In August of 2017, hundreds gathered on a Friday night in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the decision by city leaders to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park.
The actions of the protesters – who voiced their objections to the removal of the monument by carrying tiki torches and spewing racist chants – would turn even darker the following day as they gathered in Charlottesville’s downtown district.
The ensuing confrontation in the city’s streets would lead to bloody clashes between civil rights groups and white supremacists and would end tragically when a car was rammed into a crowd of counterprotesters.
Here’s a look at what led to that violence last August and where we are today.
Where is Charlottesville?
Charlottesville is located in west-central Virginia. It’s about 100 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The city was established in 1762.
It is the home of the University of Virginia and its nearly 22,000 students.
What led to the violence that day?
The impending removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was the reason white nationalists and neo-Nazi organizations came to Charlottesville in mid-August.
It wasn’t the first time there had been a protest over the statue’s removal. In May 2017, white supremacist Richard B. Spencer led a rally to protest the statue’s removal. The following day, counterprotesters held a candlelight vigil.
Two months later, on July 8, the Ku Klux Klan rallied in Charlottesville over the plan to remove Lee’s statue and the renaming of the park in which it sits. Klan members clashed with counterprotesters, and police arrested 23 people.
The Unite the Right rally would again see Spencer, white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups in Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of the Lee statue – featuring the Confederate general astride his horse, Traveller – that has stood in the city since 1924. Only this time, there was a large number of counterprotesters present, and the two groups wound up facing each other in the streets.
Here is a timeline of the events that led to the violent clash on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.
Friday, Aug. 11
Rumors began on Friday afternoon that the Unite the Right rally would have a surprise early start on Friday night. The rumors proved true when around 8:45 p.m., about 250 men dressed in khakis and carrying Tiki torches began to gather at an area behind UVA’s Memorial Gymnasium called Nameless Field.
The men were arranged in formation, two by two. Organizers instructed the group to head to the university’s Rotunda, where a statue of Thomas Jefferson stands. As they moved across campus, they began to chant “blood and soil,” a Nazi slogan meant to emphasize the racial purity of the people of German blood and their connection to a German homeland.
By 9 p.m., the group was making its way up the lawn and to the Jefferson statue.
It was there that they ran into resistance when about 30 UVA students met them at the base of the statute.
The group had locked arms and stood in a circle around the statue at its base. The 250 marchers encircled the students and began shouting, “White lives matter!” and making monkey sounds.
Moments later, the two sides were shoving each other, and then punches and torches were being thrown.
Several minutes passed before university police arrived at the Rotunda.
While there were injuries on both sides, it was only a precursor to what would happen on Saturday.
Saturday, Aug. 12
8 a.m.-10:30 a.m.
The rally was set for Saturday from noon until 5 p.m. in downtown Charlottesville at Emancipation Park, where Lee’s statue stands. By 8 am., Emancipation Park (its named was changed in June 2017 from Market Street Park, which was formerly Lee Park) began to fill. People were coming in the park, holding white nationalist banners and Nazi flags, many carrying sticks and some carrying handguns or long guns. Virginia is an open-carry state, meaning you can openly carry a firearm in public where it can be seen by others.
Those who had come to protest against the Unite the Right rally were also getting there early. Many in those ranks also carried sticks.
By 9:30, the counterprotesters were joined by civil rights activists, Charlottesville residents and church members. As they entered the park, the groups began to form up on one side or the other, and words were being exchanged. To the chants of “our blood, our soil,” a group of church leaders responded by singing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
In the middle of the two groups was a militia force that had begun to form up in the park. They, too, were armed and were clad in camouflage. The leader of the self-styled group told one reporter that area law enforcement was happy to see them there. They wanted to help keep the peace, they said.
By 10:30, the groups were restless and some physical violence – pushing and shoving -- had started. Police officers were stationed along the sides of the park but did not intervene. By this time, people from both sides of the rally were entering the park through the Market Street entrance and yelling at each other as they came in.
Charlottesville Police Chief Al S. Thomas Jr. would later tell The Washington Post that rally-goers had abandoned the plan to come into the park through only one entrance. If they'd stuck to the plan, it would have kept protesters and counterprotesters separated, at least for a time.
