An effort to remove a statue of Confederate army general Robert E. Lee in the city of Charlottesville, Virginia is drawing outrage from white supremacist organizations across the country. The statue sparked controversy in February when the city council voted to remove and sell it and later to rename Lee and Jackson Parks to Emancipation and Justice Parks, respectively.
Surprisingly, Michael Signer, Charlottesville’s Jewish mayor and a self-described progressive, thinks Lee’s statue should stay. As he wrote in a column for The Washington Post, Signer voted to keep the Jim Crow-era monument, preferring to build new monuments to supplement the old one and provide historical context.
This has given him strange bedfellows. Holding torches and chanting, “You will not replace us,” a crowd of over 200 led by Richard Spencer—the famous white nationalist who coined the term “alt-right”—rallied at Lee Park on the night of May 13. The rally came days before Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore issued a temporary injunction to prevent the City Council from removing the statue for six months, citing the potential of irreparable harm to a war memorial.
Since Spencer’s torch-lit rally, Charlottesville has been a flashpoint of white supremacist activism. On May 24, the North Carolina-based Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan applied for a city permit to rally near the statue on July 8. Unity and Security for America, a group organized by Jason Kessler—a blogger who supports white supremacist groups—also applied for a permit to host a “Unite the Right” rally on August 12.
Signer has been navigating a particularly difficult course amid the Lee statue controversy—in part, because he’s Jewish. After he released a statement criticizing the white supremacist torch-lit rally as “either ignorant” or threatening to minority communities “in a way that harkens back to the days of the KKK,” he became the target of anti-Semitic hate mail, voice messages and social media posts. He also drew online attacks from the alt-right after responding to negative messages with sarcasm.
Moment speaks with Signer about his views.
What’s happening at Lee Park?
The city council decided recently to rename both parks. Lee Park was renamed Emancipation Park, and Jackson Park was renamed Justice Park. This is part of a broad package of changes that came out of the report that was given to us by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, which was convened last year at my initiation. It met for about six months, had 17 public hearings and in the end surprised a lot of people by recommending that the statue [of Robert E. Lee] be maintained within the city of Charlottesville no matter what—for reasons that were largely about the idea of adding more history rather than removing history as a way of responding to past racial injustice.
We have made several decisions on city council in that vein.
In your view, what were the Richard Spencer and the alt-right protesting?
I’m not a pundit about the motivations of the alt-right, so I’m probably not that qualified to analyze their motivations. I think a lot has gone into why Charlottesville seems to have become a target for these people. They were obsessed with our Vice Mayor [Wes Bellamy], who sort of became the target of this local alt-right figure. There was certainly this statue decision. Charlottesville is also a great place to visit, so it seems to be this place that alt-right people like to come and have a beer before and after they protest. We have a good strategy in place to keep to the values that have made us such a remarkable, diverse, progressive city, not take their bait and not let them distract us from what we’re so good at, which is being a world-class city.
What is that strategy?
So, for instance, with this July 8 rally that a North Carolina Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan is holding here, I spent the last couple weeks putting together a strategy with our police department and our staff and a lot of community stakeholders. We’re doing a Day of Unity, where our goal is to give very strong alternatives for anyone who is about unity and pluralism and civil rights and music, and dancing and love. We’re really urging people not to engage, not even to go near this event, not to give them the time of day, and not to take the bait. And that message is really taking hold. We’re doing this full slate of activities, including a morning at the African American Heritage Center, this big outdoor picnic and then a free concert at our pavilion, which holds 5,000 people, with musicians and gospel music. It’s going to be a wonderful day. We’re going to take this lemon and make lemonade out of it.
So you’re drowning them out, rather than silencing them.
I don’t know if I’d characterize it either way. I’d say, “doing our thing rather than taking their bait.”
Is it your understanding that most of these alt-right supporters live in Charlottesville?
No, the vast majority are coming here from other places. There have been four or five of these events so far I think, and for the most part it seems like people are traveling here. When Richard Spencer came here, those were people from the DC area. And then this next group is from North Carolina. The Proud Boys were here last weekend. I don’t even know where they’re from.
You mentioned in your piece in The Post that you think there’s value to these statues. Can you expand on that?
Each city is going to have its own approach that will be unique to that city, unique to those stakeholders, unique to the history of the particular installations, unique to their context—unique to their merits and demerits. In our case, we have these two [statues] that have drawn a lot of controversy, and what we’ve heard from many people in the community, and what I believe, is that we’d be better off adding more history, creating a dynamic present that shows both the offense and the response to the offense. That creates a conversation and does not fall into what I think is the concern that, if we don’t remember the past, we’ll be condemned to repeat it. This was something that happened here, we have overcome it and the question is creating a physical landscape that speaks to that—rather than one that just whitewashes or purges it.
What role did your Jewish identity play in your thinking about this—or other people’s perception of your thinking about this?
