CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. ― A “Unite The Right” rally organized by white nationalist Richard Spencer descended into chaos and violence Saturday in Charlottesville, as thousands of “alt right” activists, Nazis, KKK members, other assorted white supremacists, and armed militia groups fought with anti-fascist groups and other counter-protesters.
The opposing fringe groups sprayed mace into the air, tossed canisters of what appeared to be — and felt like — tear gas, and beat each other with flagpoles and bats in Emancipation Park, formerly called Lee Park. The violence raged for hours. The Charlottesville Police Department declared a local state of emergency. Then, around noon, as riot cops finally intervened and expelled protesters from the park, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) formally declared a state of emergency.
Shortly before 2 p.m., a car plowed into a crowd of people near the city’s Downtown Mall, injuring multiple people before the vehicle stopped. An emergency alert said many of the injured had broken legs, local newspaper The Daily Progress reported.
Tensions were high well before the scheduled noon rally. As they marched toward Lee Park, members of the so-called “alt-right” chanted the Nazi phrase “blood and soil!” and “white lives matter!”
Two fences and a line of cops helped to separate the supremacists and counter-protestors. The alt-right side, with their plethora of Confederate flags and Nazi memorabilia on full display, began chanting: “Fuck you faggots.”
Meanwhile, counter-protestors took to drenching reporters on the scene in raw sewage.
Virginia Gov. McAuliffe (D) asked on Twitter for a stop to the violence.
A full hour before the planned rally, Antifa and white supremacists got into clashes, hitting each other with sticks and spraying irritants. Some fled, others began coughing and crying. Police did not immediately intervene.
Those standing on the sidelines were baffled as to why police weren’t immediately stopping the skirmishes that took over the park.
“If this were Ferguson riot gear, tear gas, everything would have been used, there’s a different standard here in Charlottesville,” said Anthony Bennett, a pastor from Connecticut.
Unidentified militia members brandishing guns also showed up at the scene. As more fights began breaking out, police could be seen putting on riot gear.
As the scheduled time for the rally got closer, hundreds more white supremacists could be seen marching under a banner hung by the city that read “Diversity makes us stronger.”
Just minutes before the noon rally was officially set to begin, police threatened arrest for “unlawful assembly.” Thousands of people began to disperse, but it wasn’t immediately clear where they were going.
Eventually, arrests began.
Late Friday night, a white nationalist march at the University of Virginia campus painted a sobering picture of what was to come. A torch-bearing procession of hundreds that included Spencer and at least one man wearing a Nazi SS T-shirt and another carrying a bat, ended with a clash at the campus rotunda where a Thomas Jefferson statue stands. Spencer admitted on Twitter that a group surrounded counter-protesters at the statue.
Counter-protesters told HuffPost that some among their ranks were then hit with some type of irritant ― they claim it was mace, unleashed by the white supremacists. Protesters on the fringe left, who come to these events to battle the fringe right, often try to hide their identities for fear of retaliation.
Some counter-protesters threatened a HuffPost reporter with a gun when he attempted to photograph, from a distance, those recovering from the irritant.
“Don’t make me use my gun on you,” a woman said to a HuffPost reporter, grabbing a holster on her hip.
Punches and torches were thrown during the fracas, but local police eventually dispersed the crowds.
The rally Saturday was thinly disguised on Facebook as an event in support of the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee downtown, which is slated for removal as the city works to respect diverse voices in its telling of American history. It’s part of a nationwide effort to remove Confederate monuments from public property.
Over 60 Confederate symbols have been removed from city- and state-owned land across the U.S., according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, since avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof massacred nine parishioners at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Most recently, the city of New Orleans toppled four statues honoring the Confederacy.
“These efforts have made us a target for folks around the country who oppose telling the full story of race,” Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer told HuffPost on Friday. “They don’t want the narrative changed or to tell the full story of race. I think this will have the effect of redoubling our progress. To become an honest society, I don’t think we have any choice but to tell the full story.”
The rally’s real purpose, however, shines through in the event’s advertising, which looks a lot like Nazi propaganda and reads like a poorly billed concert:
Meanwhile, Spencer’s followers claimed that that violence was coming to Charlottesville in the form of “roving mobs” of Antifa ― groups of black-clad, masked anti-fascists, anarchists and socialists. It’s a scare tactic that the white nationalists use regularly to pull crowds of people to a city in defense of it. They were able to draw hundreds to Gettysburg over the Fourth of July weekend after claiming members of Antifa were coming to desecrate graves. Antifa never came, but the Ku Klux Klan did, and the only bloodshed came when a lone patriot shot himself in the leg.
The weeks and days leading up to the rally had the city gearing up for war. Indeed, Charlottesville had seen this type of menacing before: White supremacists showed up with torches at the Lee monument in May, an act that evoked Ku Klux Klan symbolism.
Some businesses closed down Saturday to keep employees safe. Others reportedly opened their doors solely as a safe space in case of an emergency. Some locals were prepared to take drastic measures to protect their city.
“As a lifelong resident of Charlottesville and a mother of two, this is about making the world more equitable for my children,” Leslie Scott-Jones of Solidarity C’Ville wrote in a news release. “I am not naive about the urgent threat of August 12, nor do I believe the threat ends there. ... My family has been here since the 1700′s, this is my home, and I have no other choice than to protect it.”