Charlottesville: violence before far-right rally prompts state of emergency
Violent clashes erupted between far-right nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency.
The unrest came ahead of scheduled a “Unite the Right” rally at the city’s Emancipation Park as fighting and scuffles broke out between the two groups.
Several people have been hurt and there have been a number of arrests.
The governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, declared a state of emergency, while the US president, Donald Trump, tweeted a condemnation of violence related to the scenes in Charlottesville.
The police declared an unlawful assembly alert and a spokesman for the force said the Virginia National Guard “will closely monitor the situation and will be able to rapidly respond and provide additional assistance if needed.”
The clashes came despite police efforts to keep the rival protesters apart following a confrontation late Friday in the University of Virginia’s campus in which counter-protesters claimed they were hit by torches and pepper spray.
On Saturday at the park, projectiles were thrown between the groups and some of those present could be seen pushing and throwing punches, or using pepper spray.
Police in riot gear were assembled nearby and initially stayed back from where the trouble was occurring before making the order for protesters to disperse.
Organizers of the far right rally had chosen the park because of its 20ft statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee, which has been at the centre of other recent confrontations in Charlottesville.
By 11.15am ET, missiles such as empty bottles were being exchanged at the south-east end of the park.
Far-right supporters formed a “Roman tortoise” shield wall at the gate.
Counter-protesters cleared when a gas weapon was released.
Shortly later, smoke grenades were launched from the park into the crowd of counter-protesters.
On both occasions, those in the street beat a hasty and uncoordinated retreat.
At around 11:40am ET, after almost an hour of missile exchanges, gas attacks and intermittent face to face melees, police declared the Unite the Right assembly illegal and cleared the park with riot troops.
Largely the far right groups were compliant, but they were forced to run the gauntlet of counter-protesters as they walked west along Market Street.
After a brief stalemate, a hard core of about 100 protesters relocated to McIntire Park, about two miles away from downtown, and gathered to hear speakers who had been scheduled for the Unite the Right event, which anti-extremists had feared could be the largest such gathering in years.
One of the speakers, Richard Spencer, an “alt-right” activist, said he had been maced on the way into the park and lashed out at police and city authorities.
“Never in my life have I felt like the government was cracking down on me until today,” said Spencer, who was flush faced.
“We came in peace and we were effectively thrown to the wolves.”
He said that “militarized police”, whom he compared to “stormtroopers”, “did not protect us, they funneled us towards the antifa ... I am a citizen of the USA,” he continued. “I have rights under our constitution.”
He left the park soon after with a security detail.
The local rightwing activist and former Daily Caller writer Jason Kessler had organized the Unite the Right event, which had planned to involve speeches from leading “alt-right” ideologues including Spencer, the podcaster Mike Peinovich, AKA “Mike Enoch”, and Matthew Heimbach, leader of the Traditionalist Workers party.
At the start of the day, amid heightened tensions, protesters and counter-protesters had begun arriving in force at Emancipation park.
With a police helicopter buzzing overheard, successive groups of mostly young men, carrying Confederate flags, rune banners, “Kekistan” flags and other racist symbols entered via the south-east and south-west ends of the park.
They then passed through gaps left in the barricades surrounding the protest and the Robert E Lee statue which it claims to be defending.
The passage of the far-right groups was watched over by Virginia state police, Charlottesville police officers, and armed “Three Percent” militia members, who were dressed in fatigues and open-carrying rifles.
Facing them on Market Street were counter-protesters, many marching under the red and black banners of antifascist organizations.
The south-east entrance was briefly blocked by a group of about 20 clergy members, including Cornel West, who linked arms across the top of the stairs to the park.
The Rev Seth Wispelwey, of Sojourners United Church of Christ in Charlottesville, said of the group: “We’re here to counteract white supremacy, and to let people know that it is a system of evil and a system of sin.”
Just before 11am, a formation of around 200 people comprising members of the neo-Confederate League of the South, the Traditionalist Workers party and National Socialist Movement were briefly halted by protesters before moving towards the south-east gate.
One of their number was seen to mace a young female protester who approached the group.
By the time they made it in, there were well over 500 far right protesters in the park, with around 1,000 counter-protesters in the street.
In February, the city council narrowly voted to remove and sell the Robert E Lee statue, and to rename the park in which it stands from Lee Park to Emancipation Park.
This was the culmination of a campaign to remove the statue started by a local high school student, Zyahna Bryant.
It was part of a wave of such removals of Confederate monuments across the south, which began after Dylann Roof massacred nine African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.
In response, last May, Richard Spencer led a torchlit white nationalist parade around the park.
Then, on 8 July, about 50 members of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in the park, and were greeted by around 1,000 counter-protesters.
The day ended in turmoil after police used tear gas on some counter-protesters following the Klan’s departure, and made 23 arrests.