A neo-Nazi plowed his car into protesters who had gathered to oppose a white supremacist rally in a Virginia college town on Saturday, killing a 32-year-old woman and injuring at least 19 others.
The bloody day in Charlottesville turned even more tragic in the evening when a Virginia State Police helicopter monitoring the melees crashed miles away — killing two officers, officials said.
The carnage came during a whirlwind 24 hours in which hundreds of white nationalists converged on the home of the University of Virginia — leading to outbreaks of violence and a state of emergency being declared by the governor.
Tensions flared and protesters clashed, culminating in the terrifying moment when a silver Dodge Challenger barreled into a crowd of counter-protesters, knocking some to the ground and throwing others into the air.
“I was standing on the edge of the crowd and I saw the bodies fly,” said Kristen Leigh. “There was a car pummeling through us. … bodies flying through the air.”
The 20-year-old driver — identified as James Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio — fled by backing away from the scene, but was arrested a few blocks away.
He was charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and failing to stop at a fatal accident, authorities said.
Fields was photographed earlier in the day holding a shield aligned with Vanguard America, a hate group that uses the nationalist slogan “blood and soil” and believes the U.S. is for the “White American peoples.”
Fields’ mother said he told her last week that he was going to an “alt-right” rally in Virginia, but she didn’t inquire further.
“I try to stay out of his political views,” Samantha Bloom told the Toledo Blade. “I don’t get too involved.
“I told him to be careful,” she added. “If they are going to rally, to make sure he is doing it peacefully.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced late Saturday that the Justice Department was opening a federal civil rights investigation into the incident.
The lone victim was identified as Heather Heyer, a paralegal from nearby Greene County whose last Facebook message read, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Of the 19 people injured in the crash, five were in critical condition, four in serious, six in fair and four were in good health, officials said.
Some 15 other people were hurt in the brawls that broke out before and after the roadway rampage, officials said.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, in a sharply worded address, spoke directly to the “white supremacists and Nazis who came into Charlottesville today.”
“Our message is plain and simple: Go home,” McAuliffe said. “You are not wanted in this great commonwealth. Shame on you. You pretend that you are patriots, but you are anything but patriots.”
President Trump condemned the bloodshed but drew a storm of criticism from politicians on both sides of the aisle after he failed to call out the white supremacists and neo-Nazis blamed for the violence.
Nerves were strained in the Southern city from the start of the “Unite the Right” weekend, which began on Friday night as torch-carrying white supremacists marched through the campus, near Charlottesville’s downtown.
The controversial event was arranged to “affirm the right of Southerners and white people to organize for their interests,” according to its Facebook page.
White nationalists, neo-Confederates and alt-right activists could be heard chanting “white lives matter” and “you will not replace us.” A few chanted the phrase, “blood and soil,” a well-known Nazi rallying cry.
Among those leading the demonstration were organizer Jason Kessler, alt-right leader Richard Spencer and former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke, who said the large size of the gathering represented how he and his fellow racists feel emboldened under President Trump.
“We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump,” Duke said. “That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.”
The Friday evening march, with its overt Ku Klux Klan undertones, was eventually broken up by police, with both protesters and opponents claiming they were pepper-sprayed.
By Saturday, tensions erupted as hundreds of people brawled and hurled water bottles at one another.
Camouflage-clad men in combat gear, many carrying rifles, shields and Confederate flags, walked in lockstep.
Many in the crowd wore Nazi uniforms or symbols. A few sported shirts with quotes from Adolf Hitler. “One people, one nation, end immigration,” they chanted as they marched through the streets.
The demonstrators were confronted several times by counter-protesters before they reached their rallying point, a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that is slated to be removed.
McAuliffe said he had declared a state of emergency to allow for a response to quell the violence. But police and state troopers in riot gear seemed unprepared for the swells of armed protesters and their opponents.
And then, amid the chaos, a car slammed into a crowd of anti-fascists and members of Black Lives Matter, who were marching against the racist rally near the city’s downtown mall.
Witnesses described utter mayhem as the Dodge ripped into marchers carrying signs and chanting, caught completely unaware.
“I heard the engine rev and saw debris flying in the air. I felt a breeze as he accelerated,” said one Charlottesville woman, who was standing on the sidewalk near the group that was hit but requested anonymity. “People were screaming, people were crying. I counted approximately six people down.
“I saw a lot of leg and foot injuries. (One injury) looked like a compound fracture. You could see the fat coming out of her leg. At least two people unconscious. Just completely out. Done,” she added.
The impact knocked several people off their feet as the car slammed into the back of another vehicle. Those left standing scattered, screaming and running for safety in different directions.
Witness Dan Miller said it appeared the car was traveling about 40 miles per hour when it slammed into about 20 people and two cars.
Video captured what happened next: the car sped in reverse down several blocks, its tires screeching and its front bumper dragging along the ground as the driver tried to flee the scene of the carnage.
One of the injured, Brian Henderson, 40, of Charlottesville, walked out of the emergency room with a limp, his arm in a sling. “I made it,” he said. “I feel sorry for anybody who didn’t.”
In addition to Fields, police cuffed three others during the volatile rally, including two from out of town.
Troy Dunigan, 21, of Chattanooga, Tenn., faces a disorderly conduct charge while James O’Brien, 44, of Gainesville, Fla., was arrested and charged with carrying a concealed handgun. Jacob Smith, 21, of Louisa, Va., was booked on assault and battery charges. It was not immediately clear if the trio was among the counter-protesters or white supremacists.
Few details of the chopper crash were released, but authorities did identify the victims as Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates.
“Our state police and law enforcement family at-large are mourning this tragic outcome to an already challenging day,” said Colonel W. Steven Flaherty, Virginia State Police Superintendent.
Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer said he was disgusted that white nationalists had come to his town — and blamed Trump for inflaming racial prejudices.
“I’m not going to make any bones about it. I place the blame for a lot of what you’re seeing in American today right at the doorstep of the White House and the people around the President,” he said.
Oren Segal, who directs the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said multiple white power groups were involved in the rally, including members of neo-Nazi organizations, racist skinhead groups and Ku Klux Klan factions.
The event, planned to take place in Emancipation Park, was given the green light by U.S. District Judge Glen Conrad after Kessler, a right-wing blogger and rally organizer, filed a lawsuit against the city when officials sought to change the location.
Kessler sued Charlottesville over free speech violations after officials ordered the rally moved to a larger venue because of safety concerns. He organized the march in response to the removal of a statue of Lee.
As the violence escalated on Saturday, politicians and leaders from across the political spectrum voiced their concerns.
“The views fueling the spectacle in Charlottesville are repugnant. Let it only serve to unite Americans against this kind of vile bigotry,” House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted.
First Lady Melania Trump issued a statement of her own.
“Our country encourages freedom of speech, but let’s communicate w/o hate in our hearts. No good comes from violence. #Charlottesville,” she tweeted.
The clashes were the latest in a long string of conflicts that have rocked Charlottesville since the city voted earlier this year to remove the statue of Lee.
In May, a torch-wielding group led by white supremacist Spencer rallied around the statue. Last month, a North Carolina-based KKK group clashed with hundreds of counter-protesters.
Kessler said this week that the rally Saturday is partly about the removal of Confederate symbols but also about free speech and “advocating for white people.”
“This is about an anti-white climate within the Western world and the need for white people to have advocacy like other groups do,” he said.
- university of virginia
- ku klux klan
- richard spencer
- david duke
- charlottesville protests
- melania trump
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