At least three people were killed and 35 injured after a violence-filled Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., where white nationalists had gathered for one of their largest rallies in at least a decade, only to see their event end in chaos and national controversy.
Bloody street brawls broke out between dozens of anti-racism activists and far-right attendees, many of whom carried shields, weapons and Nazi and Confederate battle flags. One woman was killed when a driver plowed a sports car into a crowd of protesters; he was arrested and charged with murder and other crimes. Two troopers died when a Virginia State Police helicopter crashed near the city after monitoring the chaos.
By the end of the day, top political officials around the nation, both Republicans and Democrats, were nearly unanimous in denouncing racism and the violence that stemmed from the rally, which was called off before it could even begin.
But in a television statement that drew criticism from many of his fellow Republicans, as well as from Democrats, President Trump blamed the violence “on many sides, on many sides.” As he did repeatedly during his presidential campaign, Trump avoided direct criticism of the nation’s burgeoning white nationalist movement, whose leaders have openly and repeatedly embraced Trump’s presidency.
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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 12, 2017
His position drew widespread rebukes. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of Trump’s rivals from last year’s race, for example, said it would be “very important” for the country to hear Trump “describe events in Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by white supremacists.”
Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe was far blunter.
“I have a message to all the white supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today,” McAuliffe said in a Saturday evening news conference. “Go home. You are not wanted in this great commonwealth. Shame on you.”
McAuliffe added, “You came here today to hurt people, and you did hurt people.”
Saturday’s violence involved political forces that have been building on the left and the right for years, as anti-racism activists and white-power advocates have battled each other — on the Internet and increasingly in the streets — over the meaning of the nation’s traumatic racial history and its course for the future.
The original reason for Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally was a battle over Charlottesville’s ordered removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The statue is one of many Confederate symbols loathed by anti-racism advocates but embraced by many white Southerners, who see them as part of their heritage, as well as by white nationalists, who believe in a separate nation for white people.
As the date drew nearer in recent weeks, the event became a kind of Woodstock for the far-right. White nationalists and neo-Nazis made plans to travel from around the nation to attend and see movement luminaries such as Richard Spencer, who were proud supporters of the president’s candidacy in 2016 in large part due to his immigration agenda.
They outnumbered, surrounded and scuffled with a small group of anti-racist demonstrators who had come to protest them.
Saturday was a different story. Before the “Unite the Right” rally could even begin, neo-Nazis, white nationalists and other far-right figures began brawling with large numbers of opposing protesters.
White nationalists in helmets, who were holding plastic shields, and anti-racism protesters, carrying red banners, could be seen skirmishing with each other on a city street, with someone spraying what appeared to be a crowd-control substance at the counter-protesters. Virginia state police said pepper spray was being released by crowd members.
The violence led officials to declare a state of emergency and shut down the event. Angered, far-right leaders fled the area. Some anti-racism activists burned Confederate flags that they captured from their adversaries.
“Up until now, I’ve never had a feeling that my own government is cracking down on me,” a shirtless and damp-looking Spencer said in a livestream video after he escaped the scene, saying that anti-racists had attacked him with pepper spray and that he was kicked by police officers holding shields.
In a tweet to his allies, Spencer added: “My recommendation: Disperse. Get out of Charlottesville city limits.”
Protesters were jubilant, waving flags calling for solidarity and chanting anti-racist slogans such as “Black lives matter!” One man dressed in a clown suit with rainbow-colored suspenders held aloft a poster that read, simply, “SHAME.”
Soon after, the driver of a gray sports car with Ohio plates drove toward a crowd of protesters and then accelerated suddenly, plowing into at least a dozen people, sending bodies, shoes and personal belongings flying through the air.
Victims cried out in pain while onlookers howled in shock and ran from the scene, yelling for medical help.
“Oh my God,” someone screamed. “He mowed down everybody.”
Within seconds, the sports car, its front bumper dragging on the ground, reversed course and sped backwards up the street, disappearing around a corner at the next block as a bystander yelled, “Get off the street! Get off the street!”
A 32-year-old woman who was in the crosswalk was killed, police said. She has not been identified while officials work to notify her family. The Democratic Socialists of America said two of their members were among the wounded.
When police showed up after several minutes, they were met with angry cries from some in the crowd who felt the response was too slow.
“Where were you?” one of the protesters demanded. “Where the [expletive] were you?”
The driver, identified by officials as James Alex Fields Jr., 20, was detained shortly after and charged Saturday night with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of failing to stop at an accident that resulted in a death.
Officials have not given a motive or released a political affiliation, but on Saturday night announced that federal authorities had launched a civil rights investigation into the incident.
Shortly after, two state troopers died when a State Police helicopter crashed in the woods outside Charlottesville. The wreckage was fully engulfed in flames, according to images from local media.
The victims were identified as the pilot, Lt. H. Jay Cullen, 48, of Midlothian, Va.; and Berke M.M. Bates, 40, of Quinton, Va. Officials do not suspect foul play.
