Thousands of white supremacists and armed militia groups faced off with counter-protesters during a violent and chaotic rally that raged for hours in this Virginia city on Saturday, ending the death of one person and forcing the state governor to declare a state of emergency.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) condemned the violence during a press conference Saturday evening, sending a message to the white supremacists.
“Our message is plain and simple: go home. You are not wanted in this great commonwealth,” he said. “Shame on you.”
“Please go home and never come back. Take your hatred, and take your bigotry,” McAuliffe added.
“You came here today to hurt people and you did hurt people,” McAuliffe said.
Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas said 35 people were treated for injuries by city personnel on Saturday, with injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening. Three people died Saturday, including a 32-year-old woman who was hit by a car that plowed into a group of counter demonstrators and two others who perished in a helicopter crash near the protests.
Groups in Charlottesville beat each other with flagpoles and bats, threw punches, chanted slogans and used chemical sprays on each other at a downtown park. Some reporters covering the event also were doused in raw sewage. As police were expelling demonstrators from the area about two hours later, a car mowed down a group at the rally, leaving one person dead and 19 injured, according to Charlottesville officials. Fifteen others suffered injuries related to the rally.
“There was a cloud,” said a witness, who asked not to be named. “Things were flying. Most people managed to get out of the way.”
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Folks said counter protesters were hit by a vehicle as they turned the corner. Medics are here. #Charlottesville
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As the groups came together, they began hitting each other with sticks and unleashing chemical irritants. Some fled the scene, others coughed and cried from the sprays. Two fences and a line of cops helped separate the groups, though police did not immediately intervene in the violence. As more fights began breaking out, police could be seen putting on riot gear. Meanwhile, hundreds more white supremacists joined in the fray, making their way under a banner hung by the city that read “Diversity makes us stronger.”
Those standing on the sidelines were baffled as to why police weren’t immediately stopping the skirmishes that took over the park.
“If this were Ferguson riot gear, tear gas, everything would have been used, there’s a different standard here in Charlottesville,” said Anthony Bennett, a pastor from Connecticut. Unidentified militia members brandishing guns also showed up at the scene. As more fights began breaking out, police could be seen putting on riot gear.
As the scheduled time for the rally got closer, hundreds more white supremacists could be seen marching under a banner hung by the city that read “Diversity makes us stronger.”
Just minutes before the noon rally was officially set to begin, police threatened arrest for “unlawful assembly.” Thousands of people began to disperse, but it wasn’t immediately clear where they were going.
Late Friday night, a white nationalist march at the University of Virginia campus painted a sobering picture of what was to come. A torch-bearing procession of hundreds that included Spencer and at least one man wearing a Nazi SS T-shirt and another carrying a bat, ended with a clash at the campus rotunda where a Thomas Jefferson statue stands. Spencer admitted on Twitter that a group surrounded counter-protesters at the statue.
Counter-protesters told HuffPost that some among their ranks were then hit with some type of irritant ― they claim it was mace, unleashed by the white supremacists. Protesters on the fringe left, who come to these events to battle the fringe right, often try to hide their identities for fear of retaliation.
Some counter-protesters threatened a HuffPost reporter with a gun when he attempted to photograph, from a distance, those recovering from the irritant.
“Don’t make me use my gun on you,” a woman said to a HuffPost reporter, grabbing a holster on her hip.
Punches and torches were thrown during the fracas, but local police eventually dispersed the crowds. President Donald Trump did little to denounce the white supremacists, instead saying that “many sides” were responsible for the violence. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides ― on many sides,” Trump said at a ceremony for the signing of a bill to reform the Veterans Affairs health care system. “It’s been going on for a long time in our country, not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama, it’s been going on for a long, long time.”
Comments from state and local officials addressed the racism more directly.
Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer spoke out against the white supremacists who gathered in his city.
“They do not agree with the rules of democracy and they are on the losing side of history,” he said during a press conference Saturday evening.
McAuliffe spoke directly to white supremacists during the press conference, reminding them that “we are a nation of immigrants.” McAuliffe said he spoke to Trump on Saturday and told the president he’d be willing to work together, despite their differences, to help prevent this kind of violence in the future. “Tthere has got to be a movement in this coutnry to bring people together,” McAuliffe said.
The rally Saturday was thinly disguised on Facebook as an event in support of the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee downtown, which is slated for removal as the city works to respect diverse voices in its telling of American history. It’s part of a nationwide effort to remove Confederate monuments from public property.