White supremacy protests in Charlottesville, Va., devolve into a chaotic day of violence
Three people have died and 35 were injured in Charlottesville, Virginia, after a series of protests organized by white supremacists and counter demonstrations turned violent.
One person died and 19 others were injured early Saturday afternoon after a three-vehicle crash in a downtown area where counter-protesters had gathered.
Another two died later in the afternoon after a Virginia State Police helicopter crashed several miles away near a golf course. The Associated Press, citing state officials, reported that the helicopter had been involved in monitoring the protests earlier. The Charlottesville Daily Progress identified the troopers killed as H. Jay Cullen of Midlothian and Berke M.M. Bates of Quinton.
The protests began Friday night as torch-wielding white supremacists demonstrated to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in a local park. By Saturday morning, the protests had turned violent, as counter demonstrators turned out in force.
As the two sides traded blows and hurled bottles and chemical irritants at one another, police evacuated a downtown park, putting an end to another rally planned for noon before it even began.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency shortly before 11 a.m., blaming the violence on "mostly out-of-state protesters."
"I am disgusted by the hatred, bigotry and violence these protesters have brought to our state over the past 24 hours," McAuliffe (D) said.
However, clashes continued on side streets and throughout the downtown. In the early afternoon, three cars collided in a pedestrian mall packed with people, injuring 19 and sending bystanders running and screaming. According to a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, the injuries from the crash ranged from life-threatening to minor.
Susie McClannahan, 24, said counterprotesters were marching on Fourth Street when she saw a "silver gray vehicle" drive through the crowd, and then immediately shift into reverse in what she described as full speed.
"Everyone was in shock and all of a sudden we heard people scream get to the wall because the driver was backing up," McClannahan said. She said those closest to the accident ran to those injured in the street.
A tweet from the mayor of Charlottesville, Mike Signer, soon indicated that there has been at least one fatality associated with the collision at the pedestrian mall. That fatality was later identified as a 32-year-old woman by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
The Associated Press, citing state officials, reported that the driver of the car filmed ramming into the crowd and then fleeing is in custody. Later, a suspect, identified as James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Maumee, Ohio, was arrested and held on charges of second-degree murder, malicious wounding and failure to stop in an accident that resulted in death, according to CNN. The Washington Post reports that the car used in the incident is registered in his name.
Several hours later, around 5 p.m., Virginia State Police announced that one of its helicopters had crashed near Birdwood Golf Course, some seven miles from the site of the original demonstrations. Both the FAA and the NTSB are currently investigating the crash, but state officials confirmed that the helicopter, which had two people in it, was connected to the earlier protests.
President Donald Trump, who has not hesitated to weigh in on suspected terror attacks in the immediate aftermath, stayed silent on Twitter until after 1 p.m. when he weighed in, writing: "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!" He later added, "Am in Bedminster for meetings & press conference on V.A. & all that we have done, and are doing, to make it better-but Charlottesville sad!"
In later remarks to the press, Trump said he condemned “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides. On many sides.” He did not specifically address the one fatality from the car crash, which was announced just before he spoke to reporters.
Later, however, on Twitter, he did offer his “deepest condolences” to the family and friends of the officers killed in the helicopter crash, as well as the woman killed by the car.
Earlier Saturday, men in combat gear - some wearing bicycle and motorcycle helmets and carrying clubs and sticks and makeshift shields - had 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.
By 11 a.m., several fully armed militias and hundreds of right-wing rallygoers had poured into the small downtown park that was to be the site of the rally. They were met by equal numbers of counterprotesters, including clergy, Black Lives Matter activists and Princeton professor Cornel West.
Counterprotesters held "Black Lives Matter" signs and placards expressing support for equality and love as they faced rallygoers who waved Confederate flags and posters that said "the Goyim know," referring to non-Jewish people, and "the Jewish media is going down."
A large contingent of Charlottesville police officers and Virginia State Police troopers in riot gear were stationed on side streets and at nearby barricades but did nothing to break up the melee until around 11:40 a.m. After the state of emergency was declared, police declared an unlawful assembly and gave all demonstrators five minutes to disperse from the rally, called “Unite the Right.”
"No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!" the counterprotesters chanted.
"Too late, f-----s!" a man yelled back at them.
Naundi Cook, 23, said she was scared during the morning protests. Cook, who is black, said she came to "support her people," but she's never seen something like this before.
When violence broke out, she started shaking and got goose bumps.
"I've seen people walking around with tear gas all over their face all over their clothes. People getting maced, fighting," she said. "I didn't want to be next."
Cook said she couldn't sit back and watch white supremacists descend on her town. She has a three-year-old daughter to stand up for, she said.
"Right now, I'm not sad," she said once the protests dispersed. "I'm a little more empowered. All these people and support, I feel like we're on top right now because of all the support that we have."
After police ordered everyone to vacate the park, columns of white nationalists marched out, carrying Confederate and Nazi flags as they headed down Market Street in a parade. Counterprotesters lined the sidewalks and shouted epithets and mocked the group as they walked by. 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.
Kessler later told the Charlottesville Daily Progress that the driver who rammed into pedestrians “did the wrong thing” and that he was sad people were hurt in the protest.
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.
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.