Taj Arya Leblanc grew up in the suburbs of Charlottesville, a city that became his hometown after he graduated from Boston University last year.
It’s a city described by some as beautiful and progressive. But on Saturday, that city was a battlefield.
He related the heartbreaking images he saw that day: Roads blocked by police in riot gear; a woman, her face bloodied, being carried away from a crowd; armed men wearing armor, who intended to defend their rights — over a barrel of a gun, if necessary. And Confederate flags hoisted aloft by white supremacists.
“I started tearing up. . . . My city looked like a war zone to me,” said Leblanc.
Among the throngs Saturday, were some with Boston ties who reacted with shock and disgust as hundreds of white nationalists swarmed Charlottesville, they said to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a park.
The day turned violent when a woman was killed and at least 19 people injured by a car that plowed through a crowd of counterprotesters demonstrating against the white supremacists. Two more people died when a State Police helicopter crashed, although officials did not elaborate on how the crash was connected to the protests.
Leblanc, who has a YouTube channel and went to Saturday’s protests to interview participants, said he spoke to two men carrying large, military-style rifles about why they were protesting.
“One said, ‘My First Amendment rights aren’t being taken away because of my Second Amendment rights,’ ” said Leblanc.
Brian Kimble, another Virginia native who worked in Boston for a while before returning home last year, said he was angered by the sight of white supremacists gathering in Charlottesville.
He said he saw them shoving counterprotesters, and saw a few people struck in the head with sticks. At least four people with blood on their faces were helped from the scene, he said.
Racists don’t represent the city, he said, which he described as “progressively liberal,” and Charlottesville residents are angered by them.
“A lot of people putting on the rallies . . . are not from here,” said Kimble. “They are coming to our town and trying to change the image of our town.”
Tanisha M. Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, was concerned about a conservative protest advertised as a “Free Speech Rally” set for next Saturday in Boston.
“I am hopeful we here in the city of Boston... will stand up to this un-American, racist white supremacist activity,” said Sullivan, who is an alum of the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.
The Rev. Rainey G. Dankel, associate rector at Trinity Church in Boston, traveled to Charlottesville on Friday in response to a national call for people — particularly clergy — to assist in peacefully protesting a white supremacists’ rally. The goal of the counterprotest organizers, Dankel said, was to avoid confrontations and deescalate tensions between the white supremacists and those who oppose their beliefs.
“There was a great deal of emphasis on responding to hate with love and respect and non-violently,” she said.
Dankel did not directly witness the violence that broke out at the rally Saturday but she said she was about two blocks away when the car plowed into the counterprotesters.
“I could tell that something dreadful had happened and rescue vehicles and emergency responders were converging in that area,” she said. “There were people running away from the area and also responders running toward the area. I saw people run away on foot that seemed to be shaken up, but I didn’t see any visible wounds.”
On Friday night, Dankel attended a prayer service just yards away from torch-carrying white nationalist marchers, she said.
“Nationalists were out with torches marching around on the campus of the University of Virginia,” she said. “We were feeling, as we were breaking up from the church service, intimidated by the rally and the yelling of slogans. . . . As we were leaving the church, the people in charge were trying to steer groups of us away from the area where this rally was taking place, to try to deescalate and get us all home safely.”
She said the white supremacists used racial slurs and chanted “that they were taking their country back and there’s no place for people of color or Jews.”
Dankel said she believed the counterprotesters who had gotten into physical altercations on Friday night and Saturday were not part of the organized group that had drawn her to Charlottesville.
Dankel said she was profoundly disturbed by the violence in Charlottesville.
“It’s just heartbreaking that this has been the result of people trying to spew their hatred and others trying to have a way of responding to that in ways that would not have this kind of injury and loss of life,” she said.
“This is the third rally the white supremacists have held in Charlottesville. Who knows what’s going to be next? Is there going to be another round of this? I don’t know. And if not there, where else?”Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox. John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @draillih.