10:30 a.m.- 11:22 a.m.
Just before 11 a.m., Unite the Right members took up shields and began waving sticks as they moved toward the Market Street entrance to Emancipation Park. Trying to keep them out, counterprotesters formed a line to block their path. Both sides swung sticks and shot pepper spray at each other as the groups met in the street.
According to an independent review of the actions of law enforcement and city officials by former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy, police were in the vicinity but still did not engage the protesters.
According to Thomas, the police officers were not in riot gear and sending men into such a fight “would be putting the public and law enforcement in jeopardy.”
The violence escalated, and bottles and rocks started being thrown. At 11:22 a.m., the police declared the assembly unlawful, and according to Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran, “We quelled the disturbance at that point.”
11:22 a.m.- 1:42 p.m.
After the gathering was dispersed by police, the Unite the Right rally supporters began making their way to McIntire Park, about a mile north of downtown Charlottesville.
At 11:52 a.m., Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency as scuffles continued in the city’s streets.
About a minute later, at 11:53 a.m., UVA canceled all campus activities, effective at noon.
At 1:19 p.m., President Donald Trump tweeted a call for an end to the violence.
At 1:42 p.m., a car backed down 4th Street at a high rate of speed and into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring 19. James Alex Fields Jr. 20, of Maumee, Ohio, was later accused of being the driver.
3 p.m.-7 p.m.
At 3 p.m., Trump again spoke from his New Jersey golf club, saying, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides. It's been going on for a long time in our country. … It has no place in America. What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives. No citizen should ever fear for their safety and security in our society. And no child should ever be afraid to go outside and play or be with their parents and have a good time. … We must love each other, respect each other and cherish our history and our future together. So important. We have to respect each other. Ideally, we have to love each other.”
At 5 p.m., witnesses reported a helicopter crash off U.S. Route 29. Two hours later, around 7 p.m., Virginia State Police identified the helicopter as belonging to the force. They announced that two of their officers were onboard the helicopter and that both were killed in the crash.
At 6 p.m., Gov. McAuliffe condemned the violence in a press conference.
Who was killed that day?
Heather D. Heyer, 32, a paralegal from Charlottesville, was killed when the car hit the crowd in which she was standing.
Lt. Jay Cullen, 48, and Berke Bates, who was one day shy of his 41st birthday, were killed in the crash of the helicopter they were using to monitor the protests.
Whatever happened to the helicopter happened quickly, because according to the National Transportation Safety Board, there had been no distress call from craft.
What happened to Fields, the man who was accused of driving the car into the crowd?
Fields was charged with federal hate crimes including a murder charge in Heyer’s death and multiple attempted murder charges for the other people who were injured. (Update: Fields was sentenced to life in prison in June 2019).
The independent review of the actions of law enforcement and city officials was critical of the Charlottesville police as well as the State Police for failing to stand up to protect human life. The Charlottesville city attorney, the city manager and the police chief all have left their positions since last August.
What happened to the statue?
The city council was being sued over its decision to remove the statue. A week after the rally, Lee’s statue was covered up with a tarp. Several months later, the tarp was removed after a judge ruled that the city could not keep the tarp up indefinitely. The case is ongoing. The statue remains in the park.
What did Trump say in the days after the incident?
On the afternoon of the rally, after a woman had been killed, Trump said Americans have to learn to set bigotry and hatred aside.
In an exchange with reporters at Trump Tower on the Tuesday following the Saturday the rally took place, the president had something more to say. “I think there is blame on both sides,” the president said in a combative exchange with reporters at Trump Tower in Manhattan. “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now. I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups,” he said. “Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.
“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
What about this year?
A state of emergency has been declared in Charlottesville ahead of the one-year anniversary of the rally. Virginia State Police Superintendent Gary Settle told The Associated Press that more than 700 State Police will be activated during the weekend and “State Police is fully prepared to act” to prevent any incidents like last year.
Sources: The Associated Press; The Washington Post; The New York Times; PBS; The Daily Progress
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