Several hundred white supremacists took to University Grounds Friday evening for a torchlit march that was met by counter-protesters and several tense exchanges on the steps of the Rotunda.
This march came the night before the “Unite The Right” rally is set to take place in Emancipation Park, which is expected to be attended by activists associated with the “alt-right” — a movement that has been defined by racist, white nationalist and populist elements.
This also comes nearly three months after a group of “alt-right” protesters held a much smaller torchlit rally in Emancipation Park, and just over a month after a North Carolina-based chapter of the Ku Klux Klan faced hundreds counter-protesters in Justice Park.
Jason Kessler, a pro-white activist who is also organizing Saturday’s rally, led the march from Nameless Field to the Lawn, before circling the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the steps of the Rotunda.
Protesters marched to chants of “White Lives Matter,” “You will not replace us!” and “Whose streets? Our streets!” Organizers asked for all white men over 190 pounds marching not to carry torches, but to march at the side of procession as its security detail.
LIVE from a white nationalist alt-right rally HAPPENING NOW on U.Va. Grounds. Chanting "You will not replace us!" pic.twitter.com/xL1NpJ9mdM— Alexis Gravely (@_AlexisWasHere) August 12, 2017
Among the protesters was Christopher Cantwell, host of the “alt-right” radio show “Radical Agenda,” and described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “an anti-Semitic, Alt-Right shock jock and an unapologetic fascist.”
Happening now near UVA pic.twitter.com/IxWOFnUhA2— Tim Dodson (@Tim_Dodson) August 12, 2017
Waiting for the white nationalist protestors at the Jefferson Statue was a small contingent of counter-protesters, who circled and linked arms with their backs toward the statue. The “alt-right” marchers surrounded the counter-protesters and continued chanting until a fight broke out.
Second-year College student Alex Spratley was one of the students counter-protesting the march.
“This is not something that we thought would ever happen, that we would ever see in our lifetime,” Spratley said. “It’s wild.”
Police declared the march an unlawful assembly and separated the two groups, but not before several were injured and reported being pepper-sprayed — it’s unclear where the alleged pepper spray came from. Marchers also began swinging and throwing their lit tiki torches, adding to the chaos of the event.
After the march dissipated, counter-protesters broke away from the statue and began chanting “Black Lives Matter.” Dozens of marchers moved back to Nameless Field, where they piled their unlit torches into the back of a U-Haul truck.
While waiting for rides at Nameless Field after the march, several of the "alt-right" protesters hurled anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic slurs at several reporters and community members asking them questions. One man asking questions was thrown to the ground and surrounded by marchers after a brief physical altercation.
Several “alt-right” protesters reported to a police officer that the tires on one of their rental vans had been slashed while they attended the march, leaving them without transportation.
Eli Mosley, who described himself as the “command soldier major of the ‘alt-right,’” said he was involved with organizing the march.
“I run this as a military operation,” he said. “I was in the army.”
He specifically criticized Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer and Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy, whom he described as being members of the “radical left.” He alleged local officials would eventually set their sights on removing the statue of Jefferson from the front of the Rotunda.
There have been no public discussions about removing this statue.
Signer called the march a “cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism and intolerance” on his Facebook page Friday night.
“Everyone has a right under the First Amendment to express their opinion peaceably, so here's mine: not only as the Mayor of Charlottesville, but as a U.Va. faculty member and alumnus, I am beyond disgusted by this unsanctioned and despicable display of visual intimidation on a college campus,” Signer said.
University President Teresa Sullivan released a statement early Saturday morning condemning what she called an “unprovoked assault on members of our community.”
“As President of the University of Virginia, I am deeply saddened and disturbed by the hateful behavior displayed by torch-bearing protestors [sic] that marched on our Grounds this evening,” Sullivan said. “The violence displayed on Grounds is intolerable and is entirely inconsistent with the University’s values.”
These protests come at a time when the future of the Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park — formerly known as Lee Park — has been a topic of much controversy and debate. The Charlottesville City Council voted earlier this year to remove the statue from the park, which has now become the subject of an ongoing lawsuit.