On Saturday, Charlottesville made international news with the deaths of three people and the largest white nationalist gathering the city has seen in modern history. WMRA’s Jordy Yager was on the ground and has this report.
Before the day was through, Charlottesville would be mired in chaos and bedlam. Two State Police officers would die in a helicopter crash west of town. A white supremacist would drive a car into a crowd of people, killing a 32-year old woman and injuring 19 others. Pepper spray, sticks, shields, bats, knives, rifles, handguns, and bottles would be brandished in all-out brawls. Dozens of people would limp away, bandaged and bloodied. And the police would be criticized for not doing enough, and for doing too much.
But before any of that, before daybreak on Saturday, about 300 people packed into Charlottesville’s oldest African American church. The night before, several hundred white supremacists had marched through the University of Virginia with torches, throwing blows and pepper spray with a small group of activists and students outside the Rotunda. A block away, Dr. Cornel West spoke to area residents. And now, less than 12 hours later, the renowned Harvard professor was at First Baptist Church.
CORNEL WEST: We must never allow anybody to naturalize criminality, to make crimes look like its part of the natural order of things (46:51) White supremacist slavery was a crime against humanity. Jim and Jane Crow was a crime against humanity. The new Jim Crow, the mass incarceration regime is a crime against humanity.
After the service, around 8 o’clock, West and several hundred people marched downtown to Emancipation Park. The park was renamed earlier this year after City Council voted to remove a giant statue of its former namesake, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Saturday’s rally was in response to that vote. Police expected as many as 6,000 people, and had cordoned off half of Emancipation Park with metal barricades. But Market Street, the main thoroughfare that leads to the park, was wide open, an unclaimed no-man’s land.
One by one, the hate groups arrived. First, was the American Vanguard, a group of young men that James Alex Fields belongs to. Police arrested Fields later Saturday, charging him with second-degree murder after a car plowed into a large crowd, injuring 19 people and killing counter-demonstrator Heather Heyer.
The rally was slated to begin at noon, but by 9:30am, hundreds of white nationalists had begun to stream into the park. By 10, the first armed counter-protesters marched down Market Street. Over the next hour, more than 2,000 people flooded the street, throwing water bottles and fruit at each other. But then, shortly before 11, the real fighting erupted. Hundreds of state and local police looked on, from behind barricades and rooftops, as rally goers beat each other with clubs and fists — pepper spray and screams drenching the air.
At 11:30, before rally organizer Jason Kessler and white nationalist Richard Spencer could address their crowd, police decided the situation was out of control and declared an unlawful assembly.
POLICE: If you do not disperse immediately, you will be arrested.
White supremacists were forced out of the park and into the street, where counter-protesters outnumbered them. Kessler shouted at a cop as he walked with a group down Market Street.
JASON KESSLER: We’ll see you in court.
Spencer stayed behind, and on Sunday’s Alt Right Politics podcast, said the forced removal from the park was a set-up by police to put the white nationalists in harms way.
RICHARD SPENCER: They wanted not to prevent violence, they sought to exacerbate violence. They had no interest whatsoever in protecting our free speech. Indeed they wanted chaos in the streets as a way of giving themselves an excuse to suppress our speech.
In the 36 hours after the rally, video emerged of brutal fights throughout the city between counter-protesters and white supremacists. At a press conference Saturday evening Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas lauded that none of the 35 treated injuries that day was inflicted by an officer.
Last month, 50 members of the Ku Klux Klan rallied in Charlottesville, and police arrested 22 counter-protesters, donning full riot gear, and deploying tear gas to clear the streets. Since then, local activists and lawyers have heavily criticized the police’s use of force, pushing instead for less confrontational de-escalation tactics.
Don Gathers, one of the leaders of the local Black Lives Matter march and the former president of the commission that studied whether to remove the Lee statue, said police on Saturday treated the hundreds of white nationalists with kid gloves. He called it a double standard.
DON GATHERS: The reaction by the law enforcement authorities, specifically and primarily the State Police don’t surprise me whatsoever. The way that they moved so swiftly to arrest the counter-protesters a month ago, and now this.
Gathers demanded a full review of police action. And Chief Thomas agreed, saying the department will look at the day’s events for lessons learned. But Gathers and Thomas also pressed for something else. Gathers called for local leadership to step up and empower the voiceless in Charlottesville. And Thomas said residents need to dig deep and take back their city’s narrative.
AL THOMAS: What the world saw today is not the place Charlottesville is, we love our city, let us heal. This is not our story. Outsiders do not tell our story.