CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – A planned protest in Virginia by white nationalists was abandoned on Saturday after a spate of violence prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency and law enforcement officers to clear the area.
The demonstration, which both organizers and critics had said was the largest gathering of white nationalists in recent years, turned violent almost immediately and left several people injured.
[Gallery: At the scene in Virginia]
The turmoil began with a march Friday night and escalated Saturday morning as hundreds of white nationalists gathered. Waving Confederate flags, chanting Nazi-era slogans, wearing helmets and carrying shields, they converged on a statue of Robert E. Lee in the city’s Emancipation Park and began chanting phrases like “You will not replace us,” and “Jew will not replace us.”
Hundreds of counterprotesters quickly surrounded the crowd, chanting and carrying their own signs.
By 11 a.m., the scene had exploded into taunting, shoving and outright brawling. Barricades encircling the park and separating the two sides began to come down, and police temporarily retreated. People were seen clubbing one another in the streets, and pepper spray filled the air.
Police cleared the area before noon, and the Virginia National Guard arrived as officers began arresting some who remained for unlawful assembly. But fears lingered that the altercation would start again nearby, even as politicians, including Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a Republican, condemned the violence.
A couple hours later, a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters, The Associated Press reported. Details were not immediately known.
Emergency medical personnel treated eight people, the Charlottesville Police Department said. It was not immediately clear how severely they were hurt. Several area hospitals did not return telephone calls seeking information.
The fight was the latest in a series of tense dramas unfolding across the United States over plans to remove statues and other historic markers of the Confederacy.
The battles have been intensified by the election of President Donald Trump, who enjoys fervent support from white nationalists.
The president commented on the violence Saturday afternoon, tweeting, “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!”
The protest, billed as a “Unite the Right” rally, was the culmination of a year and a half of debate in Charlottesville over the fate of the Lee statue. A movement to remove it began when an African-American high school student here started a petition. The City Council voted 3-to-2 in April to sell it, but a judge issued an injunction temporarily stopping the move.
The city had been bracing for a sea of alt-right demonstrators, and on Friday night, hundreds of them, carrying lit torches, marched on the picturesque grounds of the University of Virginia, founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson. The group included prominent white nationalist figures like Richard Spencer and David Duke, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
“We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back,” Duke told reporters Saturday. Many of the white nationalist protesters carried campaign signs for Trump.
University officials said one person was arrested and charged Friday night with assault and disorderly conduct, and several others were injured. Among those hurt was a university police officer injured while making the arrest, the school said in a statement.
Theresa A. Sullivan, the president of the university, strongly condemned the Friday demonstration in a statement, calling it “disturbing and unacceptable.”
Still, officials allowed the Saturday protest to go on – until the injuries began piling up.
The city of Charlottesville declared a state of emergency around 11 a.m., citing an “imminent threat of civil disturbance, unrest, potential injury to persons, and destruction of public and personal property.”
McAuliffe followed with his own declaration an hour later.
“It is now clear that public safety cannot be safeguarded without additional powers, and that the mostly-out-of-state protesters have come to Virginia to endanger our citizens and property,” McAuliffe said in a statement. “I am disgusted by the hatred, bigotry and violence these protesters have brought to our state over the past 24 hours.”
The Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, Ed Gillespie, issued his own statement denouncing the protests as “vile hate” that has “no place in our Commonwealth.”
Ryan agreed. “The views fueling the spectacle in Charlottesville are repugnant,” he said on Twitter. “Let it only serve to unite Americans against this kind of vile bigotry.”
Update from The AP:
BREAKING: State official says driver of car that plowed into group of protesters in Charlottesville, Va., is in custody
– The Associated Press (@AP) August 12, 2017
BREAKING: Hospital official says one dead, 19 injured after car plows into a group of protesters in downtown Charlottesville, Va.
– The Associated Press (@AP) August 12, 2017