The usually quiet university city of Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted into chaos Saturday when far-right extremists gathering for a “Unite the Right” event clashed with counter-protesters, leaving more than a dozen injured and several under arrest.
The melee turned deadly in the morning when a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters, killing a 32-year-old woman and leaving 19 others injured, five critically. The driver was charged with murder in an incident a bystander described as “the most horrible thing I’ve ever witnessed.”
And two state troopers who were part of the response to the events in Charlottesville died when their helicopter crashed several miles outside the city.
The gathering of white nationalists was roundly condemned and a number of politicians called for the events to be called a terror attack. But president Trump drew scrutiny for issuing what some viewed as an equivocating statement that there was “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”
The state of Virginia declared the gathering unlawful and ordered both rallygoers and counter-protesters to “disperse immediately,” but tensions boiled over in the city’s streets well into the afternoon Saturday.
The Virginia State Police posted videos on Facebook of officers breaking up the Unite the Right gathering and counter-protest. Warning: The videos contain some offensive language and images.
One video shows an officer in announcing to milling crowds: “This gathering has been declared as to be an unlawful assembly; in the name of the Commonwealth, you are commanded to immediately disperse; if you do not disperse immediately you will be arrested.” Another video shows some of the crowd.
Charlottesville police reported Saturday evening that 14 people had been injured in the clashes and that more than a dozen others were injure in the vehicle ramming incident that left a woman dead in the city’s downtown. Police charged James Alex Fields, 20, of Ohio Saturday night with second degree murder related to the death.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe referenced two additional fatalities during a Saturday press conference, but did not elaborate on the nature of the deaths. President Donald Trump tweeted condolences “to the families & fellow officers of the VA State Police who died today” shortly after.
Saturday evening, the state police announced three additional arrests in relation to the planned rally, issuing charges of disorderly conduct, misdemeanor assault and battery, and carrying a concealed handgun to three individuals, respectively.
The attempted rally and clashes came after a Friday night march by torch-bearing white nationalists on and near the University of Virginia campus, which resulted in brawls with protesters countering the event.
The Unite the Right event Saturday was supposed to begin at noon, but people both in support and opposed to the rally began gathering earlier and by 11 a.m. two people had been treated for serious but non-life-threatening injuries after an altercation at the city’s Emancipation Park, according to city officials.
McAuliffe placed the National Guard on standby in preparation for the rally, an action he took even before the clashes Friday night.
On Saturday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a statement condemning the violence.
“I have been in contact with our Department of Justice agents assisting at the scene and state officials,” Sessions said. “We will continue to support our state and local officers on the ground in any way possible. We stand united behind the President in condemning the violence in Charlottesville and any message of hate and intolerance. This kind of violence is totally contrary to American values and can never be tolerated. I want to thank all law enforcement personnel in the area for their commitment to protecting this community and the rule of law.”
Charlottesville has become a flash point for white nationalists and protesters seeking to counter them since a city council vote in February to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a park formerly called Lee Park but renamed in June as Emancipation Park.
A group opposed to the council’s decision sued, and in May a judge issued a six-month injunction against the city’s removing the statue while litigation proceeds.
On Friday night, hundreds of white nationalists carrying torches and chanting “white lives matter,” “you will not replace us,” and the Nazi-associated phrase “blood and soil” marched near a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the grounds of the University of Virginia, and were met by counterprotesters.
Police arrived on campus, declared it an unlawful assembly, and ordered the crowds to disperse. University police arrested one person who was charged with assault and disorderly conduct, a university statement Saturday said. “Several other members of the university community sustained minor injuries during the confrontation.”
McAuliffe was direct Saturday night in his condemnation of those who arrived to attend the rally Saturday, telling the group to “go home.”
“You are not wanted in this great commonwealth. Shame on you,” he said. “You pretend that you’re patriots, but you are anything but a patriot.”
University President Teresa A. Sullivan, “strongly condemned the demonstration,” the statement said, adding that the “intimidating and abhorrent behavior displayed by the alt-right protesters was wrong.”
Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer called the event “a cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism, and intolerance,” adding that he was “beyond disgusted by this unsanctioned and despicable display of visual intimidation on a college campus.”
A mass prayer service was held at St. Paul’s Memorial Church on University Avenue that was organized in response to the rally, according to The Daily Progress, a local paper.
Cornel West, a prominent leftist philosopher and political activist, spoke at the prayer service, calling the “Unite the Right” rally the “biggest gathering of a hate-driven right wing in the history of this country in the last 30 to 35 years,” the Daily Progress reported.
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