By: Brandon Shulleeta
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Reuters) – White nationalists clashed with counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, prompting the governor to declare an emergency and halt a rally to protest the planned removal of a Confederate general's statue from a public park.
Tensions in the city intensified hours after the melee when at least one vehicle plowed a crowd of people gathered in a street two blocks from the park, according to witnesses and a city spokeswoman, causing multiple injuries.
It was not clear whether this incident was connected to the earlier confrontations. But a video shown on CNN appeared to show a silver sedan driving at high speed into the crowd before reversing.
The fighting broke out in the city's downtown before noon when hundreds of people, some wearing white nationalist symbols and carrying Confederate battle flags, were confronted by a nearly equal number of counter-protesters. The clashes began the previous evening, resulting in at least one arrest.
Combatants on both sides wore helmets and held shields, and some brandished wooden poles. Militia members in the city openly carried rifles, although no gunfire was reported.
U.S. President Donald Trump, on a working vacation at his New Jersey golf club, condemned the violence and urged Americans to "come together as one."
"We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for," Trump said in a message on Twitter.
The confrontation was a stark reminder of the growing political polarization that has intensified since Trump's election. The blunt-speaking Republican, who vowed to shake up Washington's political culture, has emboldened both sides of the divide, giving rise to heated rhetoric and a wave of protests.
The clash also highlights a resurfacing of the white supremacist movement under the "alt-right" banner after years in the shadow of mainstream American politics.
"You will not erase us," chanted a crowd of white nationalists, while counter-protesters carried placards that read: "Nazi go home" and "Smash white supremacy."
Soon after the melee erupted, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency in the city, home of the University of Virginia's flagship campus. The gathering was declared an "unlawful assembly," allowing police to disperse the protesters, and police cleared the park where the rally was to be held.
After the crowd dispersed, dozens of law enforcement officers clad in riot gear were seen patrolling the streets, with small clusters of protesters gathered in pockets in the surrounding streets.
At least four injured people were spotted at the location where the vehicle struck demonstrators, including one person whom paramedics took away on a stretcher. Multiple ambulances were on the scene soon after the early-afternoon incident.
Charlottesville police said in a statement on Facebook that they and Virginia State Police were at the scene of the incident in the city's downtown.
Two people were injured in clashes on Saturday, state police said on Twitter. Local law enforcement agencies could not be reached immediately for comment.
The clash unfolded ahead of the planned start of a "Unite the Right" rally that was expected to draw thousands of people who are angry at the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park.
Jason Kessler, a blogger who organized the rally, said in a phone interview that his group dispersed after police declared the assembly to be unlawful.
He blamed Charlottesville officials for cancelling the rally. Scheduled speakers, including white nationalist Richard Spencer, were not given police protection in the melee, he added.
"Our constitutional First Amendment rights were violated," Kessler said, declining to comment on whether his group would try to stage another rally in Charlottesville.
The rally was part of a persistent debate in the U.S. South over the display of the Confederate battle flag and other symbols of the rebel side in the Civil War, which was fought over the issue of slavery.
Supporters of removing statues such as the one of Robert E. Lee call them racially insensitive, while opponents say such moves reflect "empty political correctness" and that the Confederate symbols honor Southern heritage.
David Duke, a former leader of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, was in Charlottesville for the rally, according to his Twitter account.
On Friday night, hundreds of white demonstrators holding flaming torches marched at the University of Virginia in a display that critics said was reminiscent of a Ku Klux Klan rally. Kessler, in an interview, denied the use of torches was tied to the notorious white supremacist group.
Eventually both sides threw punches and pushed each other as police moved in to break up the confrontation. At least one person was arrested on Friday, and several people were treated for minor injuries, the Daily Progress newspaper said.
"The views fueling the spectacle in Charlottesville are repugnant," House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, said in a message on Twitter on Saturday. "Let it only serve to unite Americans against this kind of vile bigotry."
The National Guard is on standby, with Virginia State Police coordinating security in the city of 45,000, the governor said in a statement on Friday.