Chaos in Charlottesville
Plans for a right-wing rally blow up as white nationalists clash with anti-racists in Virginia.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — At least three people were killed and 35 injured on a violence-filled Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., where white nationalists had gathered for one of their largest rallies in at least a decade, only to see their event end in chaos and national controversy.
Bloody street brawls broke out between dozens of anti-racism activists and far-right attendees, many of whom carried shields, weapons and Nazi and Confederate flags. One woman was killed when a driver plowed a sports car into a crowd of protesters; he was arrested and charged with murder and other crimes. Two troopers died when a Virginia State Police helicopter crashed near the city after monitoring the chaos.
By the end of the day, top political officials around the nation, both Republicans and Democrats, were nearly unanimous in denouncing racism and the violence that stemmed from the rally, which was called off before it could even begin.
But in a television statement that drew criticism from many fellow Republicans, as well as from Democrats, President Trump blamed the violence “on many sides.” As he did repeatedly during his presidential campaign, Trump
avoided direct criticism of the nation’s burgeoning white nationalist movement, whose leaders have openly and repeatedly embraced Trump’s presidency.
His position drew widespread rebukes. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of Trump’s rivals from last year’s race, said it would be “very important” for the country to hear Trump “describe events in Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by white supremacists.”
Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe was also blunt. “I have a message to all the white supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today,” he said in a Saturday evening news conference. “Go home. You are not wanted in this great commonwealth. Shame on you.”
Saturday’s violence involved political forces that have been building on the left and the right for years, as anti-racism activists and white-power advocates have battled each other — on the Internet and increasingly in the streets.
The original reason for Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally was a battle over Charlottesville’s ordered removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The statue is one of many Confederate symbols loathed by anti-racism advocates but embraced by many white Southerners, who see them as part of their heritage, as well as by white nationalists, who believe in a separate nation for whites.
As the date drew nearer, white nationalists and neoNazis made plans to travel from around the nation to attend and see movement luminaries such as Richard Spencer, who supported the president’s candidacy in 2016 in large part due to his hard line on immigration.
The night before the main demonstration, scores of white nationalists drew condemnation as they marched through the University of Virginia campus bearing Tiki torches and chanting, “Blood and soil!” — an old Nazi slogan — and “White lives matter!”
They outnumbered, surrounded and scuffled with a small group of anti-racist demonstrators Friday.
Saturday was a different story. Before their rally could even begin, neo-Nazis, white nationalists and other far-right figures began brawling with large numbers of opposing protesters.
White nationalists in helmets and anti-racism protesters skirmished, with someone spraying what appeared to be a crowd-control substance at the counterprotesters. Virginia State Police said pepper spray was being released by crowd members.
The violence led officials to declare a state of emergency and shut down the event. Angered, far-right leaders left the area. Some anti-racism activists burned Confederate battle flags captured from their adversaries.
“Up until now, I’ve never had a feeling that my own government is cracking down on me,” a shirtless and damp-looking Spencer said in a livestream video after he fled. He said that anti-racists had attacked him with pepper spray and that he was kicked by police officers.
In a tweet to his allies, Spencer added: “My recommendation: Disperse. Get out of Charlottesville city limits.”
Protesters were jubilant, waving flags calling for solidarity and chanting antiracist slogans such as “Black lives matter!” A man in a clown suit held a poster that read, simply, “Shame.”
Soon after, the driver of a gray sports car with Ohio license plates drove toward a crowd of protesters and accelerated suddenly, plowing into at least a dozen people, sending bodies and personal belongings into the air.
Victims cried out in pain while onlookers howled in shock and ran, yelling for medical help.
Within seconds, the sports car, its front bumper dragging on the ground, sped backwards up the street, disappearing around a corner at the next block.
A 32-year-old woman who was in the crosswalk was killed, police said. She is not being identified while officials work to notify her family. The Democratic Socialists of America said two of their members were among the wounded.
When police showed up after several minutes, they were met with angry cries from some in the crowd who felt the response was too slow.
The driver, identified by officials as James Alex Fields Jr., 20, was detained shortly after and was charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of failing to stop at an accident that resulted in a death. Officials have not given a motive or released his political affiliation, but on Saturday night announced that federal authorities had launched a civil rights investigation into the incident.
Shortly after, two troopers died when a State Police helicopter crashed in the woods outside Charlottesville. The wreckage could be seen fully engulfed in flames in images from local media.
The victims were identified as the pilot, Lt. H. Jay Cullen, 48, of Midlothian, Va.; and Berke M.M. Bates, 40, of Quinton, Va. Officials do not suspect foul play.
In televised remarks, Trump remarked on the “terrible events” and said he condemned “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides, on many sides.”
He added: “No matter our color, creed, religion or political party, we are all Americans first .... So we’re going to get this situation straightened out in Charlottesville, and we want to study it, and we want to see what we’re doing wrong as a country.”
As more reports about the day’s casualties came in, Trump tweeted: “Condolences to the family of the young woman killed today, and best regards to all of those injured, in Charlottesville, Virginia. So sad!”
Leaders from around the country chimed in with denunciations.
“Our hearts are with today’s victims,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (RWis.) said in a tweet. “White supremacy is a scourge. This hate and its terrorism must be confronted and defeated.”
“White supremacists aren’t patriots, they’re traitors,” tweeted Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “Americans must unite against hatred & bigotry.”
“The white nationalist demonstration in #Charlottesville is a reprehensible display of racism and hatred that has no place in our society,” tweeted Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
But Trump’s remarks — especially his blame for the violence on “many sides” — drew particular criticism.
“The violence, chaos, and apparent loss of life in Charlottesville is not the fault of ‘many sides,’ ” tweeted Virginia Atty. Gen. Mark Herring, a Democrat. “It is racists and white supremacists.”
“Mr. President — we must call evil by its name,” tweeted Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.). “These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”
As events unfolded in the morning, rally organizer Jason Kessler blamed the chaos on the city’s recent attempts to restrict the rally’s location, disrupting organizers’ plans.
“There are so many people that have come in, that have been Maced in the eyes, like half of our speakers have been Maced,” Kessler said in a livestream video. “There’s not a … single Charlottesville police officer out there protecting our guys.”
Later in the evening, Kessler disavowed the driver who plowed through protesters but laid the responsibility for harm on the city.
“Charlottesville has blood on its hands .... The police stood down and refused to separate the counterdemonstrators, and now people are dead,” he said.
Fearing more violence, the City Council issued an emergency ordinance to give the police chief power to issue a curfew or restrict people’s ability to gather or drive outside.
At First United Methodist Church, a few blocks from where the car ran into protesters, volunteers opened the church to those seeking shelter, including witnesses who were still shaken.
“It was the most brutal scene I’ve ever seen,” said Izaac Rodriguez, 22, whose friend, Justice, was struck in the leg by the car.
Jennifer Rolf-Maloney, 24, of Virginia Beach, had made a two-hour drive to join the counter-protest. She was inspired by history.
“Back in World War II, the Nazis came to power because people turned a blind eye,” she said. “This is homegrown terrorism.”
A CAR PLOWS into a group of anti-racists, killing one. Two Virginia troopers monitoring events also died when their helicopter crashed.
POLICE force demonstrators to leave the area after a “Unite the Right” rally is canceled amid violence.
NEO-NAZIS, white nationalists and members of the “alt-right,” at left, clash with counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., before the right-wing rally is shut down.