Charlottesville: How the ‘Unite the Right’ rally turned violent and sparked backlash against Donald Trump
The picturesque college town of Charlottesville, Va. morphed into the site of a race riot Saturday, after violent clashes at a massive white supremacist rally culminated in an act of suspected vehicular terrorism, when a man rammed his car into counter-protesters, killing a woman and injuring dozens.
Just when it appeared the worst was over, a police helicopter that was deployed to monitor the protests crashed in the woods outside Charlottesville, killing two Virginia state troopers.
President Donald Trump condemned the violence and loss of life, but somehow contrived to anger people on every side of the U.S. culture wars, including white nationalists, neo-Nazis, mainstream Republicans, Democrats and progressives.
But how did long-simmering racial tensions boil over in such violent and chaotic fashion?
The “Unite the Right” rally was organized by right-wing blogger Jason Kessler to protest against the impending removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park, the latest in a growing and controversial movement to take down Confederate statues and monuments in various U.S. cities.
Emancipation Park was called Lee Park until just two months ago, when Charlottesville city council voted to rename it. Kessler actively campaigned against the renaming of the downtown park, telling WHLM radio that Lee was looked up to by white people who feel threatened by multiculturalism and “ethnic cleansing.”
Sensing trouble, Charlottesville officials tried to revoke the rally’s permit, and move the gathering to a bigger park away from the Lee statue.
But Kessler sued the city and, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, won the right to stage the rally in Emancipation Park on Saturday, August 12.
Trouble began to brew the night before the protest, after hundreds of white nationalist demonstrators, many of whom were brandishing fiery torches, fought with counter-protesters.
The “Unite the Right” rally supporters marched through the University of Virginia campus to the school’s statue of founding father Thomas Jefferson, where they were met by a much smaller group of student counter-protesters, who were eventually surrounded.
Punches were thrown and several people had to be treated for minor injuries, with police eventually breaking up the skirmish and arresting at least one person.
WATCH: Accused in Charlottesville car attack to make his first court appearance
“I am beyond disgusted by this unsanctioned and despicable display of visual intimidation on a college campus,” Mayor Mike Signer said in a statement.
Those skirmishes would be a harbinger of the violence that was to transpire the following day.
On Saturday morning, hundreds of members of the neo-Confederate League of the South, neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement and white nationalist Traditionalist Workers Party began arriving for the protest.
Duke told reporters that the rally represented a “turning point” for Americans.
Soon after 11 a.m., fighting began to break out between the white nationalist groups and counter-protesters, as people threw punches, hurled objects and brandished chemical sprays and flame-thrower canisters.
WATCH: Protesters violently clash in Charlottesville
Mayor Signer pointed out on Twitter that the threat of such violence in “crowded, downtown Charlottesville” was precisely why his administration tried to change the rally venue.
The violence prompted Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to declare a state of emergency, with police moving in to halt the rally and disperse the protesters. Trump then shared his thoughts on the rally for the first time in a tweet.
Trump was roundly criticized by Duke, Spencer and others, who claimed that the fighting was instigated by Antifa (anti-fascist) counter-protesters, and that peacefully assembled white nationalist demonstrators were being unfairly targeted by police.
However, many of the far-right demonstrators were seen arriving at the rally wearing militia uniforms and openly carrying automatic guns, bats, sticks, pepper spray and other weapons.
Around 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon, as police worked to clear out the protest site, video emerged showing a car being driven into a crowd of marching anti-racist counter-protesters, with several of them being seen flung into the air.
WATCH: Car rams into protesters at white nationalists rally in Charlottesville
Civil rights activist Heather Heyer, 32, was killed in the attack, while 19 people were injured, five of them critically.
Mayor Signer urged people to avoid the rally site and go home.
Police later arrested 20-year-old Ohio man James Fields Jr., who is accused of intentionally plowing the vehicle into the crowd.
A photo taken by the New York Daily News showed Fields standing among a group of men wearing uniforms of the white nationalist Vanguard America group. The photo was taken mere hours before Fields allegedly drove his car into counter-protesters.
Vanguard America brands itself “the face of American fascism.” Its website states that “our people are subjugated while an endless tide of incompatible foreigners floods this nation every year.”
The group denied any association with Fields. “The driver of the vehicle that hit counter-protesters today was, in no way, a member of Vanguard America,” the group said in a statement posted on Twitter. “All our members are safe an [sic] accounted for, with no arrests or charges.”
Fields’ former teacher told the Associated Press that he was singled out by school officials in the 9th grade for his “deeply held, radical” beliefs on race, which included a fascination with Nazism and a belief in white supremacy.
Later Saturday evening, video began circulating on Twitter showing dark plumes of smoke rising above a golf course in Albemarle County, around 11 kilometres away from downtown Charlottesville.