“Our state police and law enforcement family at-large are mourning this tragic outcome to an already challenging day,” the State Police superintendent, Col. W. Steven Flaherty, said in a statement.
In televised remarks, Trump remarked on the “terrible events” and condemned “in the strongest possible terms, this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides, on many sides.”
He added: “No matter our color, creed, religion or political party, we are all Americans first. We love our country, we love our God, we love our flag, we’re proud of our country, we’re proud of who we are, so we’re going to get this situation straightened out in Charlottesville, and we want to study it, and we want to see what we’re doing wrong as a country.”
As more reports about the day’s casualties came in, Trump tweeted: “Condolences to the family of the young woman killed today, and best regards to all of those injured, in Charlottesville, Virginia. So sad!”
Leaders from all over the country chimed in with denunciations.
”Our hearts are with today’s victims,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a tweet. “White supremacy is a scourge. This hate and its terrorism must be confronted and defeated.”
”White supremacists aren’t patriots, they’re traitors,” tweeted U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) “Americans must unite against hatred & bigotry.”
“The white nationalist demonstration in #Charlottesville is a reprehensible display of racism and hatred that has no place in our society,” tweeted Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
But Trump’s remarks — especially his blame for the violence on “many sides” — drew particular criticism.
“The violence, chaos, and apparent loss of life in Charlottesville is not the fault of ‘many sides,’” tweeted Virginia Atty. Gen. Mark Herring, a Democrat. “It is racists and white supremacists.”
“Mr. President — we must call evil by its name,” tweeted Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.). “These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”
As events unfolded in the morning, rally organizer Jason Kessler blamed the chaos on the city’s recent attempts to restrict the rally’s location, disrupting organizers’ plans.
“There are so many people that have come in, that have been Maced in the eyes, like half of our speakers have been Maced,” Kessler said in a livestream video. “There’s not a … single Charlottesville police officer out there protecting our guys.”
Later in the evening, Kessler disavowed the driver who ran over protesters but laid the responsibility for harm on the city.
“Charlottesville has blood on its hands, OK?” Kessler said. “We have been organizing this event for two months and we had a security plan in place to protect people.… The police stood down and refused to separate the counter-demonstrators, and now people are dead.”
The event also had drawn a range of counter-protesters, including anti-fascists and interfaith clergy.
Many protesters drove in from other towns in Virginia and from other states to join the counter-protest, including Mark Tinkleman, who came from Philadelphia with 10 other members of the protest group Refuse Fascism.
“We tried to march to make it clear that we’re not going to be intimidated,” Tinkleman said. “This is what Trump is doing to the country — all these fascists coming together, white supremacists, the Klan, neo-Nazis. We can’t ignore that.”
Not all of the encounters between the far-right and the anti-racism protesters were violent, said Jen Siomacco, a 31-year-old Charlottesville resident who came out to protest the white nationalists.
Personally, she didn’t see “a whole lot of confrontation and aggressive violence,” though there were a “good number of small scuffles” where some punches were thrown. “But they were broken up by police,” she said.
Many residents stayed home instead of going out, and area businesses, disturbed by the rally plans, shut down for the day. Some reportedly put a sign on their windows: “If equality & diversity aren’t for you, then neither are we.”
By 6:30 p.m., the streets where the clashes had occurred were largely deserted, except for large numbers of police and a few residents from houses nearby, who emerged to survey the scene and walk their dogs.
Fearing more violence, the City Council issued an emergency ordinance to give the police chief power to issue a curfew or restrict people’s ability to gather or drive outside.
At the First United Methodist Church, a few blocks from where the car crashed into protesters, volunteers had opened the church to those seeking shelter, including witnesses to the attack who were still shaken.
“It was the most brutal scene I’ve ever seen,” said Izaac Rodriguez, 22, whose friend, Justice, was struck in the leg by the car.
Jennifer Rolf-Maloney, 24, of Virginia Beach, decided to make the two-hour drive to join the counter-protest. She was inspired by history.
“Back in World War II, the Nazis came to power because people turned a blind eye,” she said. “This is home-grown terrorism.”
Times staff writer Cloud and special correspondent Armengol reported from Charlottesville, and staff writer Pearce from Los Angeles.
8 p.m.: This article was updated with additional accounts from eyewitnesses and with comments from Paul D. Ryan and John McCain.
6:45 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details gathered from eyewitnesses in Charlottesville.
1:25 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect 19 people injured and include President Trump’s remarks on the day’s events in Charlottesville.
12:45 p.m.: This article was updated with the death of one protester, who was struck by a vehicle.
11:45 a.m.: This article was updated with new details, including a vehicle striking several people.
10:55 a.m.: This article was updated with new details, including a tweet from President Trump denouncing the violence.
9:30 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times staff reporting.
This article was originally published at 9 a.m.