‘Unite The Right’ rally, protests in downtown Charlottesville turns deadly

Man charged with second-degree murder after car plows into counter-protesters

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Medical personnel helping someone who was injured when a car plowed through a crowd of people near the Downtown Mall. 

Alexis Gravely | Cavalier Daily

Three people are dead and numerous others are injured after the “Unite The Right” rally Saturday. The day was anticipated to be tense, but turned violent as the rally drew hundreds of white nationalists and counter-demonstrators to downtown Charlottesville.

Before the rally could start in Emancipation Park, however, police declared an unlawful assembly and people were forced to leave the area. The rally was expected to draw members of the “alt-right,” a movement known for its racist and populist beliefs. Dozens of white nationalists later regrouped at McIntire Park, where University alumnus Richard Spencer and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke addressed their supporters.

During the afternoon, a car plowed through a crowd of people near the intersection of Fourth Street and Water Street, killing one person and injuring 19 others. Police arrested 20-year-old Ohio resident James Alex Fields Jr., who is now charged with second-degree murder and is facing other charges.

The victim was Heather Heyer, a 32-year old woman from Charlottesville.  A GoFundMe page identifies her as a Greene County native and William Monroe High School graduate. A candlelight vigil for Heyer was originally planned for Sunday evening, but was cancelled due to safety concerns. A Facebook Live vigil event has been scheduled for 7:00 p.m. Sunday and is being hosted by Congregate C'Ville.

A second incident occurred when a Virginia State Police helicopter crashed near the Birdwood Golf Course, killing both men aboard. The helicopter had been assisting law enforcement in Charlottesville Saturday and officials do not believe foul play was involved.

Lt. H. Jay Cullen, who was piloting the helicopter, and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates died in the crash. 

“This is not our story,” Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas said at a press conference. “Outsiders do not tell our story. We will tell our own story.”

It was unclear where the rally would be held until Friday evening, when a federal judge granted an injunction allowing plans to move forward for the event to take place in Emancipation Park. The park is home to a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that City Council voted in favor of removing earlier this year — a move which Jason Kessler, a pro-white activist and the rally’s organizer, said the “Unite The Right” rally was intended to criticize.

The city previously wanted to grant the permit only if it would take place in McIntire Park, but lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and The Rutherford Institute successfully challenged the decision in court on First Amendment grounds.

The rally was scheduled to start Saturday at noon in Emancipation Park, but members of the white nationalist “alt-right” and counter-protesters had arrived in the park and near the Downtown Mall hours beforehand.

Numerous people chanted with signs, while others had shields and wore helmets to protect themselves. Some people who appeared to be associated with the “alt-right” wore militia attire, carried assault rifles and wore bulletproof vests.

At approximately 11:40 a.m., law enforcement officials declared the rally an unlawful assembly after sporadic fighting and numerous chemical irritants were used on the crowd, although it was unclear whether they were coming from “alt-right” rally-goers or counter-protesters.

Law enforcement officers in full riot gear then began forming a line at the rear of Emancipation Park, slowly moving forward to push people out of the park and toward the counter-protesters, many of whom were acting aggressively. Police warned anyone who remained in the park, on the street or in the sidewalk that they would be arrested.

Following the declaration of an unlawful assembly, many of the protesters began moving to McIntire Park, with others dispersing entirely and some staying to protest on the Downtown Mall opposite both police and counter-protesters.

Peaceful counter-protests were set up in McGuffey Park and Justice Park near downtown to provide the community with a quiet respite, offering a place to rest, first aid, water and food to those who needed it.

Saturday morning also saw Albemarle County and Charlottesville declare a local state of emergency. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) also declared a state of emergency closer to noon.

Thomas said 35 people were treated for injuries by city personnel on Saturday.

Virginia State Police made three arrests related to the “Unite The Right” rally and the unlawful assembly that was declared at Emancipation Park. The charges included misdemeanor and battery assault, disorderly conduct and carrying a concealed handgun.

At McIntire Park, dozens of members of the “alt-right” gathered around a picnic table to listen to speeches from Duke; Spencer, who is also the head of the “alt-right” National Policy Institute, and Mike Enoch, host of the “alt-right” podcast “The Daily Shoah.”

