'Unite the Right' leader blames Charlottesville officials for violence

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Tensions remained high here Sunday as the city and nation attempted to grapple with the aftermath of a white nationalist rally that exploded into deadly violence.

Jason Kessler, the local organizer of Saturday’s Unite the Right rally, tried to hold a news conference Sunday in front of Charlottesville City Hall – and it quickly descended into chaos.

Protesters blared horns, rang bells and shouted "murderer." Kessler’s voice was drowned out, and bedlam ensued as people rushed Kessler’s position behind a bank of microphones.

Kessler fled through some bushes but was tackled by a woman before police officers intervened and spirited Kessler away. Virginia State Police officers in riot gear soon formed a wall of plastic shields to keep the protesters from following Kessler further. It was unclear if he was injured.

"Their (white supremacist) views have been out of date for a long time," said Jeffrey Stricker, a Charlottesville resident who attended the would-be news conference to protest. "They're not welcome."

It was another moment of mayhem for the city, home to the University of Virginia and now a battleground for clashes pitting white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other “alt-right” groups against  counter protesters with sympathies to groups ranging from Black Lives Matter to anti-fascists.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe denounced right-wing extremists and spoke of healing at a local church service.

"I see a future that is brighter," McAuliffe told a worshipers at the historically black First Baptist Church. "I see a future where every single child, no matter where you were born, how you were born or who you love, has the same opportunities in our great society."

A woman, identified by city officials as Heather Heyer, 32, was killed Saturday when a car slammed into counter-protesters peacefully marching away from the scene of the initial violence. Ten people remained hospitalized in good condition Sunday.

Two state troopers died when their surveillance helicopter crashed into woods near the scene about two hours later.

"My heart goes out to Heather Heyer's family," McAuliffe tweeted Sunday. "She died standing up against hate & bigotry. Her bravery should inspire all to come together."

Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer, speaking on several national news shows Sunday, called Heyer's death a terrorist act and blamed white supremacists for Heyer's death.

"This is a city that is praying and grieving," Signer told CNN. "We had three people die yesterday who didn't need to die. ... Two things need to be said over and over again — domestic terrorism and white supremacy."

More: Trump's remarks on Charlottesville draw strong reactions across political spectrum

More: Why is Charlottesville ground zero for white supremacists?

Earlier, Kessler released a video statement on Twitter blaming police for Saturday's violence, saying they failed to separate the protest groups and were ill-equipped to handle the melee that resulted.

"Charlottesville has blood on its hands," he said.

The Justice Department said it will open a civil rights investigation into Heyer's death.

Scores of marches and rallies against racism were scheduled Sunday from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. The Indivisible Project, an advocacy group that opposes President Trump's policies, listed many of the events on its website. The group said the protesters "will come together in solidarity with our brave friends in Charlottesville who put themselves at risk to fight against white supremacy."

Most of the events were scheduled for later Sunday, but scores of protesters showed up for a 1 p.m. ET rally in Greenville S.C. They carried signs proclaiming "Hate crimes have no home here," "Another suburban mom against white supremacy" and "White supremacy = hate crimes, prejudice and ignorance."

Trump spoke out against the violence at a news conference Saturday in New Jersey, condemning "in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides."

Trump, however, drew outrage from critics for failing to blame white nationalist demonstrators for the violence. McAuliffe on Sunday urged the president to "call out the white supremacists for who they are, for their hatred, for their bigotry." Some Republicans had been quick to do so. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., tweeted hours after the tragedy that "White supremacy is a scourge. This hate and its terrorism must be confronted and defeated." Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, issued a statement calling Nazis, the KKK and white supremacists "repulsive and evil" and called the car crash a "grotesque act of domestic terrorism."


Heyer was killed and 19 people were injured when a Dodge Challenger rear-ended a sedan, which then hit a minivan that had slowed to allow the counter-protesters to cross at an intersection, police said. The impact pushed the vehicles into the crowd, police said in a statement.

The Challenger fled the scene but was stopped by police a short time later, Charlottesville police said.

Heyer was a legal assistant at a Charlottesville law firm. Friends described her as fun-loving but outspoken against racism.

“She always stands up for what she believes in,” said Lauren Moon, friends with Heyer since third grade.

The driver of the car, identified as James Alex Fields, 20, of Ohio, was charged with one count of second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of hit and run, police said.

The Unite the Right rally was called to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee on horseback from a Charlottesville park. The violence began Saturday morning, and McAuliffe issued a state of emergency at about 11 a.m.

About 500 protesters among the white nationalist and alt-right groups left the park shortly after state police, using megaphones, declared the gathering an "unlawful assembly" at 11:40 a.m., about 20 minutes before the rally was scheduled to begin.

Still, the violence escalated, and police said more than a dozen people were injured in the melee, which took place more than an hour before the car crash.

Hours after the car crash, the helicopter slammed into the woods. State Police identified the dead troopers as Lt. Jay Cullen, 48, of Midlothian, Va. and Trooper-Pilot Berke Bates, 40, of Quinton, Va.

Cullen was a 23-year veteran of the force and is survived by his wife and two sons. Bates spent three years with the force and joined the aviation unit last month.

"Visiting our VA state troopers this morning to share prayers for their fallen brothers and to thank them for their great work this weekend," McAuliffe tweeted Sunday.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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