City Council to reverse its decision,” Stewart said. “I hope also to gather support for legislation which I intend to sign as Governor, to prohibit any locality from removing a war memorial whenever it was erected.”
Stewart said this rally is related to his campaign because it shows many of his principles.
“I want to demonstrate that I’ve got courage and that I’m willing to stand up for Virginia’s heritage,” Stewart said. “I hope that people will respect that and vote for me.”
At the rally, three speakers spoke before Stewart took the stage.
Among the speakers was local blogger Jason Kessler, who has entered the public spotlight in recent months with a campaign to recall Charlottesville Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy from City Council following revelations of numerous profane tweets in Bellamy’s past. Bellamy has since apologized for the tweets and some community members have alleged Kessler is pursuing a white supremacist agenda in his efforts to remove the only African-American member of Council. Kessler, however, has disputed this characterization.
Kessler has been a vocal critic of the Council’s decision to remove the statues and also founded Unity and Security for America, a conservative political group that describes itself as “dedicated to defending Western Civilization.”
Unity and Security for America Secretary Isaac Smith also spoke before Stewart. Smith said he is working for Stewart’s campaign.
The third speaker was Thaddeus Dionne Alexander an African-American veteran whose November 2016 video criticizing anti-Trump protesters went viral.
The speakers expressed their opposition to the Council’s decision and voiced their support for Stewart’s gubernatorial campaign.
About 50 people attended the rally. Most attended to protest the statue’s removal, and many attended to show their support for Stewart. Attendees held signs saying “Hands off our monuments,” “Honor all veterans,” “Confederate history matters” and “Save Lee Park,” along with signs with Stewart’s campaign logo.
Teresa Wells, of Carson, Va. attended the rally to express support both for the cause and for Stewart’s candidacy.
“I support Corey Stewart and my heritage,” Wells said. “It’s part of history, just like every other war. I want this history to be saved for my children and my grandchildren.”
G. Ashleigh Moody III, who traveled from Petersburg, Va. to attend the rally, also opposes the Council’s decision. He said he believes it is important for Virginians to preserve their heritage.
“This is like cultural vandalism, destroying statues,” Moody said. “ISIS does this, destroying things they don’t like. The cultural hurt the opposition talks about is learned. They had to be taught it was bad, and that’s wrong.”
Community member Nidhiam Haas said she has not decided which candidate she will support in the primaries, but came in support of leaving the statue of Lee in the park.
“I feel strongly about freedom of speech,” Haas said. “It’s important for us to honor the promises to Confederates ... I want to honor and respect Civil War history, so people know they can trust us and we’ll honor our promises.”
Throughout the rally, there was a group of around 15 counter-protesters. Some argued with the speakers, while others held signs and remained silent.
Caroline Bertrand, a French immigrant and community member, said she participated in the counter-protest because of Stewart’s position on immigration in Prince William County.
Stewart has supported stricter enforcement of federal immigration laws and policies in the county, including a law implemented in 2008 that required police to inquire into the immigration status of detained persons when police had probable cause for believing they were in the country illegally. The controversial law was later amended to require an inquiry into the status of any people taken into custody by county police.
“I’m protesting for the rights of immigrants, because I don’t want Stewart to have a wider platform,” Bertrand said.
A study conducted by the University’s Center for Survey Research and the Police Executive Research Form estimates Prince William County’s crackdown on illegal immigration resulted in between 1,000 and 5,000 illegal immigrants leaving the county in the two years after the law took effect.
Sophie Webb, a counter-protester and community member, said she came to support the decision to remove the statue because she wants to see change in the dialogue surrounding Charlottesville history.
“I believe we need to reassess the way we talk about race and history in Charlottesville,” Webb said. “I agree with the decision of the Blue Ribbon Commission, I believe it was the best option, so I’m here to give my support to the City Council.”
The city is currently anticipating a potential lawsuit over the statue’s future removal from Lee Park.