CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A vigil was held Monday in downtown Charleston to discuss racism in the aftermath of violence two days ago in Charlottesville, Virginia.
More than 150 people gathered at St. John’s Episcopal Church to sing gospel songs and honor those hurt during a white supremacist rally Saturday against the planned removal of the city’s statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Heather Heyer, 32, of Charlottesville, Virginia, died and dozens were injured after one man drove his vehicle into a crowd of counter-protesters. The alleged driver, James Alex Fields Jr., of Ohio, was charged with multiple counts including second-degree murder.
Margaret Chapman Pomponio, one of the vigil’s organizers, said this event came after a group text message.
“Some friends and colleagues and I started late-night texting about bringing a vigil together,” she said. “The truth of the matter is what happened in Charlottesville really could happen anywhere.”
Pomponio is a member of St. John’s Episcopal Church and on sabbatical leave from West Virginia Focus: Reproductive Education and Equality, an organization that advocates for reproductive health.
West Virginia FREE director of operations Caitlin Hays Gaffin said Saturday’s violence “shook everyone up.”
“Of course we know that racism exists in America,” she said. “There have been other horrific incidents, but it’s a scary moment now.”
The vigil was held a day after protesters gathered at the West Virginia State Capitol to advocate for the removal of the statue of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. A small group of people organized next to the rally to advocate for the statue’s continued presence.
West Virginia Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, the only Jewish member of the West Virginia Legislature, was one person who addressed the audience. State Senator Glen Jeffries, D-Putnam, was seated near Pushkin.
“(Saturday’s rally) was a real, ugly underbelly that had been stirring in this country for a very long time,” he said. “While some people might say they were there to protect their heritage, these were not a group of historians that descended upon Charlottesville.”
Pushkin added President Donald Trump’s reaction Saturday was disappointing.
“It was a white-nationalist, terrorist group, and they came to Charlottesville to scare the people, they came to provoke the problem and they came to cause what they did and they murdered somebody,” he said. “I can’t say that I’m surprised to see this president respond so slowly because there is something about his campaign that targeted immigrants. A campaign that targeted Mexicans. A campaign that targeted women, people of color.”
Trump denounced violence on “many sides” when addressing reporters Saturday, not explicitly referencing any group involved in the rally. He condemned white supremacist groups Monday afternoon.
“Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” the president said Monday afternoon.
When asked by CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta why it took him two days to clarify his remarks, Trump called the news organization “fake news.”
“Made additional remarks on Charlottesville and realize once again that the #Fake News Media will never be satisfied…truly bad people!” the president tweeted Monday night.
Made additional remarks on Charlottesville and realize once again that the #Fake News Media will never be satisfied…truly bad people!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 14, 2017
Pomponio said while she appreciated Trump’s afternoon comments regarding Saturday, she was concerned why it took him so long to call out white supremacy groups.
“He is a man of many words,” she said. “He uses Twitter all day long.”
Rev. Ron English said what should follow Saturday is an opportunity to address racial issues in the United States.
“That everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced,” he said.
The vigil concluded with participants lighting candles and singing “This Little Light of Mine”
“We are going to stand up and speak out when there is injustice, where there is violence or discrimination,” Gaffin said. “I think it’s kind of been a wake-up call for a lot (of people) who haven’t before been involved in social justice.”