White nationalists rallied at a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on Friday. Student protesters resisting the rally stood with a banner at the foot of the statue.
A month after a Ku Klux Klan rally here ended with the police using tear gas on protesters, Charlottesville is bracing for a weekend of white nationalist demonstrations and counterprotests, and suddenly this tranquil college town feels like a city under siege.
Thousands of people — many from out of town — are expected to descend on the city to either protest or participate in a “Unite the Right” rally on Saturday convened by white nationalists who oppose a plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, from a city park.
“People are angry, they’re scared, they’re hurt, they’re confused,” said the Rev. Seth Wispelwey of the local United Church of Christ. “White supremacists rallying in our town is an act of violence.”
Late Friday night, several hundred torch-bearing men and women marched on the main quadrangle of the University of Virginia’s grounds, shouting, “You will not replace us,” and “Jew will not replace us.” They walked around the Rotunda, the university’s signature building, and to a statue of Thomas Jefferson, where a group of counterprotesters were gathered, and a brawl ensued. At least one person was led away in handcuffs by the police.
In a Facebook post, Charlottesville’s mayor, Mike Signer, called it a “cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism, and intolerance.”
“I am beyond disgusted by this unsanctioned and despicable display of visual intimidation on a college campus,” he added.
City officials and the police said they were prepared for possible unrest; the Virginia National Guard put out a statement saying it would “closely monitor the situation.” Mayor Mike Signer said in an interview on Friday that he had been consulting with fellow mayors, seeking advice on how to “be prepared to make sure people can assemble and express themselves freely.”
A statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., a Southern city struggling to reconcile its past.
Religious leaders who are planning counterdemonstrations — including a sunrise prayer service featuring Cornel West, the Harvard professor and political activist — have been training in nonviolent protest.
The University of Virginia Medical Center has canceled all elective surgery — standard procedure in preparation for events that could lead to mass casualties. Around town, some businesses plan to close.
“This whole thing feels like the prep to a Wild West shootout where the businesses shutter and the women shoo their children upstairs,” said Phillip Fassieux, 36, as he munched on an egg bagel at Bodo’s, a few blocks from the Lee statue. “This isn’t the wild, wild West. This is modern-day Charlottesville, where we’re supposed to be better suited to engage with each other.”
With the university, founded by Jefferson in 1819, as its centerpiece, Charlottesville is a politically progressive city; nearly 80 percent of voters here cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential race.
But it is also a city steeped in Southern history, one that still wrestles with the legacy of slavery. According to Jalane Schmidt, a professor of religious studies at the university, 52 percent of the residents of Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County — 14,000 people in all — were enslaved during the Civil War. Jefferson, still revered here, was himself a slave owner.
Today, African-Americans make up 19 percent of the city’s population, and gentrification is pushing many of them out, Ms. Schmidt said. The fight over the Lee statue — in a downtown park that was called Lee Park until it was recently renamed Emancipation Park — has opened up old wounds and brought simmering tensions over race to the fore.
Eugene Williams, 89, a former head of the local N.A.A.C.P., served sweet tea on the front porch of his house on Ridge Street one day this week and recalled the days when he was not allowed to dine at local restaurants. He favors keeping the Lee statue because he wants people to remember the Jim Crow era.
“This statue has a lesson to teach us,” he said.
The debate over the statue began about a year and a half ago, when an African-American high school student here started a petition to have it removed. Wes Bellamy, the city’s vice mayor and the only black member of the City Council, took up the cause, and the Council set up a commission. After public hearings, it recommended either that the statue be relocated to another park or that the city add historical context so that the monument could “transform in place.”
Instead, City Council members voted 3 to 2 in April to sell the statue. The next month, a judge issued an injunction, keeping the statue in place for six months.
“Charlottesville kind of made itself a target by deciding they wanted to remove this statue, and by stringing the whole thing out,” said Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor who is planning to give a talk on free speech Saturday as part of a “day of reflective conversation” organized by the university.
Mr. Bellamy, 30, has himself become a target; he said in an interview that he has been receiving death threats. “When you have a black, young African-American vice mayor, in their eyes, who was getting too big for his breeches, they want to send a message,” he said. “They call me every kind of N-word you can think of.”
The conflict drew the attention of two white nationalists — Richard B. Spencer and Jason Kessler, both University of Virginia graduates. In May, Mr. Spencer, who gained national notoriety after the election of President Trump, led a gathering of torch-wielding protesters to the statue, which depicts Lee on horseback. At a Ku Klux Klan rally on July 8, the state police used pepper spray to disperse protesters, officials said.
Mr. Kessler, who organized the event on Saturday and calls himself a “white advocate,” said in an interview that his goal was to “de-stigmatize white advocacy so that white people can stand up for their interests just like any other identity group.”
In the run-up to Saturday, there has been confusion over where, precisely, the Unite the Right rally will take place. City officials denied Mr. Kessler’s request to hold it in Emancipation Park, and instead granted a permit for a bigger park. On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Kessler, seeking to keep the demonstration at Emancipation Park.
On Friday, a judge ruled in Mr. Kessler’s favor.
But if the city seems seized with anxiety, there is also a sense of determination.
“Charlottesville is mobilizing,” said Mimi Arbeit, a community activist who is helping to organize counterdemonstrations. “We cannot allow the rise of white supremacy. Ignoring the Klan in the 1920s is precisely what allowed them to terrorize and murder black people in Charlottesville. We cannot allow that history to be repeated.”
Hawes Spencer reported from Charlottesville, and Sheryl Gay Stolberg from Washington.