Spencer spent much of his time on the table criticizing the police — who he had claimed maced him — and city officials, who he believed were responsible for the breakdown of order at the morning’s gathering in Emancipation Park. He reaffirmed to the crowd that they would be back to Charlottesville.

“To Mayor Mike Signer and Wes Bellamy and all these little creeps of this little town who don’t understand who they’re dealing with — the local little losers — we are never backing down,” Spencer told the crowd. “We are going to be back.”

Spencer repeatedly mispronounced Signer’s last name, and anti-Semitic comments could be heard from the crowd, targeting the mayor.

Duke also condemned the city and police, but spent much of his time focused on his belief that that “European Americans face massive discrimination in this country.”

“We will be back in Charlottesville as long as it takes until we secure our rights, our freedom, our heritage and our future,” Duke said — drawing striking similarities to the Fourteen Words used as a slogan for white supremacists.

After Duke spoke, organizers of the rally encouraged the protesters to disperse and return to their hotels as police and counter-protesters approached.

Several of the white nationalists stayed back and engaged in a verbal, and then physical, altercation with some of the counter-protesters who had arrived while Spencer and Duke were speaking.

As “alt-right” supporters exited McIntire Park, they left behind discarded tiki torches in numerous trash cans around the parking lot. These appeared to be the same torches used on Friday evening, when hundreds of white nationalists marched through Grounds and then encircled the statue of Thomas Jefferson north of the Rotunda.

When the McIntire Park gathering came to an end, news broke of a car plowing through a crowd of counter-protesters near the Downtown Mall.

A video widely shared on social media appeared to show a gray Dodge Challenger traveling at a high speed towards pedestrians near Fourth Street and Water Street. An image captured by a photographer with The Daily Progress also showed numerous people in the air as they were hit by the vehicle.

The vehicle appeared to hit two other cars and then fled the scene, although Fields was later arrested.

“We are currently treating this as a criminal homicide investigation,” Thomas said on Saturday evening.

Law enforcement blocked the scene of the incident off from the public. The two remaining vehicles were visibly damaged and posters littered the ground around the cars, reading slogans such as “Always Antifascist,” “Pro Black” and “Racism Destroys Society.”

Fields is now charged with one count of second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of hit and run with injury.

The deadly incident is also now the subject of a federal civil rights investigation.

“The Richmond FBI Field Office, the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia have opened a civil rights investigation into the circumstances of the deadly vehicular incident that occurred earlier Saturday morning,” a statement released late Saturday night said. “The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence, and as this is an ongoing investigation we are not able to comment further at this time.”

McAuliffe traveled to Charlottesville for a press conference with local leaders Saturday evening, where he denounced who he referred to as the white supremacists and Nazis who had come to the city.

“Please go home and never come back,” McAuliffe said. “Take your hatred and take your bigotry.”

He called for healing political divisions and said he had been in touch with President Donald Trump. Trump denounced the rally in a speech Saturday and later tweeted his condolences to the families of the three people who had died.

Signer criticized a “tide of hatred, and of intolerance and of bigotry” that came to Charlottesville.

“It is brought here by outsiders and it is brought here by people who belong in the trash heap of history with these ideas,” Signer said. “This day will not define us.”

Kessler took to social media Saturday night and posted a video on his Twitter account saying “Charlottesville has blood on its hands.” He also denied he was a white nationalist and criticized media coverage of the “Unite The Right” rally.

He blamed local officials and police for the day’s chaos.

“The police stood down and refused to separate the counter-demonstrators and now people are dead,” Kessler said. “And it just shows you how disorganized they were — a helicopter crashed, they were not prepared.”

While Kessler disavowed violence, he said free speech needs to be protected in order to avoid “political violence.”

“Whoever did the thing with the car, that was really really stupid and I completely disavow it,” Kessler said. “But I can only say that political violence is just going to increase if we cannot enforce the Constitution of the United States.”

Kessler, Spencer and others involve with the "Unite The Right" rally will be holding a press conference at 2 p.m. Sunday near Charlottesville City Hall. 

This article has been updated with information from a Sunday morning press release from the city, as well as information about Kessler's press conference. It has also been updated to reflect that the candlelight vigil for Heyer was cancelled and that a Facebook Live event has been scheduled for Sunday evening. 

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