Workers in Charlottesville, Va. shrouded statues of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in black on Wednesday as the city grappled with an outbreak of deadly violence at a white nationalist rally earlier this month.
Workers used ropes, poles and cherry-pickers to hoist what appeared to be a black tarpaulin over both statues as onlookers took photos and video. Some in the crowd surrounding the Lee statue cheered as the cover was put in place.
“It’s great. It’s a good start,” said Jamie Dyer, who spoke from Justice Park, where the Jackson statue is located. “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 Charlottesville City Council voted Tuesday night to shroud the statues. That vote came at the end of a hourslong meeting packed with irate residents who screamed and cursed at councilors over the city’s response to the rally.
The “Unite the Right” event was believed to be the largest gathering of white nationalists in a decade. Neo-Nazis, KKK members, skinhead and members of various white nationalist factions clashed violently with counter-protesters in the street adjacent to Emancipation Park, where the Lee statue stands and where the rally was to take place.
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, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
The man who police say was driving, James Alex Fields Jr., has been charged in her 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 white nationalist rally was ostensibly 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 Lee 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 New Hampshire, was expected to turn himself in on three felony charges.
Contacted by The Associated Press, 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.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.