A woman was killed and many others injured Saturday as a car crashed into a crowd of protesters following chaos and brawling at a rally by white nationalists opposing a city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — This college town was engulfed by violence Saturday as white nationalists and counterprotesters clashed in one of the bloodiest fights to date over the removal of Confederate monuments across the South.
White nationalists had long planned a demonstration over the city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. But the rally quickly exploded into racial taunting, shoving and outright brawling, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency and the National Guard to join police in clearing the area.
Those skirmishes resulted mostly in cuts and bruises. But after the rally at a city park was dispersed, a car plowed into a crowd near the city’s downtown mall, killing a 32-year-old woman, Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas said. Some 34 were injured, at least 19 in the crash, according to a spokeswoman for the University of Virginia Medical Center. Several witnesses and video of the scene suggested that the crash might have been intentional.
Later in the day, a Virginia State Police helicopter crashed near a golf course and burst into flames, leaving at least two people dead. The helicopter appeared to have been monitoring the protests.
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Matt Korbon, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, told The Associated Press that several hundred counterprotesters were moving jubilantly near the mall after the white nationalists had left when “suddenly there was just this tire screeching sound.” A silver Dodge Challenger smashed into another car, then backed up, barreling through “a sea of people.”
Police said that an Ohio man, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Maumee, had been arrested and charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and failing to stop at the scene of an accident that resulted in a death.
“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.”
U.S. officials announced late Saturday they had opened a civil-rights investigation into the circumstances of the deadly car attack. “The violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated.”
The planned rally was promoted as “Unite the Right,” and both its organizers and critics said they expected it to be one of the largest gatherings of white nationalists in recent times, attracting groups like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis, and movement leaders like David Duke and Richard Spencer.
Many such groups have felt emboldened since the election of Donald Trump as president. Duke, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, told reporters Saturday that the protesters were “going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back.”
On Saturday afternoon, Trump — speaking at the start of a veterans’ event at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey — addressed what he described as “the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia.”
In his comments, Trump condemned the bloody protests, but he did not specifically criticize the white-nationalist rally and its neo-Nazi slogans beyond blaming “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”
The turmoil in Charlottesville began with a march Friday night by white nationalists on the campus of the University of Virginia and escalated Saturday morning as demonstrators from both sides gathered in and around the park. Waving Confederate flags, chanting Nazi-era slogans, wearing helmets and carrying shields, the white nationalists converged on the Lee statue inside the park and began chanting phrases like “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.”
Hundreds of counterprotesters — religious leaders, Black Lives Matter activists and anti-fascist groups known as “antifa” — quickly surrounded the park, singing spirituals, chanting and carrying their own signs.
The morning started peacefully, with the white nationalists gathering in McIntire Park, outside downtown, and the counterdemonstrators — including Cornel R. West, the Harvard University professor and political activist — gathering at the First Baptist Church, a historically African-American church here. West, who addressed the group at a sunrise prayer service, said he had come “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, who gave his name only as Ted because he said he might want to run for office someday, said he was from Missouri and added, “I’m tired of seeing white people pushed around.”
But by 11 a.m., after both sides had made their way to Emancipation Park, the scene had exploded into taunting, shoving and outright brawling.
Barricades encircling the park and separating the two sides began to come down, and police temporarily retreated. People were seen clubbing one another in the streets, and pepper spray filled the air. One of the white nationalists left the park bleeding, his head wrapped in gauze.
Declaring the gathering an unlawful assembly, police cleared the area before noon, and the Virginia National Guard arrived as officers began arresting some who remained.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, condemned the violence and declared a state of emergency.
After the rally was dispersed, 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.”
Both Kessler and Spencer, a prominent white nationalist who was to speak Saturday, are graduates of the University of Virginia. In an online video, titled “a message to Charlottesville,” Spencer vowed to return to the town.
“You think that we’re going to back down to this kind of behavior to you and your little provincial town? No,” he said. “We are going to make Charlottesville the center of the universe.”
The Charlottesville street fights were the latest in a series of dramas unfolding across the United States over plans to remove statues and other historical markers of the Confederacy. The battles have been intensified by the election of Trump, who enjoys fervent support from white nationalists.
In New Orleans, tempers flared during the spring when four Confederate-era monuments were taken down. Hundreds of far-right and liberal protesters squared off, with occasional bouts of violence, under a statue of Lee.
In St. Louis, workers removed a Confederate monument from Forest Park in June, ending a long battle over its fate. In Frederick, Maryland, a bust of Roger Taney, the Supreme Court justice who wrote the notorious “Dred Scott” decision denying blacks citizenship, was removed in May from its spot near City Hall.
In Charlottesville, Saturday’s protest was the culmination of a year and a half of debate over the fate of the Lee statue. A movement to remove it began when an African-American high-school student started a petition. The City Council voted 3-2 in April to sell it, but a judge issued an injunction temporarily stopping the move.
The city had been bracing for a sea of demonstrators, and Friday night, hundreds of them, carrying lit torches, marched on the picturesque grounds of the University of Virginia, founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson.
Many of the white-nationalist protesters carried campaign signs for Trump.
University officials said one person was arrested and charged Friday night with assault and disorderly conduct, and several others were injured. Among those hurt was a university police officer injured while making the arrest, the school said in a statement.
Teresa A. Sullivan, the president of the university, strongly condemned the Friday demonstration in a statement, calling it “disturbing and unacceptable.”