A car plowed into a crowd of people peacefully protesting a white nationalist rally Saturday in a Virginia college town, killing a woman and ratcheting up tension in an increasingly violent confrontation that injured nearly three dozen people.
Virginia state police said two troopers were killed when their helicopter crashed in the afternoon outside Charlottesville. Police said the helicopter was assisting law enforcement officers monitor the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. Lt. H. Jay Cullen of Midlothian and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates of Quinton were killed in the crash.
Tensions in the city intensified hours after the melee when at least one vehicle plowed into a crowd of people gathered in a street two blocks from the park, killing a 32-year-old woman and injuring nine pedestrians there.
The car that allegedly plowed through a crowd of protesters is seen after the vehicle was stopped by police Saturday in Charlottesville, Va. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
A male driver was arrested and taken into custody, Charlottesville’s police chief said, adding a criminal homicide investigation is underway.
The driver was later identified by police as James Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio. Police say Fields, 20, has been charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and one count related to leaving the scene. A bond hearing is scheduled for Monday.
Matt Korbon, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, said counter-protesters were marching when “suddenly there was just this tire-screeching sound.” A silver sedan smashed into another car, then backed up, plowing through “a sea of people.”
People scattered, running for safety in different directions, he said.
It happened about two hours after violent clashes broke out between white nationalists, who descended on the town to rally against the city’s plans to remove a statue of the Confederal general Robert E. Lee, and others who arrived to protest against racism.
Hundreds of people chanted, threw punches, hurled water bottles and unleashed chemical sprays on each other Saturday morning at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
Right-wing blogger Jason Kessler had called for what he termed a “pro-white” rally to protest the city of Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Lee from a downtown park.
Take your hatred and bigotry and ‘go home’
Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, and police dressed in riot gear ordered people out.
At a news conference late Saturday, McAuliffe said, “I have a message to all the right supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today. Our message is plain and simple: go home. You’re not wanted in this great commonwealth. Shame on you. You pretend that you’re patriots but you’re anything but a patriot.”
He also said he spoke with U.S. President Donald Trump and told him “there has got to be a movement in this country to bring people together.”
White nationalist demonstrators use shields as they clash with counter-demonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday. (The Associated Press)
Trump blames ‘many sides’
On Saturday, Trump blamed “many sides” for the violent clashes in Virginia. He said he spoke to the governor while on a working vacation at his New Jersey golf club,
“We agreed that the hate and the division must stop, and must stop right now. We have to come together as Americans with love for our nation and … true affection for each other,” Trump said.
Donald Trump responds to violence in Virginia2:10
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” he said. “It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump. Not Barack Obama. It’s been going on for a long, long time.”
The president said that “what is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives.”
Heavily armed militia members were among those in the crowd heading to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville on Saturday. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters )
It’s the latest confrontation in Charlottesville since the city about 160 kilometres 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 travelled 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.
Between rally attendees and counter-protesters, authorities were expecting as many as 6,000 people, Charlottesville police said this week.
Among those expected to attend are Confederate heritage groups, KKK members, militia groups and “alt-right” activists, who generally espouse a mix of racism, white nationalism and populism.
Largest of its kind in a decade
Both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which track extremist groups, said the event has the potential to be the largest of its kind in at least a decade.
Officials have been preparing for the rally for months. Virginia State Police will be assisting local authorities, and a spokesman said the Virginia National Guard “will closely monitor the situation and will be able to rapidly respond and provide additional assistance if needed.”
Police instituted road closures around downtown Charlottesville, and many businesses in the popular open-air shopping mall opted to close for the day.
Both local hospitals said they had taken precautions to prepare for an influx of patients and had extra staff on call.
There were also fights Friday night, when hundreds of white nationalists marched through the University of Virginia campus carrying torches.
A university spokesman said one person was arrested and several people were injured.
Mayor Signer said he was disgusted that the white nationalists had come to his town and blamed Trump for inflaming racial prejudices with his campaign last year.
“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.”
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 a temporary injunction that blocks the city from removing the statue for six months.
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