CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — A white supremacist rally planned for noon on Saturday, and billed as the largest in decades, was declared an “unlawful assembly” and was cleared by law enforcement. The gathering turned violent before noon, as waves of arriving white nationalist marchers armed with cudgels and carrying shields met with heckles and projectiles from counterprotesters who sought to block their route.
Governor Terry McAuliffe (D-VA) declared a state of emergency “to aid state response to violence” at the rally. National Guard could be seen, as well as state police. The city of Charlottesville also declared a local emergency, which allows it to access additional resources to respond to the conflict. Late Friday night, a judge granted the white nationalist group permission to rally in protest of the city’s decision to take down a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park.
— Robert King (@RbtKing) August 12, 2017
As the crowd built up outside the park where the rally was to be held, minor scuffles started breaking out between counter protesters – a mix of silent prayer, Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist – knowns as “antifa” – and the KKK-like group promoting white supremacy.
The park entrance where the worst of the violence erupted had earlier in the day been blocked by clergy in religious robes, members of a separate nonviolent resistance protest against the hate rally. Standing two and three deep, shoulder to shoulder, the clergy eventually gave way in the face of a concerted forward march by the white power vanguard with their shields.
A tense scene had pervaded for hours Saturday morning, with occasional small scuffles here and there, but it was not until around 11 o’clock that the violence fully broke out.
Virginia state troopers shut down two corners of the park where the rally was to be held. This left open two staircase entrances on the other two corners along Market Street, with barriers guiding rallygoers single-file into the park.
At one of those two entrances, a group of heavily armed, unidentified militiamen stood by the groups of white nationalists, while a group of antifa counterprotesters sought to rile them up. State police stood above, between metal barriers at the edge of the park, watching.
At the other entrance a group of clergy stood two deep at the top of the stairs, seeking to block passage. But after the corner below erupted in clashes, the group was forced to stand aside as white nationalists filed up this staircase and made it into the park. It was unclear if the clergy resisted.
From that new vantage point, Unite the Right rallygoers began throwing water bottles back at the antifa group that had begun flinging bottles, balloons, and other objects. ThinkProgress reporter Joshua Eaton also noted that protesters, armed with homemade shields, were using mace and pepper spray on each other.
Between these two entrances, a fight began between antifa counterprotesters and white nationalists, focused near the corner where this ThinkProgress Facebook Live video took place, there have been fights as well as bottles and smoking cannisters thrown.
Throughout all of this, the Virginia state troopers stayed off to the side, not intervening, as they have almost the entire area cordoned off.
After the Facebook Live video, ThinkProgress reporter Alan Pyke watched a smoking cannister fired from the group of white supremacists in the park into the group of counterprotesters.
Then a white nationalist organizer in the park announced through a bullhorn that the rally had been deemed an unlawful assembly and they’ve been ordered to disperse. A Charlottesville police officer then confirmed this through a megaphone and ordered everyone to disperse. Fights continued to spasm through the crowd for another half hour as most filed away through the streets open to them.
— VA State Police (@VSPPIO) August 12, 2017
Eaton, standing one block away from the park, said that while riot police used a small amount of tear gas to clear the gathering, they initially allowed protesters to gather in nearby intersections and streets.
“Protests have now largely moved to the side streets,” said Eaton who could see hundreds of protesters in the two blocks around the park after the rally was disbursed.
— VA State Police (@VSPPIO) August 12, 2017
The “scores” of riot police started to line up at the 1st Street intersection near the park and started to push protesters out of the streets.
Observing the tense scene leading up the march, Eaton and Pyke initially noted the sparse police presence there.
The white supremacists also marched through the campus of the University of Virginia on Friday night, seemingly setting the tone for Saturday. Eaton reported:
…hundreds of white, mostly male, protesters broke over the steps of the UVA rotunda, flaming torches held aloft. As they spilled into the courtyard below, the protesters surrounded the Jefferson statue and the counter-protesters with a circle of torches as they chanted “you will not replace us” and “white lives matter.”
Earlier this week, Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to President Trump, told Breitbart News that people should stop criticizing white supremacists so much.
D. Parvaz contributed reporting to this article.