‘Unite the Right’ rally shut down after clashes erupt in Charlottesville

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Charlottesville, Virginia is about to play host to a third white nationalist rally this weekend. Nathan Rousseau Smith (@fantasticmrnate) has the story. Buzz60

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Police in riot gear cleared a downtown park of protesters here Saturday after local authorities declared a “Unite the Right” rally an “unlawful assembly” following bottle-throwing clashes between alt-right demonstrators, counter-protesters, white nationalists, neo-Nazis and supporters of Black Lives Matter.

Charlottesville officials said two people were treated for serious injuries after fights broke out. The pushing and shoving prompted Gov. Terry McAuliffe to declare a state of emergency and played out against a backdrop of unofficial, armed militia groups ringing Emancipation Park, where the rally was called to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Some 500 protesters among the white nationalist and alt-right groups left the park shortly after state police, using megaphones, declared the gathering an “unlawful assembly” at 11:40 a.m., about 20 minutes before the rally was scheduled to begin.

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Clusters of alt-right activists and counter-protesters remained, however, raising fears of more clashes. Police then put on gas masks as they stepped up efforts to disperse the crowds, which then left the park.

McAuliffe declared a state of emergency to give local authorities more resources to quell the disturbance.

The city’s declaration shutting down the event essentially reversed a federal court injunction Friday night that rejected the city’s earlier attempt to move the event, which turned into a rallying cry for the far right, to another park. 

Officials had already deployed police to maintain order and McAuliffe had placed the Virginia National Guard on standby.

The clashes, mainly between white nationalists and anti-fascist groups, broke out as crowds moved toward the park where the Lee statue is located. At one point, dozens of people used wooden poles from their flags and banners as weapons. Others threw trash and bottles into the opposing ranks of protesters as the crowds swelled.

Protesters on one side of a square held up anti-fascist signs and Black Lives Matter banners, while groups on the other displayed Confederate flags and iron cross banners.

Numerous protesters came prepared, wearing helmets and flak jackets and charging into crowds holding plastic riot shields.

Before the city declared the rally an unlawful assembly, Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones and Interim County Executive Doug Walker issued the emergency declaration for two city jurisdictions to allow officials to request additional resources if needed to cope with the unfolding events.

From his vacation home in New Jersey, President Trump tweeted: “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!”

On Friday night, a spontaneous march by torch-wielding protesters onto the University of Virginia campus was broken up by police as an unlawful assembly after scuffles broke out and pepper spray filled the air. 

U.S. District Judge Glen Conrad had issued an injunction late Friday in a lawsuit filed against the city by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of right-wing blogger Jason Kessler, a local resident.

Conrad ruled that the city’s attempt to revoke Kessler’s “Unite the Right” rally permit and move the protest to another park “was based on the content of his speech.” 

The judge noted the city did not try at the same time to move counter-protesters to another location.

On the eve of the rally, McAuliffe, a Democrat, said he would prefer that no one shows up at the “Unite the Right” rally.

“I want to urge my fellow Virginians who may consider joining either in support or opposition to the planned rally to make alternative plans,” he said.

The clashes prompted responses Saturday from a number of politicians and public officials. First lady Melania Trump tweeted that the country “encourages freedom of speech, but let’s communicate w/o hate in our hearts. No good comes from violence. #Charlottesville”

House Speaker Paul Ryan wrote,  “Racism is vile and the #Charlottesville rally is disgusting. Let’s stand as Americans for the self-evident truth that all are created equal.”

Former Rep. John Dingell, of Michigan, tweeted:  “I signed up to fight Nazis 73 years ago and I’ll do it again if I have to. Hatred, bigotry, & fascism should have no place in this country.”

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., wrote: “Racism is vile and the #Charlottesville rally is disgusting. Let’s stand as Americans for the self-evident truth that all are created equal.”

The Charlottesville City Council voted in May to sell the Lee statue, but a judge issued a temporary injunction that blocked the city from moving the statue for six months, The Daily Progress reported. 

Police chief Al Thomas said the unfolding events created a “lot of anxiety” in the community, but he felt it had sufficient resources to meet the “significant challenge.”

City authorities were particularly alarmed by Friday night’s march by hundreds of white nationalists who gathered at the feet of a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the UVa. campus, chanting “You will not replace us.”

Fights broke out as some marchers bearing tiki torches swung them at others, the Daily Progress reported. One person was arrested and several were treated for minor injuries, the paper reported.

UVa. President Teresa Sullivan said she was “deeply saddened and disturbed by the hateful behavior” displayed by the marchers. 

Mayor Mike Singer, who opposed the downtown rally, said the city would honor the judge’s ruling, but added there is “no constitutional right to incite or promote violence by anyone who will be gathered this weekend.”

“Democracy may be noisy and it may be messy, but it remains the best system of government that people have figured out to use to govern themselves,” he said.

The ACLU of Virginia and the Albemarle County-based Rutherford Institute, which backed Kessler’s suit, said in a letter to city officials that while the message of the “Unite the Right” rally “may raise strong feelings of opposition among area residents and political leaders, that opposition can be no basis for government action that would suppress the First Amendment rights of demonstrators who have acted according to the law.”

In May, Kessler was among three people arrested during a counter-protest that followed an alt-right demonstration. He was arrested for disorderly conduct, police said, according to The Daily Progress.

n the past few months, white nationalist groups have paid particular attention to Charlottesville, a progressive college town where over 80% of residents voted for Hillary Clinton. In May, several dozen demonstrators, led by prominent white supremacist Richard Spencer, gathered at night by the Lee statue, wielding torches.

In July, Ku Klux Klan members held a rally in Charlottesville in Justice Park, where they were met with more than a thousand upset counter-protesters.

White nationalist groups continue to return to Charlottesville partly because they saw the May torch light gathering as a great success, noted Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“They loved the imagery of that. They were over the moon about that,” she said. “They viewed it as having been a wonderful recruiting tool.”

Gabe Cavallaro reports for The (Staunton) News Leader. Stanglin reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Sarah Toy in McLean.

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