CHARLOTTESVILLE, UNITED STATES (AFP, REUTERS, NYTIMES) - A picturesque Virginia city erupted in violence on Saturday (Aug 12) as white nationalist demonstrators and counter-protesters clashed, with a car ploughing into a group of people and President Donald Trump urging Americans to “condemn all that hate stands for”.
At least one person was killed on Saturday and 35 injured after protests turned violent in Charlottesville, Virginia, as white nationalists protesting plans to remove the statue of a Confederate general clashed with counter-demonstrators and a car plowed into a crowd, officials said.
Separately, a Virginia State Police helicopter crashed near a golf course and burst into flames, leaving at least two people dead. The helicopter appeared to have been monitoring the protests.
A 32-year-old female was among those killed, said Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas, and injuries ranged from life-threatening to minor. James Alex Fields Jr, a 20-year-old man from Ohio, has been identified as the suspected driver of the vehicle and held in custody on suspicion of second-degree murder.
The clashes prompted the governor to declare an emergency and halt the rally, and US President Donald Trump condemned the violence. The FBI has opened a civil rights investigation into the Charlottesville car ramming.
“I am heartbroken that a life has been lost here,” Charlottesville Mayor Mike Singer said on his Twitter feed. “I urge all people of good will – go home.”
Video on social media and Reuters photographs showed a car slamming into a large group of what appeared to be counter-protesters, sending people flying into the air.
Hundreds had descended on the university city either to march in or rail against a “Unite the Right Rally.” Unrest quickly flared.
“We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for,” Trump tweeted. “There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Let’s come together as one!”
Ambulances quickly arrived at the scene of the car crash, which a witness told AFP was “intentional” – saying one girl got “tore up” after the car “backed up and they hit again.”
He said the dark sedan “raced down here, jumped over the speed bumps and it backed up and it hit everyone again.”
“There was a girl that was on the ground; she was trying to get up,” he added.
WARNING: STRONG LANGUAGE
Earlier in the day, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, saying he was “disgusted by the hatred, bigotry and violence these protesters have brought to our state over the past 24 hours.”
The previous evening hundreds of torch-bearing marchers demonstrated at the University of Virginia campus.
“It is now clear that public safety cannot be safeguarded without additional powers, and that the mostly out-of-state protesters have come to Virginia to endanger our citizens and property,” McAuliffe wrote in a statement on his emergency declaration.
'NO FASCIST USA'
Before the collision police began clearing the city’s Emancipation Park after declaring those gathered there to be part of an “unlawful assembly.” By midday local authorities had reported one arrest and said emergency personnel had responded to eight injuries.
An AFP journalist at the scene witnessed demonstrators, some clad in militia uniforms, throwing punches and hurling bottles even before the official 12 pm EST (midnight Singapore time) rally start time.
State police also tweeted that some crowd members were using pepper spray, and local media footage showed images of riot police, national guard members and an armored vehicle in the city’s downtown.
Video footage from the demonstrations showed anti-racism protesters waving flags from the Black Lives Matter movement, as crowds chanted slogans like “We say no to racist fear” and “No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA.” Others brandished Confederate flags, today considered a symbol of racism by many Americans.
Right-wing blogger Jason Kessler, who had called for the white nationalist demonstration, on Saturday declared it “a monumental event for our movement” even after police started clearing the crowd.
Saturday’s far-right rally follows a much smaller demonstration last month that saw a few dozen Ku Klux Klan-linked marchers gather to protest the city’s planned removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, who led Confederate forces in the US Civil War.
Though they were outnumbered by hundreds of jeering counter-protesters, the extreme-right marchers – some donning the traditional white hood of the notorious white power group – saw their images spread worldwide on social media.
This time, the extreme right brought in big names of the “alt-right” movement – which has been emboldened, critics say, by Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House – in a bid to attract more supporters.
Normally reticent First Lady Melania Trump took to Twitter to respond to the demonstrations, writing,
“Our country encourages freedom of speech, but let’s communicate w/o hate in our hearts. No good comes from violence. #Charlottesville.”
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan also weighed in on the social media platform: “The views fueling the spectacle in Charlottesville are repugnant. Let it only serve to unite Americans against this kind of vile bigotry.”
Friday night’s pre-demonstration also turned into a brawl after torch-bearers linked to the white supremacist far right were met by counter-protesters.
Charlottesville’s mayor Mike Signer dubbed Friday’s march a “cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism and intolerance”.
University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan on Saturday condemned that demonstration, saying in a statement that “the intimidating and abhorrent behaviour displayed by the alt-right protesters was wrong”.
One protester was arrested and charged with assault and disorderly conduct, she said.
The Southern Poverty Law Centre, which monitors extremist groups, said that Saturday’s “Unite the Right Rally” could mark one of the most significant demonstrations of its kind in decades.