It’s certainly part of who I am intellectually and spiritually and how I think about learning and healing the breaches in the world and constructive solutions. There’s a lecture that I heard [British rabbi and philosopher] Jonathan Sacks give, where he talked about how this has been the history of the Jewish people—that for every step backward you have significant steps forward, but it’s a very painful, challenging process—but in the end, if you believe in resilience and enlightenment, we do move forward. But we move forward over the past. That’s something that I’m really mindful of as we seek racial reconciliation.
I’ve certainly become the target of the alt-right. That’s been a new experience for me, because I’m just not someone who thinks public figures, being one, need to talk a great deal about religion in public. I wrote a book about James Madison, and figures like him were fairly private about their religious commitments, and it’s sort of like a personal take on the more formal separation of church and state. But I have mentioned here and there that I’m Jewish, and I have talked about it a bit. And these alt-right people, after I was extremely critical of the torch-lit rally that happened here, they combed through my public statements, and they really latched onto me. They sent horrific anti-Semitic texts and emails and letters to my house. I talked in the city council meeting this week about how I received a voicemail on my phone, which was just an audio clip of Hitler ranting about Jews in German. And I’ve gotten extremely anti-Semitic hand-written anonymous notes at my house in the mail. I don’t feel a need to repeat this really toxic garbage, but it was your most tired language about worldwide conspiracies and Israel. It’s hard for me to take very personally, because I think this virus goes back thousands of years, and it just happens to have fastened on me by these people in this particular time. I do think that it’s attributable to Donald Trump’s legitimation of anti-Semitism in public discourse. I think it’s really concerning. I think that it falls on people like me to not be intimidated and to take it in stride, because the ideas are so totally vulgar and discredited that the only way that you could give them any strength is by being controlled by them.
It sounds like you’re a very strong “don’t feed the trolls” proponent.
Yes. Well, but I’ve taken on trolls—in a way that I think highlights my messages and illuminates selectively their bankruptcy. There was this whole media story about “Mayor Takes on the Trolls,” but that’s just calling out anonymity and cowardice. I do that more to make a public point; I don’t get personally drawn into this stuff, because that’s what they want. I also have a deeper comment about intimidation. I think that you’re really seeing across the spectrum in this country an increase in politics of people and groups who seem to believe that intimidation works, and I think we need public officials who are much stronger than that and have a core identity and have a thick enough skin so that they can not only rise above it but illuminate this troll intimidation culture as beyond the fringe. And I just happen to have fallen into that role in Charlottesville.
Should Jews not be intimidated by the alt-right?
Yes. I think that we have a fine line to walk between being knowledgeable and understanding threats and having the information we need about the new bigotry in our politics, but also keeping it in perspective and keeping these groups and these people and their real significance in perspective. It’s analogous to terrorism. They flourish by creating fear in others and celebrity in themselves. The fact is, a lot of these people are lonely, unsuccessful people who are dispersed and who have only found a place where they feel like they have an impact online or in very small groups. They don’t represent a significant infrastructure and we have to keep them in the perspective. For instance, this group that’s coming that calls themselves the KKK—they’re like knock-off KKK. They’re several dozen people from North Carolina. It’s not a strong or robust movement. It’s highly fragmented, episodic and comprised of people who are disreputable and unsuccessful in most other aspects of their lives. We have to take them seriously, but also keep this in perspective.
Do you think it’s worthwhile to engage with members of the alt-right in discussion or debate, or is that hopeless?
I’m very hesitant to stereotype anybody, including the alt-right. As a general rule, I think debate and reason and illumination are almost always good—for instance, we are granting a permit in the city of Charlottesville to this KKK group. It’s not only because of constitutional principle—because we kind of have to under the first amendment—but when people said, ”Well, why don’t you try to shut it down,” my belief is that toxic ideas are most readily defeated through sunlight and exposure—and that’s an article of faith and first amendment tradition and free-speech thinking in our country. So I generally think that bad ideas become exposed and decay when they are subjected to sunlight, and the facts, and oxygen. There’s probably some parts of what we’re lumping into the alt-right who I think would be fine to debate. A lot of people have told me about Charles Barkley’s interview with Richard Spencer. I haven’t watched it, but it seems to be really effective to watch Richard Spencer make a fool of himself. But that said, I think that there are some components that are so vile and fringe that we’re better off ignoring them, which is what we’re advising here in Charlottesville with this KKK sideshow.
How can we get to a place in the future where this renewed anti-Semitic, racist ideology will be transformed into something productive?
I think this conversation is part of it. I believe that the more toxic and off-putting the extreme position is in a society based on enlightenment values, reason and rights, the counter reactions will constitute the next wave of progress. So, just like you saw the presidency of Barack Obama come out of the defeat and incompetence of the George W. Bush presidency, you’re going to see something else come out of this particularly undignified moment in American politics.