By Joe Heim, Ellie Silverman, T. Rees Shapiro and Emma Brown,
CHARLOTTESVILLE — This picturesque college town devolved into a chaotic and violent state on Saturday as hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members — planning to stage what they described as their largest rally in decades to “take America back” — clashed with counterprotesters in the streets.
As the two sides traded blows and hurled bottles and chemical irritants at one another, police evacuated a downtown park, putting an end to the noon rally before it even began. Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency shortly before 11 a.m., blaming the violence on “mostly out-of-state protesters.”
“I am disgusted by the hatred, bigotry and violence these protesters have brought to our state over the past 24 hours,” McAuliffe (D) said.
Despite the decision to quash the rally, clashes continued on side streets and throughout the downtown. In the early afternoon, three cars collided in a pedestrian mall packed with people, injuring at least 10 and sending bystanders running and screaming. It was unclear if it was accidental or intentional.
Elected leaders in Virginia and elsewhere urged peace, blasting the white supremacist views on display in Charlottesville as ugly. U.S. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) called their display “repugnant.”
But President Trump, known for the rapid-fire tweets that fueled his candidacy and have punctuated his presidency, remained silent throughout the morning. It was after 1 p.m. when he weighed in, writing on Twitter: “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!” He later added, “Am in Bedminster for meetings & press conference on V.A. & all that we have done, and are doing, to make it better-but Charlottesville sad!”
Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, a Trump supporter who was in Charlottesville Saturday, quickly shot back at the president. “So, after decades of White Americans being targeted for discriminated & anti-White hatred, we come together as a people, and you attack us?” Duke tweeted. “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.”
By early afternoon, hundreds of rallygoers had made their way from Emancipation Park — where they had expected to protest the planned removal of a Confederate statue — to a larger park two miles to the north. Duke, speaking to the crowd, called Saturday’s events “the first step toward taking America back.”
“The truth is European Americans face tremendous discrimination in this country — jobs, scholarships, promotions,” Duke said. “The truth is we are being ethnically cleansed within our own nation.”
White nationalist leader Richard Spencer also addressed the group, urging people to disperse. But he promised that they would gather again for a future demonstration, blaming Saturday’s violence on counterprotesters.
Even as crowds began to thin, the town remained unsettled and on edge. Onlookers were deeply shaken at the pedestrian mall, where ambulances had arrived to treat victims of the car crash.
Susie McClannahan, 24, said counterprotesters were marching on Fourth Street when she saw a “silver gray vehicle” drive through the crowd, and then immediately shift into reverse in what she described as full speed.
“Everyone was in shock and all of a sudden we heard people scream get to the wall because the driver was backing up,” McClannahan said. She said those closest to the accident ran to those injured in the street.
“I didn’t want to believe it was real. It was just so horrible,” she said.
Hunter Harmon, 20, saw people “flung” in the air after they were hit by a car and he heard others screaming.
“We were marching and next to each other and all of a sudden I just heard a bunch of bangs and I saw a bunch of people flying through the air and people injured on the ground,” Harmon said.
Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police said there were multiple injuries ranging from life threatening to minor. There were at least three vehicles involved; one left the scene and has been located, Geller said.
Earlier Saturday, men in combat gear — some wearing bicycle and motorcycle helmets and carrying clubs and sticks and makeshift shields — had fought each other in the downtown streets, with little apparent police interference. Both sides sprayed each other with chemical irritants and plastic bottles were hurled through the air.
A large contingent of Charlottesville police officers and Virginia State Police troopers in riot gear were stationed on side streets and at nearby barricades but did nothing to break up the melee until around 11:40 a.m.
Using megaphones, police declared an unlawful assembly and gave a five-minute warning to leave Emancipation Park, They were met by equal numbers of counterprotesters, including clergy, Black Lives Matter activists and Princeton professor Cornel West.
“The worst part is that people got hurt and the police stood by and didn’t do a goddamn thing,” said David Copper, 70, of Staunton, Va.
