At first glance it may seem like the crowd at the Robert E. Lee monument on Saturday had stepped back in time — save for the bikers and small plane circling overhead, with the trailing banner in the sky that read: “Richmond, embrace your Confederate history.”
“The South didn’t ask for war,” says Michael Givens, commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “It was a war of invasion. It was a war of Southern defense.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans event commemorates the 150th anniversary of Jefferson Davis’ inauguration as president of the Confederacy. The crowd of hundreds is overwhelmingly male, middle-aged and white.
Givens spends much of his speech disparaging Lincoln, saying he was responsible for murder, theft and arson, eliciting rebel yells and shouts of “Virginia!” Until the wind becomes too much, a massive Confederate flag waves over the proceedings. A black man rides by on a bicycle, his fist raised to the air in protest.
“Nobody here is trying to put anyone else down,” says Steve Gerloff, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans from Mechanicsville. Clad in a hat and tie, he says he joined the group a couple of years ago, but doesn’t agree with some of the rhetoric of the event.
“It’s all charged, and a lot of it is disparaging to General Lee,” Gerloff says, adding that he admires Lee more than Davis, and respects Lincoln. “Davis advocated that guerilla warfare nonsense.”
Karen Cooper, one of the few black participants, holds a Confederate flag. The Chesterfield resident used to be an active member of the tea party, but says she’s “graduated” from it partially because of its reluctance to accept the Confederate flag.
“It’s hypocritical to hate the Confederate flag when slavery happened under the American flag too,” Cooper says.
Near the end of the event, Chris Van Tassell stands next to the color guard. He holds a sign expressing that he’s glad the “rebel traitors” lost. A member of the color guard starts shouting in Van Tassell’s face, and a police officer asks him to move to the sidewalk to keep the peace.
“I’d kick your ass if I came over there!” a spectator shouts.
A few members of the crowd, wearing aviator sunglasses, glare at Van Tassell.
“I’m in support of the United States of America, the same country that their ancestors fought against,” says Van Tassell, adding that he too had Confederate ancestors. An older man approaches Van Tassell, and the two politely discuss the Civil War.
A man walking by shouts, “Why don’t you go back where you come from?”
“I live here,” Van Tassell responds.