USA TODAY NETWORK, Tennessee
KNOXVILLE, TN — When State Rep. Rick Staples entered Market Square on Sunday afternoon, he said he saw a “sea of people standing here in solidarity.” And, the Knoxville Democrat said, he was struck with an epiphany.
“We are living in and witnessing a dangerous time in America,” Staples, who is black, told a crowd of hundreds one day after the deadly violence that erupted between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, sent shock waves across the nation.
“Am I saying it’s dangerous because of the political rhetoric that has divided our country and spurned on the hatred that led to yesterday’s acts?” Staples asked. “No.”
“ … It’s a dangerous time for anybody that believes for one second that we’re done fighting and the fight is over. It’s a dangerous time. Because we’re standing here together declaring that no more will you stand against us, that no more will you shed blood, that no more will you tell us we’re different. We are Americans no matter how we look.”
Sunday’s rally — organized by the Women’s March Coalition of East Tennessee and billed on Facebook as a stand against “the hate and bigotry of the alt-right, KKK and their supporters” — came one day after 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio allegedly drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
Then, a helicopter responding to the protests crashed outside the city, killing two Virginia state troopers, 48-year-old Lt. H. Jay Cullen and 40-year-old Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates. Both men had ties to East Tennessee.
The speakers at Sunday’s rally included Staples; Knoxville City Council candidates Seema Perez and Jack Knoxville; former city councilman Theotis Robinson Jr., who was the first black student at the University of Tennessee and wore a red “Make America Smart Again” hat; Taylor Prince of the Democratic Socialists of America; and Knox County Commissioner Evelyn Gill.
Attendees listened intently, cheered and chanted, held aloft signs lambasting Nazis and advocating for peace, and sang songs such as “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Overcome.”
A Knox County E-911 dispatcher said there were no reports of violence at the rally.
“Let our voices reverberate across this great nation and say one word: enough,” Commissioner Gill said. “Enough. Enough of the hatred, enough of the racism. Enough. But let me make sure I say, enough of the silence.”
Seema Perez told the crowd she didn’t know what was going on in Charlottesville until she turned on the television and saw “people walking with a lot of anger in their eyes, holding flaming torches.
“The thing that came to my mind was Frankenstein, and who’s the monster that they’re going after? People of color are not monsters. Neither are the people that were there. The majority of them are not. There were people who behaved like monsters, and there’s no excuse for that behavior.”
Few speakers mentioned white supremacy by name. Most expressed solidarity with the people of Virginia and called for unity in the face of hatred and divisiveness. Some, including Staples, took jabs at politicians for not releasing strong-enough statements on Saturday’s violence.
“If you’re worried about what they’ll say about you in the paper on the social media or your next political venture, well maybe you don’t need to be in office anyway,” Staples said.
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett released a statement saying, in part, “Racism, bigotry and violence have no place in this country nor in our political process. The events occurring in Charlottesville today are something we cannot stand for as a nation.”
In posts on Twitter, Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and U.S. Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, both R-Tenn., condemned the violence and shared their support for the people of Virginia.
According to Staples, Sunday’s rally shows that Tennesseans are standing together “to let them know that this will not happen in the state of Tennessee. This will not happen in Knoxville.”
After the rally, as the crowd dispersed, a lone Confederate flag lay on the ground, spray-painted, torn and trampled.