CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Hundreds of people chanted, threw punches, hurled water bottles and unleashed chemical sprays on each other Saturday morning at white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency and police dressed in riot gear ordered people to disperse after chaotic violent clashes between white nationalists and counter protestors.
Right-wing blogger Jason Kessler had called for what he termed a “pro-white” rally to protest the city of Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a downtown park.
Colleen Cook, 26, stood on a curb shouting at the rally attendees to go home.
Cook, a teacher who attended the University of Virginia, said she sent her son, who is black, out of town for the weekend.
“This isn’t how he should have to grow up,” she said.
Cliff Erickson leaned against a fence and took in the scene. He said he thinks removing the statue amounts to erasing history and said the “counterprotesters are crazier than the alt-right.”
“Both sides are hoping for a confrontation,” he said.
It’s the latest confrontation in Charlottesville since the city about 100 miles outside of Washington, D.C., voted earlier this year to remove a statue of Lee.
In May, a torch-wielding group that included prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer gathered around the statue for a nighttime protest, and in July, about 50 members of a North Carolina-based KKK group traveled there for a rally, where they were met by hundreds of counter-protesters.
Kessler said this week that the rally is partly about the removal of Confederate symbols but also about free speech and “advocating for white people.”
“This is about an anti-white climate within the Western world and the need for white people to have advocacy like other groups do,” he said in an interview.
Between rally attendees and counter-protesters, authorities were expecting as many as 6,000 people, Charlottesville police said this week.
Among those expected to attend are Confederate heritage groups, KKK members, militia groups and “alt-right” activists, who generally espouse a mix of racism, white nationalism and populism.
Both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which track extremist groups, said the event has the potential to be the largest of its kind in at least a decade.
Officials have been preparing for the rally for months. Virginia State Police will be assisting local authorities, and a spokesman said the Virginia National Guard “will closely monitor the situation and will be able to rapidly respond and provide additional assistance if needed.”
Police instituted road closures around downtown, and many businesses in the popular open-air shopping mall opted to close for the day.
Both local hospitals said they had taken precautions to prepare for an influx of patients and had extra staff on call.
There were also fights Friday night, when hundreds of white nationalists marched through the University of Virginia campus carrying torches.
A university spokesman said one person was arrested and several people were injured.
Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer said he was disgusted that the white nationalists had come to his town and blamed President Donald Trump for inflaming racial prejudices with his campaign last year.
“I’m not going to make any bones about it. I place the blame for a lot of what you’re seeing in American today right at the doorstep of the White House and the people around the president.”
Charlottesville, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a liberal-leaning city that’s home to the flagship University of Virginia and Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.
The statue’s removal is part of a broader city effort to change the way Charlottesville’s history of race is told in public spaces. The city has also renamed Lee Park, where the statue stands, and Jackson Park, named for Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
They’re now called Emancipation Park and Justice Park, respectively.
For now, the Lee statue remains. A group called the Monument Fund filed a lawsuit arguing that removing the statue would violate a state law governing war memorials. A judge has agreed to a temporary injunction that blocks the city from removing the statue for six months.
Friday clashes in a city attracting far-right activists
Charlottesville, once home to Thomas Jefferson, is known as a progressive city of about 47,000 people. Eighty percent of its voters choose Hillary Clinton during last year’s election.
But far-right activists and Ku Klux Klan members have come here in recent months, outraged by the city’s intention to remove traces of its links to the Confederacy — including plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The move follows efforts by communities across the South to remove Confederate iconography from public property since the 2015 rampage killings of nine black churchgoers in Charleston by a self-described white supremacist.
Ahead of Saturday’s rally, tensions roiled Friday night as white nationalists — some holding what appeared to be backyard tiki-style torches — marched onto the University of Virginia’s campus.
Chanting, “Blood and soil” and “You will not replace us,” the group rallied around a statue of Thomas Jefferson before they clashed with counter-protesters, CNN affiliate WWBT reported. The group left the university’s grounds when police arrived and declared the gathering an unlawful assembly.
City and UVA officials condemned Friday’s march.
“In my 47 years of association with @UVA, this was the most nauseating thing I’ve ever seen. We need an exorcism on the Lawn,” Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics tweeted.
Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer released a statement referring to Friday’s rally as a “cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism, and intolerance march down the lawns of the architect of our Bill of Rights.”
“Everyone has a right under the First Amendment to express their opinion peaceably, so here’s mine: not only as the Mayor of Charlottesville, but as a UVA faculty member and alumnus, I am beyond disgusted by this unsanctioned and despicable display of visual intimidation on a college campus,” he added.
Friday’s march took place shortly after a federal judge granted a temporary injunction allowing right-wing activists to hold Saturday’s rally.
City officials had tried to “modify” the rally’s permit to move the demonstration from the park with the Lee statue more than a mile away to McIntire Park, citing safety concerns.
‘We don’t want to see a bloodbath’
In February, the city council voted to remove the Lee statue, but that is on hold pending litigation. Two city parks that were named after Confederate generals were renamed, including Emancipation Park, the site of Saturday’s rally.
Saturday’s event has residents on edge, and more than 40 local business owners near the park have asked the city to protect them.
“I have a lot of fears. I think most of us are just anxious, we don’t want there to be violence,” business owner Michael Rodi said of the rally.
“We don’t want to see a bloodbath, we don’t want to see looting, we don’t want to see mass arrests we don’t want to see the police having to turn on citizens,” he added.
Many businesses came together to discuss their rights and how to protect their staff in anticipation of Saturday’s event. Others expect to be understaffed, with some planning to hand out water and sandwiches to police officers.
“If diversity makes you uncomfortable, this is probably not where you want to be” reads a sign that hangs in the entrance of Rodi’s business.
Jason Kessler, who organized Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally, said he doesn’t consider himself to be a white nationalist. But, he said, “we’re going to start standing up for our history.”
“The statue itself is symbolic of a lot of larger issues. The primary three issues are preserving history against this censorship and revisionism — this political correctness,” he told CNN Friday.
“The second issue is being allowed to advocate for your interests as a white person, just like other groups are allowed to advocate for their interests politically. And finally this is about free speech. We are simply trying to express ourselves and do a demonstration, and the local government has tried to shut us down.”