CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — A car plowed into a crowd of people peacefully protesting a white nationalist rally Saturday in a Virginia college town, killing one person, sending at least 26 others to hospitals and ratcheting up tension in an increasingly violent confrontation.
The chaos boiled over at what is believed to be the largest group of white nationalists to come together in a decade: the governor declared a state of emergency, police dressed in riot gear ordered people out and helicopters circled overhead. The group had gathered to protest plans to remove a statue of the Confederal Gen. Robert E. Lee, and others who arrived to protest the racism.
Matt Korbon, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, said several hundred counter-protesters were marching when “suddenly there was just this tire screeching sound.” A silver sedan smashed into another car, then backed up, barreling through “a sea of people.”
The impact hurled people into the air. Those left standing scattered, screaming and running for safety in different directions.
The driver was later arrested, authorities said.
The turbulence began Friday night, when the white nationalists carried torches though the university campus in what they billed as a “pro-white” demonstration. It quickly spiraled into violence Saturday morning. Hundreds of people threw punches, hurled water bottles and unleashed chemical sprays. At least eight were injured and one arrested in connection.
President Donald Trump condemned “in the strongest possible terms” what he called an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” after the clashes. He called for “a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives.”
Trump says he’s spoken with the governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, and “we agreed that the hate and the division must stop and must stop right now.”
But some of the white nationalists cited Trump’s victory as validation for their beliefs, and Trump’s critics pointed to the president’s racially tinged rhetoric as exploiting the nation’s festering racial tension.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson noted that Trump for years publicly questioned President Barack Obama’s citizenship.
“We are in a very dangerous place right now,” he said.
Right-wing blogger Jason Kessler had called for what he termed a “pro-white” rally in Charlottesville. White nationalists and their opponents promoted the event for weeks.
Oren Segal, who directs the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said multiple white power groups gathered in Charlottesville, including members of neo-Nazi organizations, racist skinhead groups and Ku Klux Klan factions.
The white nationalist organizations Vanguard America and Identity Evropa; the Southern nationalist League of the South; the National Socialist Movement; the Traditionalist Workers Party; and the Fraternal Order of Alt Knights also were on hand, he said, along with several groups with a smaller presence.
On the other side, anti-fascist demonstrators also gathered in Charlottesville, but they generally aren’t organized like white nationalist factions, said Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Many others were just locals caught in the fray.
Colleen Cook, 26, stood on a curb shouting at the rally attendees to go home.
Cook, a teacher who attended the University of Virginia, said she sent her son, who is black, out of town for the weekend.
“This isn’t how he should have to grow up,” she said.
Cliff Erickson leaned against a fence and took in the scene. He said he thinks removing the statue amounts to erasing history and said the “counter-protesters are crazier than the alt-right.”
“Both sides are hoping for a confrontation,” he said.
It’s the latest confrontation in Charlottesville since the city about 100 miles outside of Washington, D.C., voted earlier this year to remove a statue of Lee.
In May, a torch-wielding group that included prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer gathered around the statue for a nighttime protest, and in July, about 50 members of a North Carolina-based KKK group traveled there for a rally, where they were met by hundreds of counter-protesters.
Kessler said this week that the rally 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 in an interview.
Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer said he was disgusted that the 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.
Charlottesville, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a liberal-leaning city that’s home to the flagship University of Virginia and Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.
The statue’s removal is part of a broader city effort to change the way Charlottesville’s history of race is told in public spaces. The city has also renamed Lee Park, where the statue stands, and Jackson Park, named for Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. They’re now called Emancipation Park and Justice Park, respectively.
For now, the Lee statue remains. A group called the Monument Fund filed a lawsuit arguing that removing the statue would violate a state law governing war memorials. A judge has agreed to temporarily block the city from removing the statue for six months.
On Saturday night, Governor Malloy and Senator Murphy released statements following the events that had taken place in Virginia.
Govornor Malloy’s statement said, “As an American, I am disgusted by the violence incited and perpetrated in Charlottesville. The hatred and xenophobia of white nationalists is sickening, and the loss of a life is beyond tragic. What’s also tragic and unacceptable is the silent complicity from the highest office in our land. This horror is not being wrought from ‘many sides,’ as the President says. It is coming from one side, and the President has never unequivocally denounced that side throughout his campaign or presidency. Instead, he has incited violence in his speeches, sought to divide people, diminished the rights of minority groups, and instigated fear. Compassionate, sensible individuals cannot remain silent in these moments. We must combat this hatred in every form.”
Senator Murphy’s statement said, “What has happened in Charlottesville over the last 24 hours should be a call to action for every American who has grown complacent under the assumption that our nation’s moral arc naturally bends toward inclusion and tolerance,” said Murphy. “Racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia are tragically alive and well in America today. And make no mistake – these insidious psychologies have been given license to be brought out in the open air by a president that openly seized upon these hatreds during his campaign, and continues to traffic in divisive rhetoric and hateful policies in the White House.”
Murphy continued, “Today, every leader of national or local significance must condemn the neo-Nazi rallies in Virginia, and the attack on counter-protesters, in the loudest and most unconditional terms. Ours is a nation whose greatness has been forged in the tough work of binding together peoples of different skin color, national origin, religion, and sexual orientation into one great powerful whole. Silence or weak condemnation will be rightly read as complicity with this newly emboldened racist movement. Further, as images travel the globe of what are reportedly anti-black, anti-Jew militias patrolling the streets of Charlottesville who are masquerading as law enforcement and brandishing military grade tactical weaponry, we need to take stock of whether our laws meet the new public safety challenges that confront our nation.”