August 12, 2017 8:25 am
Updated: August 12, 2017 10:51 am

White nationalist groups clash with counter-protesters night before thousands expected at far-right rally

Hundreds of white marchers with blazing torches clashed briefly with counter-protesters on the Charlottesville campus of the University of Virginia on Friday.

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Hundreds of white marchers with blazing torches clashed briefly with counter-protesters on the Charlottesville campus of the University of Virginia on Friday, the eve of a rally planned by thousands of white nationalists, media said.

The events highlight a persistent debate in the U.S. South over the display of the Confederate flag and other symbols of the rebel side in the Civil War, fought over the issue of slavery.

Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists march through the University of Virginia Campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017.

Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The marchers chanted as they made their way from Nameless Field through the sprawling campus to the school’s Thomas Jefferson statue, where they were met by counter-protesters, an affiliate of NBC news said.

Both groups threw punches and pushed each other as police arrived to break up the clash. A chemical irritant was sprayed into the crowd, NBC29.com reported.

WATCH: Counter-protest held in support of efforts to remove Confederate monuments

At least one person was arrested and several on campus were treated for minor injuries, the Daily Progress newspaper said.

“I am beyond disgusted by this unsanctioned and despicable display of visual intimidation on a college campus,” Mayor Mike Singer said in a statement.

The clash came the night before an estimated 2,000 to 6,000 people were to attend a Unite the Right rally to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park on Saturday.

WATCH: Richard Spencer says Confederate statues shouldn’t be removed, are part of ‘our heritage’

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has said extremist groups have threatened to try and attack rally participants, to express opposition to the statue’s removal.

The National Guard is on standby, with Virginia State Police coordinating security in the city of 45,000, the governor said in a statement.

Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists encircle and chant at counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017.

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

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“I want to urge my fellow Virginians, who may consider joining, either in support or opposition to the planned rally, to make alternative plans,” McAuliffe said.

The rally also aimed to protest against Charlottesville’s decision to rename downtown Lee Park, now called Emancipation Park, besides the statue removal.

Supporters call such statues racially insensitive, while opponents say Confederate symbols honor Southern heritage, and calls to remove them reflect “empty political correctness.”

READ MORE: White nationalist Richard Spencer leads protest against removal of Confederate statue

Lee was a symbol for white people threatened by immigration and “ethnic cleansing,” rally organizer and freelance journalist Jason Kessler said in an interview with Pennsylvania’s WHLM radio on Thursday.

City officials had planned to move the event to a larger park beyond downtown, citing safety concerns at the 1-acre (0.4 hectare) Emancipation Park.

Kessler sued the city, and on Friday night a federal court sided with him. In a subsequent posting on social network Twitter, Kessler said the rally would be held at the downtown park.

Mimi Arbeit, an organizer of the planned counter-protests, rejected Kessler’s argument that the rally was about freedom of speech.

“Fascism functions by using the institutions of a democracy towards its own ends,” she said by telephone.

© 2017 Reuters

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