State Del. David Toscano (D-Charlottesville), minority leader of Virginia’s House, praised the response by Charlottesville and state police.
“Things were getting out of hand in the skirmishes between the alt-right and what I would describe as the outside agitators who wanted to encourage violence,” Toscano said, referring to the counterprotesters.
Asked why police did not act sooner to intervene as violence unfolded, Toscano said he could not comment. But they trained very hard for this and it might have been that they were waiting for a more effective time to get people out” of Emancipation Park, he said.
A group of three dozen self-described “militia” men, who were wearing full camouflage and were armed with long guns, said they were there to help keep the peace, but they also did not break up the fights.
There were vicious clashes on Market Street in front of Emancipation Park, where the rally was to begin at noon. A large contingent of white nationalist rallygoers holding shields and swinging wooden clubs rushed through a line of counterprotesters.
By 11 a.m., several fully armed militias and hundreds of right-wing rallygoers had poured into the small downtown park that was to be the site of the rally.
Counterprotesters held “Black Lives Matter” signs and placards expressing support for equality and love as they faced rallygoers who waved Confederate flags and posters that said “the Goyim know,” referring to non-Jewish people, and “the Jewish media is going down.”
“No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” the counterprotesters chanted.
“Too late, f—–s!” a man yelled back at them.
Naundi Cook, 23, said she was scared during the morning protests. Cook, who is black, said she came to “support her people,” but she’s never seen something like this before.
When violence broke out, she started shaking and got goose bumps.
“I’ve seen people walking around with tear gas all over their face all over their clothes. People getting maced, fighting,” she said. “I didn’t want to be next.”
Cook said she couldn’t sit back and watch white supremacists descend on her town. She has a three-year-old daughter to stand up for, she said.
“Right now, I’m not sad,” she said once the protests dispersed. “I’m a little more empowered. All these people and support, I feel like we’re on top right now because of all the support that we have.”
After police ordered everyone to vacate the park, columns of white nationalists marched out, carrying Confederate and Nazi flags as they headed down Market Street in an odd parade. Counterprotesters lined the sidewalks and shouted epithets and mocked the group as they walked by. At various points along the route, skirmishes broke out and shouting matches ensued.
Charlottesville officials, concerned about crowds and safety issues, had tried to move the rally to a larger park away from the city’s downtown. But Jason Kessler, the rally’s organizer, filed a successful lawsuit against the city that was supported by the Virginia ACLU, saying that his First Amendment rights would be violated by moving the rally.
Tensions began Friday night, as several hundred white supremacists chanted “White lives matter!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!” as they carried torches marched in a parade through the University of Virginia campus.
The fast-paced march was made up almost exclusively of men in their 20s and 30s, though there were some who looked to be in their midteens.
Meanwhile, hundreds of counterprotesters packed a church to pray and organize. A small group of counterprotesters clashed with the marchers shortly before 10 p.m. at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson, U-Va.’ s founder.
One counterprotester apparently deployed a chemical spray, which affected the eyes of a dozen or so marchers. It left them floundering and seeking medical assistance.
Police officers who had been keeping a wary eye on the march jumped in and broke up the fights. The marchers then disbanded, though several remained and were treated by police and medical personnel for the effects of the mace attack. It was not clear if any one was arrested.
Saturday’s Unite the Right rally was being held to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The city of Charlottesville voted to remove the statue earlier this year, but it remains in the Emacipation Park, formerly known as Lee Park, pending a judge’s ruling expected later this month.
Saturday marked the second time in six weeks that Charlottesville has faced a protest from white supremacist groups for its decision to remove the statue. On July 8, about three dozen members of a regional Ku Klux Klan group protested in the city.
The torchlight parade drew sharp condemnations from Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer and U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan.
Sullivan described herself as “deeply saddened and disturbed by the hateful behavior”shown by the marchers.
Signer said he was “beyond disgusted by this unsanctioned and despicable display of visual intimidation on a college campus.” He called the chanting procession a “cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism, and intolerance.”
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