GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Large crowds gathered at rallies in West Michigan cities Sunday to denounce the white supremacists who converged on Charlottesville, Virginia and show solidarity with those killed and injured when a car rammed into a group of counter-protesters.
Police stood watch as hundreds of demonstrators filled Fulton Street and blocked off streets to keep the marchers safe as they made their way through downtown and across the Grand River to light candles at a vigil at Ah-Nab-Awen Park.
“No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA,” marchers chanted. “No hate, no fear, everyone is welcome here!”
The demonstrators held signs that read “Love is stronger than hate,” and “Good night white pride.” One read simply, “Understanding.”
“This is not politics … This is just simply about right and wrong. This is a moral issue. When people discriminate against one another because of genetics, because of their race, that’s just wrong no matter what your political leanings are,” said demonstrator Mark LaCroix, who carried an American flag and a flag with a peace sign on it.
Another demonstrator carried an American flag flown upside down, which symbolizes danger or a nation in distress.
Earlier in the day, social justice group ProKzoo organized one of the rallies at Bronson Park in Kalamazoo.
“I want to bring three simple messages, and I need you to repeat after me,” state Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, told the crowd. “This is not OK. This is not normal. We must act.”
A separate demonstration for racial equality had been held in Kalamazoo Saturday.
Witnesses said more than 100 people attended a similar rally at Hackley Park in Muskegon Sunday evening. Other protests and vigils were held in cities around the nation.
It was hard to miss the political message that some brought to the marches. Among the signs in Grand Rapids were some the read, “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA” and “Remove the president.”
“Even though you don’t always see it, there is resistance to the Trump agenda and to the far right,” Phil Snyder, a member the Socialist Alternative of Grand Rapids and organizer of the march, told 24 Hour News 8.
Some lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Grand Rapids, criticized the president for not explicitly rebuking the white nationalists. The mayor of Charlottesville accused Trump on Saturday of inflaming racial prejudices during this campaign.
But perhaps the most the most powerful words spoken at the rally in Grand Rapids came from Tyjuan Thirdgill, a young Democrat from Muskegon. His closing remarks were not political, but rather simple in a time of tragic division.
“Let me tell you something. The color of your skin matters less than what’s going on in your heart. That is what matters,” he told the crowd.
The violence in Charlottesville started Saturday as white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups gathered to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The Associated Press said it was believed to be the largest gathering of white nationalists in a decade.
One woman was killed and at least 19 other people injured when a car barreled into a group of counter-protesters. The man who authorities say was driving the car, James Fields Jr., had been photographed with a white supremacist group earlier in the day. The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into the situation.
Before the walk in Grand Rapids stepped off, some marchers faced off with two men who were wearing camouflage and carrying guns. One of those men, Christopher Gargus, told 24 Hour News 8 he’s part of a group known as the Three Percenters. Gargus said the group’s mission is to protect the Constitution and that he wasn’t at the rally to cause problems, but instead to support the message of equality.
“We care about everybody,” Gargus described the members of his group to 24 Hour News 8. “Because I’m a Caucasian, I’m bald, I’m carrying a gun, people assume that I’m a neo-Nazi, and that is so far from the truth.”
Soon after, things cooled off.
The Grand Rapids Police Department had beefed up visibility and prepared in case things turned violent here.
“If this doesn’t evoke some type of an emotional response, then you probably don’t have a pulse. Because this is tragic and it should evoke something,” GRPD Lt. Terry Dixon said. “But as you work through, as we all work through the pains that are happening there, we keep in mind that this is the result of centuries and centuries going back a long time. So as we continue to work through the issues of today, we are asking to please keep a mindful presence. We can assemble in a peaceful manner and get our message across peacefully.”