Officials: White nationalist rally linked to 3 deaths

McAuliffe declares state of emergency after violence at rally

By The Associated Press , Rachel Lucas - Weekend Anchor / Reporter , Jessica Jewell - Weekend Anchor / Reporter
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - A car plowed into a crowd of people peacefully protesting a white nationalist rally Saturday in a Virginia college town, killing one person, hurting dozens more and ratcheting up tension in an increasingly violent confrontation.

A helicopter crash that killed the pilot and a passenger later in the afternoon outside Charlottesville also was linked to the rally by State Police, though officials did not elaborate on how the crash was connected.

The chaos boiled over at what is believed to be the largest group of white nationalists to come together in a decade: the governor declared a state of emergency, police dressed in riot gear ordered people out and helicopters circled overhead. The group had gathered to protest plans to remove a statue of the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and others who arrived to protest the racism.

Matt Korbon, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, said several hundred counter-protesters were marching when "suddenly there was just this tire screeching sound." A silver Dodge Challenger smashed into another car, then backed up, barreling through "a sea of people."

The impact hurled people into the air. Those left standing scattered, screaming and running for safety in different directions.

The driver was later arrested, authorities said.

The turbulence began Friday night, when the white nationalists carried torches though the university campus in what they billed as a "pro-white" demonstration. It quickly spiraled into violence Saturday morning. Hundreds of people threw punches, hurled water bottles and unleashed chemical sprays. One person was arrested in connection.

President Donald Trump condemned "in the strongest possible terms" what he called an "egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides" after the clashes. He called for "a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives."

Trump says he's spoken with the governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, and "we agreed that the hate and the division must stop and must stop right now."

But some of the white nationalists cited Trump's victory as validation for their beliefs, and Trump's critics pointed to the president's racially tinged rhetoric as exploiting the nation's festering racial tension.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson noted that Trump for years publicly questioned President Barack Obama's citizenship.

"We are in a very dangerous place right now," he said.

Right-wing blogger Jason Kessler had called for what he termed a "pro-white" rally in Charlottesville. White nationalists and their opponents promoted the event for weeks.

Oren Segal, who directs the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, said multiple white power groups gathered in Charlottesville, including members of neo-Nazi organizations, racist skinhead groups and Ku Klux Klan factions.

The white nationalist organizations Vanguard America and Identity Evropa; the Southern nationalist League of the South; the National Socialist Movement; the Traditionalist Workers Party; and the Fraternal Order of Alt Knights also were on hand, he said, along with several groups with a smaller presence.

On the other side, anti-fascist demonstrators also gathered in Charlottesville, but they generally aren't organized like white nationalist factions, said Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Many others were just locals caught in the fray.

Colleen Cook, 26, stood on a curb shouting at the rally attendees to go home.

Cook, a teacher who attended the University of Virginia, said she sent her son, who is black, out of town for the weekend.

"This isn't how he should have to grow up," she said.

Cliff Erickson leaned against a fence and took in the scene. He said he thinks removing the statue amounts to erasing history and said the "counter-protesters are crazier than the alt-right."

"Both sides are hoping for a confrontation," he said.

It's the latest confrontation in Charlottesville since the city about 100 miles outside of Washington, D.C., voted earlier this year to remove a statue of Lee.

In May, a torch-wielding group that included prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer gathered around the statue for a nighttime protest, and in July, about 50 members of a North Carolina-based KKK group traveled there for a rally, where they were met by hundreds of counter-protesters.

Kessler said this week that the rally is partly about the removal of Confederate symbols but also about free speech and "advocating for white people."

"This is about an anti-white climate within the Western world and the need for white people to have advocacy like other groups do," he said in an interview.

Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer said he was disgusted that the white nationalists had come to his town and blamed Trump for inflaming racial prejudices.

"I'm not going to make any bones about it. I place the blame for a lot of what you're seeing in American today right at the doorstep of the White House and the people around the president," he said.

Charlottesville, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a liberal-leaning city that's home to the flagship University of Virginia and Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.

The statue's removal is part of a broader city effort to change the way Charlottesville's history of race is told in public spaces. The city has also renamed Lee Park, where the statue stands, and Jackson Park, named for Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. They're now called Emancipation Park and Justice Park, respectively.

For now, the Lee statue remains. A group called the Monument Fund filed a lawsuit arguing that removing the statue would violate a state law governing war memorials. A judge has agreed to temporarily block the city from removing the statue for six months.

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Associated Press writers Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia, Heidi Brown in Charlottesville, and Claire Galofaro in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.

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3:37 p.m. UPDATE: Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer confirmed at least one person has been killed in Saturday's violent white nationalist rally. 

He posted on Twitter saying "I am heartbroken that a life has been lost here. I urge all people of good will--go home."

A hospital official confirmed one person was killed and 19 were injured when a car plowed into downtown Charlottesville.

12:38 p.m. UPDATE: Governor Terry McAuliffe released the following statement regarding the emergency declaration he authorized this morning:

“At 11:28 a.m., the Virginia State Police contacted me to request a state of emergency and I immediately authorized the declaration. We have maintained close contact with the Virginia State Police, the Virginia National Guard, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, and other state and local officials on the ground in Charlottesville, and I agree that the situation in Charlottesville warrants an emergency declaration by me, in order to aid City and County law enforcement in their efforts to restore public safety and order in the City of Charlottesville and the surrounding area.  In the days and weeks leading up to this event, my Administration engaged in extensive planning and preparation to ensure that the rally in Charlottesville could be held in a safe and lawful environment. These preparations included the deployment of a large number of state troopers, as well as the Virginia National Guard for support.

“It is now clear that public safety cannot be safeguarded without additional powers, and that the mostly out-of-state protesters have come to Virginia to endanger our citizens and property.  I am disgusted by the hatred, bigotry and violence these protesters have brought to our state over the past 24 hours. The actions I have taken are intended to assist local government and restore public safety. 

“My entire team will continue to monitor this situation throughout the day, and take appropriate action as necessary.”

12:05 p.m. UPDATE: Governor Terry McAuliffe declares a state of emergency after violence erupts in Charlottesville during white nationalist rally and counterprotests at Emancipation Park. Despite the rally not scheduled to start until noon, thousands showed up early.

11:55 a.m. UPDATE: Due to violence, the Virginia State Police have declared the "Unite the Right" rally an unlawful assembly and have asked members of the public to leave.

Two people were injured at the "Unite the Right" rally held in Charlottesville Saturday Virginia State Police said. Injuries were reported before 11 a.m. Saturday. Virginia State Police from across the commonwealth, including from Southwest and Central Virginia are stationed there.

Crowds arrived early and tensions continued to heighten through the morning. Virginia State Police said crowd members deployed pepper spray at other individuals at the protest.

Police anticipate as many as 2,000 to 6,000 people, including counterprotesters, to converge in the Virginia city, in an event that could be "the largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades in the United States," as described by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

On Friday night, alt-right activists gathered at the University of Virginia and marched holding torches throughout the campus.

After seeing images of the march, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer released a statement referring to Friday's rally as a "cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism, and intolerance march down the lawns of the architect of our Bill of Rights."

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