Vigil for Charlottesville victim canceled due to threats

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Disturbing video shows the moment a car crashed into the crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Tensions remained high Sunday as the city and nation grappled with the aftermath of deadly violence between white nationalists defending a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and opponents protesting white supremacist views.

A planned Sunday night vigil at the University of Virginia in remembrance of Heather Heyer, who was killed Saturday, was canceled due to a “credible threat from white supremacists,” according to a statement from organizers. It was to be held on Facebook Live instead.

“It was a real world threat,” said Andy Stepanian, a spokesperson for Solidarity C’Ville, one of the groups of local activists behind the event. He said the vigil was canceled because they could no longer guarantee the safety of attendees.

Jason Kessler, the local organizer of Saturday’s Unite the Right rally, tried to hold a news conference earlier Sunday in front of Charlottesville City Hall — and it quickly descended into chaos.

Protesters blared horns, rang bells and shouted “murderer.” Kessler’s voice was drowned out, he fled but was tackled, and bedlam ensued before police officers intervened and spirited him away. It was unclear if he was injured.

“I tried my best but once again violence rules over speech and ideas in #Charlottesville,” Kessler tweeted a short time later. “The first amendment is finished it seems.”

Charlottesville resident Jeffrey Stricker said he attended the would-be news conference to protest Kessler and other white nationalists.

“Their views have been out of date for a long time,” Stricker said. “They’re not welcome.”

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It was another moment of mayhem for the city, home to the University of Virginia and now a battleground for clashes pitting white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other “alt-right” groups against  counter-protesters ranging from Black Lives Matter to anti-fascists.

That battleground turned deadly Saturday when Heather Heyer, 32, was killed after a car slammed into counter-protesters peacefully marching away from the scene of the initial violence. Ten people remained hospitalized in good condition Sunday, according to the UVA Health System.

“My heart goes out to Heather Heyer’s family,” Gov. Terry McAuliffe tweeted Sunday. “She died standing up against hate & bigotry. Her bravery should inspire all to come together.”

The Justice Department said it will open a civil rights investigation into Heyer’s death.

Hours after the deadly car crash, two state troopers died when their surveillance helicopter slammed into woods near the scene of the protests.

McAuliffe, a Democrat, denounced right-wing extremists Sunday and spoke of healing at a local church service.

“I see a future that is brighter,” McAuliffe told a worshipers at the historically black First Baptist Church. “I see a future where every single child, no matter where you were born, how you were born or who you love, has the same opportunities in our great society.”

Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer, speaking on several national TV news shows Sunday, called Heyer’s death a terrorist act and blamed white supremacists.

“This is a city that is praying and grieving,” Signer told CNN. “We had three people die yesterday who didn’t need to die. … Two things need to be said over and over again — domestic terrorism and white supremacy.”

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After Kessler’s failed news conference, he released a video statement on Twitter blaming city officials for Saturday’s violence. He said they failed to separate the protest groups and were ill-equipped to handle the melee that resulted. The city “was so concerned about shutting down the speech … they weren’t willing to do their jobs,” Kessler said.

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Scores of marches and rallies against racism were scheduled Sunday from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. The Indivisible Project, an advocacy group that opposes President Trump’s policies, listed many of the events on its website. The group said the protesters “will come together in solidarity with our brave friends in Charlottesville who put themselves at risk to fight against white supremacy.”

Most of the events were scheduled for later Sunday, but scores of protesters showed up for a 1 p.m. ET rally in Greenville, S.C. They carried signs proclaiming, “Hate crimes have no home here,” “another suburban mom against white supremacy” and “white supremacy = hate crimes, prejudice and ignorance.”

Trump spoke out against the violence at a news conference Saturday in New Jersey, condemning “in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”

Trump, however, drew outrage from critics for failing to blame white nationalist demonstrators for the violence. McAuliffe on Sunday urged the president to “call out the white supremacists for who they are, for their hatred, for their bigotry.” 

Some Republicans had been quick to do so. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., tweeted hours after the tragedy that “White supremacy is a scourge. This hate and its terrorism must be confronted and defeated.” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, issued a statement calling Nazis, the KKK and white supremacists “repulsive and evil” and called the car crash a “grotesque act of domestic terrorism.”

Appearing in Memphis on Sunday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for a White House conference on violence as well as racial hatred. The founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and civil rights pioneer blamed Trump’s rhetoric for the violence, saying “the ignorance and hate and fear and violence in Virginia is being fed from the top down.”

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The Unite the Right rally was called to protest the planned removal of a statue of Lee on horseback from a Charlottesville park. The violence began Saturday morning, and McAuliffe issued a state of emergency at about 11 a.m.

About 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.

Still, the violence escalated, and police said more than a dozen people were injured in the melee. A short time later, Heyer was killed and 19 people were injured when a Dodge Challenger rear-ended a sedan, which then hit a minivan that had slowed to allow the counter-protesters to cross at an intersection, police said.

The impact pushed the vehicles into the crowd, police said in a statement. The Challenger fled the scene but was stopped by police a short time later, Charlottesville police said.

The driver of the car, identified as James Alex Fields, 20, of Ohio, was charged with one count of second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of hit and run, police said. He faces a court appearance Monday. 

Heyer was a legal assistant at a Charlottesville law firm. Friends described her as fun-loving but outspoken against racism.

“She always stands up for what she believes in,” said Lauren Moon, friends with Heyer since third grade.

Hours after the car crash, the helicopter slammed into the woods. State Police identified the dead troopers as Lt. Jay Cullen, 48, of Midlothian, Va. and Trooper-Pilot Berke Bates, 40, of Quinton, Va.

Cullen was a 23-year veteran of the force and is survived by his wife and two sons. Bates spent three years with the force and joined the aviation unit last month.

“Visiting our VA state troopers this morning to share prayers for their fallen brothers and to thank them for their great work this weekend,” McAuliffe tweeted Sunday.

The Charlottesville City Council voted in May to sell the Lee statue, but a judge issued a temporary injunction blocking the move. That prompted a torch light protest by white nationalists. More such protests have followed.

Don Gathers, a deacon at First Baptist Church, said he felt “very much numb,” by Saturday’s events.

“Much of this lies at the door of the White House and right at (the president’s) feet because he created this climate,” said Rathers, who also chairs the city’s commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces. “He made them think and feel like all of this was acceptable.”

Bacon reported from McLean, Va. King reports for The Indianapolis Star.

Contributing: Paul Hyde, The Greenville (S.C.) News. 

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