CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, is reeling after violent clashes erupted between a large gathering of white nationalists and hundreds of counter protesters. Three people were killed amid the turmoil that has exposed the nation’s roiling racial and political divisions.
A federal investigation is underway after a 20-year-old Ohio man allegedly rammed his vehicle into a crowd of anti-racism protesters, killing a woman and seriously injuring scores of others.
Virginia State Police are also investigating after two troopers died when their helicopter, which had been deployed to the protests, crashed outside the city.
White nationalists descended on the city this week to rally against plans to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a city park.
The gathering is believed to be the largest in a decade of such groups, including neo-Nazis, skinheads and members of the Ku Klux Klan. Hundreds of other people came out to protest against the racism.
Fights broke out Friday night, when hundreds of white nationalists marched through the University of Virginia campus carrying torches. The violence escalated Saturday with street brawls and clashes.
Rally supporters and counter-protesters threw punches, hurled water bottles and unleashed chemical sprays. Men dressed in militia uniforms were carrying shields and long guns.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency. Police in riot gear ordered people out. Helicopters circled overhead.
The car crash
A 32-year-old woman was killed when a Dodge Challenger suddenly barreled through a street filled with peaceful counter protesters Saturday afternoon. The impact hurled people into the air, and video of the crash shows the car reversing and hitting more people.
The woman killed, Heather Heyer, was hit as she crossed the street.
State police identified the driver as 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr., who had recently moved to Ohio from where he grew up in Kentucky. He was charged with second-degree murder and other counts.
His mother, Samantha Bloom, told The Associated Press she knew her son was attending a rally in Virginia but didn’t know it was a white supremacist rally. She said: “I thought it had something to do with Trump. Trump’s not a white supremacist.” She became visibly upset as she learned of the injuries and deaths.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said federal authorities will pursue a civil rights investigation into the circumstances of the crash. He said violence arising from hatred cannot be tolerated.
The helicopter crash
A state police helicopter deployed to the protests crashed outside the city as the violent clashes seemed to be quieting down.
Robby E. Noll, who lives near the crash site, heard the helicopter sputtering. He said pieces of the helicopter started to break off as it fell from the sky. Black smoke then billowed out from the tree tops.
Both troopers onboard were killed. Authorities identified them as Lt. H. Jay Cullen, 48, and Berke M.M. Bates, who was one day shy of his 41st birthday.
State police said the crash was linked to the protests but have released few other details. The crash remains under investigation.
President Donald Trump on Saturday condemned the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” in Charlottesville.
The statement drew ire from Democrats and some Republicans who called on him to specifically denounce white supremacy. Former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted: “There is only one side.”
Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer, a Democrat, said he blamed the nation’s increasing political divisions “at the doorstep of the White House and the people around the president.”
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, said on Twitter: “Mr. President — we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”
The Daily Stormer, a white supremacist website that promoted the demonstration, praised Trump’s reaction.
“Nothing specific against us,” the website stated. “No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
On Sunday, the White House issued another statement saying Trump “said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred and of course that includes white Supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi and all extremist groups.” The White House would not attach a staffer’s name to the statement.
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