Statue protest turns violent in Virginia
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Violence flared Saturday as hundreds of white nationalists who had gathered to protest the removal of a Gen. Robert E. Lee monument clashed with counterprotesters, and a car plowed into a crowd, resulting in at least one death and prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency.
Shortly after the white nationalists were dispersed from a city park in Charlottesville, the car slammed into some counterprotesters near a downtown mall, killing a 32-year-old woman, Police Chief Al Thomas said. Some 35 people were injured, at least 19 of them because the car hit them, according to a spokesman for the University of Virginia Medical Center.
Witnesses said the gray sports car accelerated toward people moving along Fourth Street, near the mall. The impact hurled at least two people into the air.
“It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Robert Armengol, who was at the scene reporting for a podcast he hosts with students at the University of Virginia. “After that it was pandemonium. The car hit reverse and sped, and everybody who was up the street in my direction started running.”
The car’s driver was later
identified by police as James Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio. Police said Fields, 20, has been charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and one count related to leaving the scene of an accident. A bond hearing is scheduled for Monday.
The Justice Department announced Saturday night that it was opening a civilrights investigation related to the vehicle death.
Also, Saturday afternoon, a Virginia State Police helicopter crashed near a golf course and burst into flames. State police officials said in a statement that the helicopter was “assisting public safety resources with the ongoing situation” when it crashed in a wooded area. The pilot, Lt. H. Jay Cullen, 48, of Midlothian, Va., and Trooper-pilot Berke M.M. Bates of Quinton, Va., died at the scene.
President Donald Trump mentioned the Charlottesville violence during a late-afternoon news conference held to discuss veterans health care. From his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., Trump said he was closely following the events in Charlottesville.
“The hate and the division must stop and must stop right now,” Trump said. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides.”
After calling for the “swift restoration of law and order,” he called for unity among Americans of “all races, creeds and colors.”
His comments drew swift reactions. Democrats and some Republicans called on him to specifically denounce white supremacy and racially motivated hate.
“POTUS needs to speak out against the poisonous resurgence of white supremacy. There are not “many sides” here, just right and wrong,” U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in a Twitter post.
Similarly, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a Twitter post, “Very important for the nation to hear potus describe events in #Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by #whitesupremacists.”
Vice President Mike Pence supported the president’s speech, saying on Twitter, “As POTUS Trump said, ‘We have to come together as Americans with love for our nation … & true affection for each other.’”
MARCH TURNS VIOLENT
The Charlottesville demonstration, which organizers and critics said was the largest gathering of white nationalists in recent years, was organized to protest the planned removal of Lee’s statue from a city park that once bore his name but is now named Emancipation Park.
Lee, who was born in Virginia, commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War.
The events in Charlottesville began Fright night with a march by white nationalists on the campus of the University of Virginia.
One of the marchers wore an “Arkansas Engineering” shirt and held a lighted tiki torch. In a tweet Saturday that included a photo of that marcher, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville Chancellor Joe Steinmetz said UA values freedom of speech but condemns “hatred, violence & white supremacy.”
“Diversity & inclusion are @Uarkansas values,” he wrote in a Twitter post. “Not this.”
In a statement on its Facebook page, the UA College of Engineering said, “While we cannot control what someone buys or wears, we will stand strong on our values and will continue to support all students regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Saturday morning started peacefully in Charlottesville. The white nationalist protesters gathered in McIntire Park, outside downtown.
Counterdemonstrators — including Harvard University professor and political activist Cornel West — gathered at the historically black First Baptist Church near campus. West addressed the group at a sunrise prayer service, saying he was present “bearing witness to love and justice in the face of white supremacy.”
At McIntire Park, the white nationalists waved Confederate flags and other banners. As a photographer took pictures, one of them identified himself as Ted and indicated he didn’t mind his picture being taken, saying he might want to run for political office some day. He said he was from Missouri and “tired of seeing white people pushed around.”
By 11 a.m., both groups had made their way to Emancipation Park, and the scene exploded into taunting, shoving and outright brawling.
Waving Confederate flags, chanting Nazi-era slogans, wearing helmets, and carrying shields and torches, the white nationalists converged on the Lee statue and began chanting phrases like “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.”
Then, hundreds of counterprotesters — including religious leaders, Black Lives Matter activists and anti-fascist groups known as “antifa” — surrounded the white nationalists, singing spirituals, chanting and carrying their own signs.
Barricades encircling the park and separating the two groups began to fall, and police temporarily retreated. People were seen clubbing one another in the streets, and pepper spray filled the air.
Declaring the gathering an unlawful assembly, police cleared the area before noon, and Virginia National Guard troops arrived as officers began arresting some people who remained. Fears lingered that the melee would start again nearby, as demonstrators dispersed into smaller groups.
After the white nationalists had left, and a crowd of counterdemonstrators was moving jubilantly near the mall, the gray sports car accelerated into the crowd.
Within an hour, government leaders — including Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. — had condemned the violence. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Justice Department agents would support local and state officials in investigating the melee.
“This kind of violence is totally contrary to American values and can never be tolerated,” Sessions said in a statement.
After the white nationalists’ rally, its organizer, Jason Kessler, who calls himself a “white advocate,” complained in an interview that his group had been “forced into a very chaotic situation.” He added, “The police were supposed to be there protecting us, and they stood down.”
BRACING FOR TROUBLE
The white nationalists’ Charlottesville protest, billed as a “Unite the Right” rally, was the culmination of a year and a half of debate in Charlottesville over the Lee statue. The movement to remove it began when a black high school student in the city started a petition.
The City Council voted 3-2 in April to sell the statue, but a judge issued an injunction temporarily stopping it.
As controversy over the statue intensified, the city braced for trouble. On Friday night, hundreds of white nationalists marched on the picturesque grounds of the University of Virginia, which was founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson. The group included prominent white nationalist figures like Richard Spencer and David Duke, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
“We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back,” Duke told reporters Saturday. Many of the white nationalist protesters carried Trump campaign signs.
Duke lambasted Trump later in the day after the president condemned Saturday’s violence.
University officials said one person was arrested Friday night and charged with assault and disorderly conduct, and several others were injured. Among those injured was a university police officer hurt while making the arrest, the university said in a statement.
City leaders declared a state of emergency in Charlottesville around 11 a.m. Saturday, citing an “imminent threat of civil disturbance, unrest, potential injury to persons, and destruction of public and personal property.”
McAuliffe followed with his own declaration an hour later.
“I am disgusted by the hatred, bigotry and violence these protesters have brought to our state over the past 24 hours,” he said in a statement.
A car sends people flying Saturday as it plows into a crowd marching in protest against white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va. The driver was arrested, officials said.
A white nationalist demonstrator joins the protest Saturday morning at a Charlottesville, Va., park formerly named for Robert E. Lee but now called Emancipation Park.
White nationalists clash with counterprotesters Saturday in a Charlottesville, Va., street.
Torch-bearing white nationalists gather around a statue of Robert E. Lee during a demonstration Friday night in Charlottesville, Va.
Authorities work near the scene where a Virginia State Police helicopter crashed, killing two, near Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday. The helicopter was monitoring the protests.