Charlottesville (United States) (AFP) – A white nationalists’ rally erupted into deadly violence Saturday as a car plowed into a crowd while demonstrators and counter-protesters clashed, spurring President Donald Trump to condemn “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe had already declared a state of emergency when a dark sedan surged into a crowd of what witnesses said was counter-demonstrators in the picturesque university city of Charlottesville.
One person was killed and 19 were hurt in the ramming, police said. Another 15 people were injured elsewhere in connection to the rally.
Hundreds had descended on the city either to march in or rail against a “Unite the Right Rally.” Unrest quickly flared even as riot police and national guard troops flooded the city’s downtown.
An AFP journalist saw demonstrators, some clad in militia uniforms, throwing punches and hurling bottles even before the official 12 pm EST (1600 GMT) rally start time.
State police tweeted that some in the crowd were using pepper spray. Riot police at one point struggled to hold back surging demonstrators, news footage showed.
Ambulances quickly arrived at the scene of the car crash, which a witness told AFP was “intentional” — saying one girl got “tore up” after the car “backed up and they hit again.”
He said the dark sedan “raced down here, jumped over the speed bumps and it backed up and it hit everyone again.”
Multiple witnesses told US media the victims were counter-protestors denouncing the so-called “alt-right.”
The driver was in police custody, the city said.
Trump, who is on a working vacation at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, said the hatred that erupted Saturday has existed in America for “a long, long time.”
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides,” he said. “It has no place in America.”
“The hate and the division must stop, and must stop right now.”
The president stopped short of condemning white nationalist and supremacist groups, and ignored shouted questions from journalists about the groups, which broadly supported Trump in last year’s election.
– ‘Take our country back’ –
The planned rally never got officially underway, as McAuliffe declared a state of emergency and authorities began clearing Emancipation Park after declaring those gathered there to be part of an “unlawful assembly.”
By midday local authorities had reported one arrest.
“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,” McAuliffe wrote in a statement on his emergency declaration.
McAuliffe said he was “disgusted by the hatred, bigotry and violence these protesters have brought to our state over the past 24 hours.”
The previous evening hundreds of torch-bearing far right marchers demonstrated at the University of Virginia campus, which also turned into a brawl after they were met by counter-protesters.
Right-wing blogger Jason Kessler, who had called for Saturday’s demonstration, declared the day “a monumental event for our movement.”
David Duke, a former “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan white power group, also called the event “a turning point.”
“We are determined to take our country back. We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump,” he told the Indianapolis Star newspaper at the rally.
“That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Some brandished Confederate battle flags, considered a symbol of racism by many Americans, and other raised their arms in Nazi salutes.
Anti-racism protesters waved flags from the Black Lives Matter movement, chanting slogans like “We say no to racist fear” and “No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA.”
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 Charlottesville’s planned removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, who led Confederate forces in the US Civil War. They were outnumbered by hundreds of jeering counter-protesters.
– ‘Vile bigotry’ –
This time, the extreme right brought in big names of the “alt-right” movement — which has been emboldened, critics say, by Trump’s ascent to the White House — in a bid to attract more supporters.
Normally reticent First Lady Melania Trump took to Twitter to respond to the demonstrations, writing, “Our country encourages freedom of speech, but let’s communicate w/o hate in our hearts. No good comes from violence. #Charlottesville.”
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan also weighed in: “The views fueling the spectacle in Charlottesville are repugnant. Let it only serve to unite Americans against this kind of vile bigotry.”
University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan on Saturday condemned that demonstration, saying in a statement that “the intimidating and abhorrent behavior displayed by the alt-right protesters was wrong.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist groups, said Saturday’s “Unite the Right Rally” could mark one of the most significant demonstrations of its kind in decades.