CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — It started with threats, taunting and racial slurs, and escalated to total pandemonium — hand-to-hand combat in the streets of Charlottesville.
White nationalists and counter-demonstrators threw punches, screamed, set off smoke bombs. They hurled water bottles, balloons of paint, containers full of urine. They unleashed chemical sprays. Some waved Confederate flags. Others burned them.
I watched, notebook in hand, as people gasped for breath and clutched at their swollen eyes, burning from pepper spray or mace.
The throngs of Ku Klux Klan members, skinheads and various white nationalist factions came to town ostensibly to protest the taking down of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park, as President Donald Trump emphasized Tuesday. But the event was about much more than that, as exposed the night before when angry white men marched with torches across the University of Virginia chanting “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us.”
Coverage of the Charlottesville attack:
During Saturday’s march, many were heavily armed. Some flew Nazi flags. They hurled racial slurs at counter-demonstrators and gave Nazi salutes.
White nationalist Richard Spencer — who popularized the term “alt-right” to describe the fringe movement mixing white supremacy, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and anti-immigration populism — told The Associated Press that the Confederate monuments are “a metaphor for something much bigger, and that is white dispossession and the de-legitimization of white people in this country and around the world.”
On Saturday, State Police officers lined the edges of the one-square-block park near downtown where hundreds of nationalists gathered waiting for the event to start. Counter protesters and rally attendees converged around an intersection that remained unblocked by barriers or police tape. As the crowd size grew, so did the hostility.
AP photographer Steve Helber and I saw pockets of fighting break out in the chaotic tangle of bodies. People on both sides crashed into on another, threw punches, beat each other with clubs, only to be pulled apart by their comrades — not police. Independent militia groups backing the supremacists stood sentry in their camo gear, holding long guns and staying clear of the fray near the park.
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At one point, a group of white nationalists huddled together, brandishing shields like Roman soldiers as they marched toward a throng of counter-protesters. Police did not intervene.
Screams for help echoed throughout the crowd as volunteer medics bobbed in and out, rushing people to tents at another nearby park where they’d set up a makeshift clinic.
Despite the extended, violent skirmishes, Steve and I never witnessed an officer step in. State police, however, said they made three arrests.
Around 11:30 a.m., the governor declared a state of emergency, the city declared the gathering an unlawful assembly and bullhorn-wielding officers ordered the crowd to disperse.
State troopers donned riot gear and formed a line blocking the park. Inside, officers herded the rally-goers out.
From there, though, we watched confusion take hold.
Rally organizers told attendees to go home, but bands of people on both sides still roamed through the city. At one point, a rumor spread that the nationalists planned to attack a housing project, so some counter-protesters took off in that direction.
Chief Al Thomas told reporters it took an hour to “secure the streets.” But it’s not clear what “secure” meant on Saturday.
About 1:30 p.m., on a main street south of the park, bands of counter-demonstrators converged for what felt like a victory march. No police were visible to direct traffic or accompany the crowd.
The counter-demonstrators cheered, waved flags and banners, snapped photos and smiled, perhaps for the first time all day.
“Whose streets? Our streets!” they bellowed.
Then I heard the sound of squealing tires — and screams.
A car had plowed into the group, hurling bodies in the air, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. All of us nearby scrambled backward for safety or ran to help the injured.
Asked later why the street crossing was open, Thomas said he wasn’t sure if it was.
After the shocking violence, people on both sides and some former law enforcement officials have questioned why police didn’t do more.
Officials, including Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, have defended law enforcement’s response, saying they faced a difficult situation and had to show restraint because the crowd was so highly armed.
But that doesn’t mean the police chief doesn’t have regrets.
“It was a tragic, tragic weekend,” he said.