Virginia State Police later confirmed that a helicopter with two troopers on board had crashed, killing the pair.
WATCH: Virginia State police helicopter crashes near Charlottesville golf course
The non-profit organization Officer Down Memorial Page identified the deceased as Lieutenant Pilot Jay Cullen and Trooper Pilot Berke Bates.
The pair were in the helicopter as part of the police effort to monitor the unrest in Charlottesville, and specifically to keep tabs on Gov. McAuliffe’s motorcade. However, the helicopter experienced an unknown issue and ended up crashing in a wooded area.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation, but Virginia State Police said in a statement that there was no indication of foul play.
An unpresidential response?
Speaking at his New Jersey golf course on Saturday afternoon, President Trump condemned what he called “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence – on many sides.” He also took the opportunity to highlight declining unemployment in the U.S., and the promise of new corporate investment.
Leaving the podium, he ignored shouted questions from journalists asking whether he was willing to condemn white supremacists, and if he felt the deadly car incident comprised an act of terrorism.
WATCH: Trump condemns violent protests in Charlottesville
Trump’s failure to explicitly criticize the white supremacist marchers, accused of wreaking the most havoc and violence, quickly drew criticism from various quarters, including from his fellow Republicans.
Senator Marco Rubio, who was one of Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, said the president should have been willing to use the term “white supremacist.”
Fellow Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, whose brother was killed in the Second World War, called on Trump to “call evil by its name.”
Senator Lindsey Graham told Fox News that “these groups seem to believe they have a friend in Donald Trump in the White House, and I would urge the president to dissuade that.”
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s rival in the presidential election, Hillary Clinton, didn’t hold back.
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who served under President Barack Obama, suggested that “If ISIS rammed a car into a crowd, this would labeled quickly and logically. Charlottesville – call it what it is, domestic terrorism.”
Charlottesville’s mayor responded to Holder to express his agreement.
Obama didn’t criticize Trump directly however, instead choosing to quote Nelson Mandela to promote a message of tolerance.
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite,” Obama tweeted.
However, some of the most scathing attacks aimed at Trump came from white supremacists and nationalists.
Former KKK head David Duke chided Trump for speaking out against the demographic that put him in the Oval Office, namely white Americans who Duke insisted have been discriminated against for decades.
Richard Spencer lambasted Trump for praising the police response to the violence. Spencer suggested the chaos was the result of police inaction, rather than any violent incitement on the part of white supremacists.
Adding insult to injury, Trump’s own former communications director Anthony Scaramucci told CNN that he “wouldn’t have recommended” the statement that Trump offered.
“I think he would have needed to have been much harsher as it relates to the [white] supremacists,” Scaramucci said.
WATCH: Scaramucci ‘would not’ have recommended Trump’s statement on Charlottesville violence
The White House later scrambled to address criticism of Trump’s statement, saying that his condemnation “of course includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi and all extremist groups.”
Trump’s daughter Ivanka also made sure to condemn white supremacy in a tweet.
On Sunday, the man who organized the now-notorious rally attempted to hold a press conference, but was forced to abandon his remarks after he was confronted by angry protesters.
Jason Kessler arrived at Charlottesville City Hall to make his statement, but was confronted by people, and was seen being tackled and punched. State troopers eventually escorted him to safety.
Below: Protesters chase away ‘Unite the Right’ organizer at press conference
Kessler later tweeted a video in which he claimed that left-wing elements, Charlottesville police and city officials were clearly to blame for ruining the “peaceful” Unite the Right demonstrations.
“We knew that these Antifa, BLM [Black Lives Matter] people were monitoring some of the… peaceful demonstrations that we had planned for the Unite the Right rally,” he said. “All of the carnage that happened was because the Charlottesville City government would not recognize our right to free assembly. They told the police to stand down, and people died because of that.”
On the question of the fatal car crash however, Kessler struck a less certain note.
“I don’t want to speculate too much on, obviously, the tragic events that a lot of people are talking about, but look it’s not necessarily known what happened,” he said. “I didn’t have anything to do with the tragic circumstances that occurred, that was a breakdown of law and order.”
WATCH: Virginia Gov. McAuliffe condemns Charlottesville violent protest, calling white supremacists ‘dividers’
Experts said however that the violence was the direct result of the highly polarized and tense atmosphere prevailing in American politics.
“Given our political moment, I’m not surprised that we’ve come to this point,” Kevin Boyle, a history professor at Northwestern University, told the Associated Press. “I’m terribly depressed we’ve come to this point but I’m not surprised. It didn’t come out of nowhere.”
Charlottesville’s Mayor Signer also hinted that Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacist groups was part of the problem.
Signer said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he hopes Trump “looks himself in the mirror and thinks very deeply about who he consorted with.”
“Old saying: when you dance with the devil, the devil doesn’t change, the devil changes you.”
– With files from the Associated Press
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