CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia – After a morning of violent clashes between white nationalists and counter protesters, police ordered hundreds of people out of a downtown park – putting an end to a noon rally that hadn’t even begun.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency shortly before 11 a.m.
Using megaphones, police declared an unlawful assembly at about 11:40 a.m., and gave a five-minute warning to leave Emancipation Park, where hundreds of neoNazis, Ku Klux Klans members and other white nationalists had gathered to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. They were met by equal numbers of counterprotesters, including clergy, Black Lives Matter activists and Princeton professor Cornel West.
But fighting broke out way before the noon rally, starting Friday night and then again Saturday morning.
Men in combat gear, some wearing bicycle and motorcycle helmets and carrying clubs and sticks and makeshift shields fought each other in the downtown streets, with little apparent police interference. Both sides sprayed each other with chemical irritants and plastic bottles were hurled through the air.
A large contingent of Charlottesville and Virginia state police in riot gear were stationed on side streets and at nearby barricades but did nothing to break up the melee.
A group of three dozen self-described “militia” – men who were wearing full camouflage and were armed with long guns – said they were there to help keep the peace, but they also did not break up the fights.
There were vicious clashes on Market Street in front of Emancipation Park, where the rally was to begin at noon. A large contingent of white nationalist rallygoers holding shields and swinging wooden clubs rushed through a line of counterprotesters.
By 11 a.m., several fully armed militias and hundreds of right wing rally goers had poured into the small downtown park that is the site of the planned rally.
At about 11:40 a.m., police appeared and ordered everyone to vacate the park. Columns of white nationalists marched out of the park, carrying Confederate flags and Nazi symbols, and headed down Market Street in an odd parade, as counterprotesters lined the sidewalks and shouted epithets and mocked them. At various points along the route, skirmishes broke out and shouting matches ensued.
Charlottesville officials, concerned about crowds and safety issues, had tried to move the rally to a larger park away from the city’s downtown.
But Jason Kessler, the rally’s organizer, filed a successful lawsuit against the city that was supported by the Virginia ACLU, saying that his First Amendment rights would be violated by moving the rally.
Tensions began Friday night, as several hundred white supremacists chanted “White lives matter!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!” as they carried torches marched in a parade through the University of Virginia campus.
The fast-paced march was made up almost exclusively of men in their 20s and 30s, though there were some who looked to be in their mid-teens.
Meanwhile, hundreds of counterprotesters packed a church to pray and organize. A small group of counterprotesters clashed with the marchers shortly before 10 p.m. at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson, the university’s founder.
One counterprotester apparently deployed a chemical spray, which affected the eyes of a dozen or so marchers. It left them floundering and seeking medical assistance.
Police officers who had been keeping a wary eye on the march jumped in and broke up the fights. The marchers then disbanded, though several remained and were treated by police and medical personnel for the effects of the mace attack. It was not clear if any one was arrested.
The march came on the eve of the Unite the Right rally, a gathering of groups from around the country whose members have said they are being persecuted for being white and that white history in America is being erased.
The Saturday rally was scheduled for noon at Emancipation Park, formerly Lee Park, home to a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that the city of Charlottesville voted to remove earlier this year. The statue remains in the park pending a judge’s ruling expected later this month.
Many city leaders and residents have expressed concern about the prospect of violence at Saturday’s event.
Saturday marked the second time in six weeks that Charlottesville has faced a protest from white supremacist groups for its decision to remove the statue. On July 8, about three dozen members of a regional Ku Klux Klan group protested in the city.
The torchlight parade drew sharp condemnations from Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer and U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan.
Sullivan described herself as “deeply saddened and disturbed by the hateful behavior”shown by the marchers.
Signer said he was “beyond disgusted by this unsanctioned and despicable display of visual intimidation on a college campus.” He called the chanting procession a “cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism, and intolerance.”