A picturesque Virginia city braced Saturday for a flood of white nationalist demonstrators as well as counter-protesters, declaring a local emergency as law enforcement attempted to quell early violent clashes.
Thousands were expected to descend on Charlottesville either to demonstrate in or rail against a “Unite the Right Rally,” hours after hundreds of torch-bearing marchers demonstrated at the normally tranquil city’s university campus.
On Friday the state’s governor Terry McAuliffe in a statement called on Virginians to stay clear of the rallies, but by Saturday morning hundreds from both sides had already begun to skirmish.
Police began evacuating the city’s Emancipation Park and making arrests after declaring those gathered there to be part of an “unlawful assembly.” There were two “serious but not life-threatening” injuries, police reported on Twitter.
They also tweeted that some crowd members were using pepper spray. An AFP journalist at the scene witnessed demonstrators, some clad in militia uniforms, throwing punches and hurling bottles even before the official 12 pm EST (1600 GMT) rally start time.
In light of the unrest, city leaders declared a state of emergency, determining “the imminent threat of civil disturbance, unrest, potential injury to persons, and destruction of public and personal property to be of sufficient severity and magnitude to warrant coordinated local government action.”
‘Hateful behavior’ -
Saturday’s far-right rally follows a much smaller demonstration last month that saw a few dozen Ku Klux Klan-linked marchers gather to protest the city’s planned removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, who led Confederate forces in the US Civil War.
Though they were outnumbered by hundreds of jeering counter-protesters, the extreme right marchers-some donning the traditional white hood of the notorious white power group-saw their images spread worldwide on social media.
And this time the extreme right brought in big names of the “alt-right” movement-emboldened, critics say, by Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House-in a bid to attract more supporters.
In preparation for Saturday’s demonstration, units of the Virginia National Guard were on alert as the city girded for possible violence.
Friday night’s pre-demonstration turned into a brawl after torch-bearers linked to the white supremacist far right were met by a group of counter-protesters.
Charlottesville’s mayor Mike Signer dubbed Friday’s march a “cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism and intolerance.”
University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan on Saturday condemned the demonstration, saying in a statement that “the intimidating and abhorrent behavior displayed by the alt-right protesters was wrong.”
One protester was arrested and charged with assault and disorderly conduct, she said, adding that “I am deeply saddened and disturbed by the hateful behavior displayed by torch-bearing protesters that marched on our grounds this evening.