Tension amid peace vigils for US race clash
CHARLOTTESVILLE: The US city of Charlottesville in Virginia marked the anniversary of last year’s white supremacist violence that sent ripples through the country with largely peaceful vigils and other events, but police had a brief, tense confrontation with students angry over the heavy security presence there this weekend.
“Why are you in riot gear? We don’t see no riot here,” activists chanted on Saturday evening.
Shortly before a pre-planned evening rally to mark the anniversary of a campus confrontation between torch-carrying white nationalists and counter-protesters, activists unfurled a banner that said, “Last year they came w/ torches. This year they come w/ badges.”
More than 200 protesters then marched to another part of the University of Virginia (UVA) campus, where many in the crowd shouted at police officers in riot gear who had formed a line.
Kibiriti Majuto, a co-ordinator for UVA Students United, said the students moved to another part of campus because they didn’t want to be “caged” in the area where the rally had been planned.
“How does that create a sense of community? How are we going to be safe in that situation?” he asked.
Majuto said police “were not on our side” last year when white supremacists surrounded counter-protesters on the rotunda.
“Cops and Klan go hand in hand,” he said.
Charlottesville city councilman Wes Bellamy said he tried to diffuse the situation and told the police commander the students were upset by the officers’ tactics, calling the officers’ riot gear “over the top”.
After a few minutes, most of the demonstrators began to walk away. There were no immediate reports of arrests on campus.
The rest of the day had been much quieter.
In the popular downtown shopping district on Saturday morning, law enforcement officers outnumbered visitors. Concrete barriers and metal fences had been erected, and police were searching bags at two checkpoints where people could enter or leave.
“It’s nice that they’re here to protect us,” said Lara Mitchell, 66, a sales associate at a shop that sells artwork, jewellery and other items. “It feels good that they’re here in front of our store. Last year was a whole different story. It looked like a war zone last year compared to what it is today.”
On August 12, last year, hundreds of white nationalists – including neo-Nazis, skinheads and Ku Klux Klan members – descended on Charlottesville in part to protest the city’s decision to remove a monument to Confederate General Robert E Lee from a park.
Violent fighting broke out between attendees and counter-protesters that day. Authorities eventually forced the crowd to disperse, but a car later barrelled into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
The day’s death toll rose to three when a state police helicopter that had been monitoring the event and assisting with the governor’s motorcade crashed, killing two troopers.
Among the remembrance events on Saturday was a “morning of reflection and renewal” at UVA that featured musical performances, a poetry reading and an address from university president James Ryan.
Ryan recalled how a group of students and community members faced off against the white supremacist marchers near a statue of Thomas Jefferson on campus, calling it a “remarkable moment of courage and bravery”.
A group of anti-fascist and Black Lives Matter demonstrators march on the campus of the University of Virginia after a rally to mark the anniversary of last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday.