Violence erupts at white nationalist rally in Charlotte; one killed as car rams crowd

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The city of Charlottesville was engulfed by violence Saturday as white nationalists and counterprotesters clashed in one of the bloodiest fights to date over the removal of Confederate monuments across the South.

White nationalists had long planned a demonstration over the city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. But the rally quickly exploded into racial taunting, shoving, and outright brawling, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency and the National Guard to join police in clearing the area.

Those skirmishes mostly resulted in cuts and bruises. But after the rally at a city park was dispersed, a car bearing Ohio license plates plowed into a crowd near the city’s downtown mall, killing a 32-year-old woman, who had not been publicly identified as of Saturday night. Some 34 others were injured, at least 19 of whom were hurt in the crash, according to a spokeswoman for the University of Virginia Medical Center. Several witnesses and video of the scene suggested that the crash might have been intentional.


The Associated Press reported that the driver was later identified by police as James Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio. Police say Fields, 20, has been arrested and charged with charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and one count related to leaving the scene.

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A bond hearing is scheduled for Monday.

Later in the day, a Virginia State Police helicopter crashed near a golf course and burst into flames, leaving at least two people dead.

State Police said in a statement that the helicopter was ‘‘assisting public safety resources with the ongoing situation’’ when it crashed in a wooded area, the Associated Press reported. The pilot, Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen, 48, of Midlothian, Va., and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates of Quinton, Va., died at the scene.

Witnesses to the vehicle attack said a gray sports car accelerated into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, who were moving jubilantly near the mall after the white nationalists had left, hurling at least two people in the air.


“It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Robert Armengol, who was at the scene reporting for a podcast he hosts with students at the University of Virginia. “After that, it was pandemonium. The car hit reverse and sped, and everybody who was up the street in my direction started running.”

The suspect’s mother, Samantha Bloom, told the AP on Saturday night that she knew her son was attending a rally in Virginia but didn’t know it was a white supremacist rally.

‘‘I thought it had something to do with Trump. Trump’s not a white supremacist,’’ Bloom said.

‘‘He had an African-American friend, so . . . ,’’ she said before her voice trailed off. She added that she’d be surprised if her son’s views were that far right.

The planned rally was promoted as “Unite the Right,” and both its organizers and critics said they expected it to be one of the largest gathering of white nationalists in recent times, attracting groups like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis and movement leaders like David Duke and Richard Spencer.


Many of these groups have felt emboldened since the election of Donald Trump as president. Duke, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, told reporters Saturday that the protesters were “going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back.”

On Saturday afternoon, Trump — speaking at the start of a veterans’ event at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. — addressed what he described as “the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Va.”

In his comments, Trump condemned the bloody protests, but he did not specifically criticize the white nationalist rally and its neo-Nazi slogans beyond blaming “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.”

“It’s been going on for a long time in our country. It’s not Donald Trump. It’s not Barack Obama,” said Trump, adding that he had been in contact with Virginia officials. After calling for the “swift restoration of law and order,” he offered a call for unity among Americans of “all races, creeds, and colors.”

The president came under criticism from some who said that he had not responded strongly enough against racism and that he had failed to condemn by name the white nationalist groups that were behind the rally.

Among the critics was the mayor of Charlottesville, Mike Signer. “I do hope that he looks himself in the mirror and thinks very deeply about who he consorted with during his campaign,” he said.

The turmoil in Charlottesville began with a march Friday night by white nationalists on the campus of the University of Virginia and escalated Saturday morning as demonstrators from both sides gathered in and around the park.

Waving Confederate flags, chanting Nazi-era slogans, wearing helmets, and carrying shields, the white nationalists converged on the Lee statue inside the park and began chanting phrases like “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.”

Hundreds of counterprotesters — religious leaders, Black Lives Matter activists, and antifascist groups known as “antifa” — quickly surrounded the park, singing spirituals, chanting, and carrying their own signs.

The morning started peacefully, with the white nationalists gathering in McIntire Park, outside downtown, and the counterdemonstrators — including Cornel R. West, the Harvard University professor and political activist — gathering at the First Baptist Church, a historically African-American church here.

West, who addressed the group at a sunrise prayer service, said he had come “bearing witness to love and justice in the face of white supremacy.”

At McIntire Park, the white nationalists waved Confederate flags and other banners. As a photographer took pictures, one of them, who gave his name only as Ted because he said he might want to run for office some day, said he was from Missouri and added, “I’m tired of seeing white people pushed around.”

But by 11 a.m., after both sides had made their way to Emancipation Park, 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. One of the white nationalists left the park bleeding, his head wrapped in gauze.

Declaring the gathering an unlawful assembly, police cleared the area before noon, and the Virginia National Guard arrived as officers began arresting some who remained. But fears lingered that the altercation would start again nearby, as demonstrators dispersed in smaller groups.

Within an hour, politicians, including Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, and the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, a Republican, had condemned the violence.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Justice Department agents would support local and state officials in an investigation of Saturday’s events.

“This kind of violence is totally contrary to American values and can never be tolerated,” Sessions said in a statement.

Former president Barack Obama responded to the violence by sending three tweets with a quote from Nelson Mandela: “No one is born hating another person because of the color 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 the opposite.”

After the rally was dispersed, its organizer, Jason Kessler, who calls himself a “white advocate,” complained in an interview that his group had been “forced into a very chaotic situation.”

He added, “The police were supposed to be there protecting us, and they stood down.”

Both Kessler and Spencer, a prominent white nationalist who was to speak Saturday, are graduates of the University of Virginia. In an online video, titled “a message to Charlottesville,” Spencer vowed to return to the college town.

“You think that we’re going to back down to this kind of behavior to you and your little provincial town? No,” he said.