Violence broke out at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia’s Emancipation Park this past Saturday leaving three killed and scores injured. The “Unite the Right Rally,” led in part by local white supremacist Jason Kessler, was fueled in response to an ongoing lawsuit over the removal of the statue of former Confederate army general Robert E. Lee from the park, and a unanimous City Council decision to change the name of the downtown public center from Lee to Emancipation Park. Fistfights erupted between Ku Klux Klan-affiliated demonstrators and anti-fascist protesters hours before the rally start time, raising concerns from local law enforcement and prompting Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to issue a state of emergency. Several hours after Gov. McAuliffe’s action, a man, who was later identified, arrested, and charged according to the Superintendent of the Albemarle-Charlottesville County Regional Jail, ploughed in reverse through a crowd of counter protesters and bystanders, killing one and injuring many. Later that same day, a police helicopter used in connection to the state of emergency crashed just outside the city, killing two officers.
Kessler immediately pointed a finger at local law enforcement and government in a statement after the day’s violence, claiming “the blame for today’s (Saturday’s) violence lies primarily with Charlottesville government officials and the police officers who failed to maintain law and order, protect the First Amendment rights of rally participants, and provide for their safety.” During a Sunday service in Charlottesville’s Mount Zion First African Baptist Church, Gov. McAuliffe rebuked Kessler, “we need to call it out for what it is.” He continued, “to the white supremacists and the neo-Nazis that came to our beautiful state yesterday, there is no place for you here in Charlottesville. There is no place for you in Virginia. And there is no place for you in the United States of America.” President Trump later chimed in, in a reaction that many found far too brief and obtuse, condemning, “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides,” a move which faced near-universal bipartisan disapproval over his failure to denounce white supremacy.
The man charged with injuring 20 pedestrians and killing civil rights activist Heather Heyer, aged 32, seemed to have taken a page out of the I.S.I.S. playbook, mirroring their recent strategy of using vehicles to careen through crowds of people. These contentious confrontations among alt-right groups, local governments, and anti-facist protesters in the southern United States relate to a larger trend in recent years as local governments have attempted to dismantle Confederate memorials. Saturday’s rally marks the fourth time since May that white nationalist groups have gathered in Charlottesville to demonstrate against the litigation surrounding the statue and the park’s new name.
Despite the city government’s initial decision to revoke Kessler and the white nationalist group’s permit in the week leading up to the rally over concerns of the potential for violent confrontations, U.S. District Court Judge Glen Conrad offered an injunction in favour of Kessler’s right to host the rally and reissued the permit. The Rutherford Institute and A.C.L.U. took to Kessler’s defence, litigating on behalf of his right to free speech as articulated under the First Amendment.
Solidarity rallies and vigils after Saturday’s violence have already taken place and are in the works this week across the U.S., from Atlanta, Georgia to Los Angeles, California.
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