CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Brittany Caine-Conley, a minister in training at Sojourners United Church of Christ, arrived in downtown Charlottesville Saturday morning expecting that there might be violence. She did not expect things to get out of hand so quickly.
But what began as a rally of white nationalists in a city park soon spun out of control, resulting in melees in the streets and the death of a 32-year-old woman after a car rammed a group of counterprotesters. The police have charged a 20-year-old Ohio man described as a Nazi sympathizer, accusing him of intentionally driving his car into the crowd.
On Sunday, Charlottesville tried to recover — as the police, in particular, came in for criticism.
At church services, pastors urged their congregations to fill their lives with love, not hate — a message echoed by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The downtown mall, a pretty pedestrian plaza, was unusually quiet. People looked grief-stricken, as State Police officers in riot gear sat on a brick wall, taking a break in the midday sun.
At Emancipation Park, where the Unite the Right rally had been planned for Saturday around a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, city workers picked up trash. On Water Street, where authorities say the man from Ohio, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, took the life of Heather D. Heyer, an impromptu memorial of flowers lay in the middle of the road.
And at City Hall, a planned news conference by Jason Kessler, the white nationalist who organized Saturday’s rally, came to an abrupt end when a man wearing a plaid shirt punched him.
“Jason Kessler has been bringing hate to our town for months and has been endangering the lives of people of color and endangering other lives in my community,” the man, Jeff Winder, said in an interview later. “Free speech does not protect hate speech.’’
But if Charlottesville was grieving on Sunday, it was also questioning. McAuliffe fiercely defended the police in an impromptu sidewalk interview, noting that many of the demonstrators were armed, and saying the officers had done “great work” in a “very delicate situation.” And he said Heyer’s death, which he called “car terrorism,” could not have been prevented.
“You can’t stop some crazy guy who came here from Ohio and used his car as a weapon,” McAuliffe said. “He is a terrorist.”
But others, including Kessler and Caine-Conley, openly wondered if the violence could have been prevented.
“There was no police presence,” Caine-Conley said. “We were watching people punch each other; people were bleeding all the while police were inside of barricades at the park, watching. It was essentially just brawling on the street and community members trying to protect each other.”
Many cities, among them St. Louis and New Orleans, have wrestled with what to do about Confederate monuments. Like them, Charlottesville — the home of the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 — has been navigating tricky terrain. As Mayor Mike Signer asked in an interview Sunday, “How do you reconcile public safety and the First Amendment?”
Saturday was not the first time that white nationalists and white supremacists had rallied in Charlottesville. In May, Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist and a graduate of the University of Virginia, led a torch-lit rally here, and last month, the Ku Klux Klan came from North Carolina.
Sensing there might be trouble, the city tried to deny Kessler’s group a permit for Emancipation Park; officials wanted the gathering in a larger park, where they felt they could better control the crowd. But on Friday evening, a judge sided with Kessler. Signer would later lament on Twitter that it was a fateful turn of events.
“This is EXACTLY why City tried to change venue to McIntire,” he wrote.
For all watching events in crowded, downtown Cville: this is EXACTLY why City tried to change venue to McIntire-but court wouldn’t allow.
— Mike Signer (@MikeSigner) August 12, 2017
On Saturday morning at sunrise, faith leaders and scores of counterprotesters — some from the Black Lives Matter movement, others from groups like Showing Up for Racial Justice — gathered at First Baptist Church, a historically African-American church here. Around 8 a.m., they started massing for a march downtown, toward Emancipation Park.
Across town, the white nationalists were gathering for their own trek to Emancipation Park, for a rally that was not supposed to begin until noon. “I’m tired of seeing white people pushed around,’’ said one man, Ted, who refused to give his last name.
By the time both groups converged on the park, a line of camouflage-clad militia members toting assault rifles were standing outside the park, looking very much like an invading army. “They had better equipment than our State Police had,” McAuliffe said.
As the white nationalists massed in the park, Caine-Conley and other members of the clergy locked arms in the street. Behind them were hundreds of protesters, including black-clad, helmet-wearing members of the far left known as antifa.
Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, was watching the events from a command post on the sixth floor of a Wells Fargo bank on the downtown mall. There were sporadic fights. “I compare it to hockey,” he said. “Often in hockey there are sporadic fights, and then they separate.”
Suddenly, people were throwing water bottles, some filled with urine. Some used pepper spray; from his perch on the sixth floor, Moran saw smoke bombs being thrown. People started clubbing one another. The clergy retreated to a “safe house” — a restaurant nearby.
But according to many witnesses, the police waited to intervene. Caine-Conley called it “fascinating and appalling.”
Kessler, too, complained.
In a statement, he said the authorities had “exacerbated the violence” by failing to separate his followers from counterprotesters. He said his group had “networked with law enforcement officials” months ago on a plan for maintaining safety, which he said was not followed, and he called the police “underequipped for the situation.”
At 11:22 a.m. Moran called the governor and asked him to declare a state of emergency. McAuliffe did so. Asked why the police did not do more to control the brawling, Moran said, “It was a volatile situation and it’s unfortunate people resorted to violence.”
“But,” he said, “from our plan, to ensure the safety of our citizens and property, it went extremely well.”
Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the State Police, said, “It may have looked like a lot of our folks were standing around,” because of the sheer number of officers on the scene, but “there were other troopers and law enforcement officers who were responding to incidents as they arose.”
The moment the emergency was declared, police officers started announcing on loudspeakers that the gathering was an unlawful assembly, and called for the crowd to disperse, cutting off the rally before it officially began. Both Moran and McAuliffe said police needed time to get the demonstrators out of the park, and off the streets, before riot police officers could move in.
As the riot police pushed protesters back, Caine-Conley and her fellow clergy members were regrouping inside the restaurant. Suddenly, a woman rushed in, screaming that there had been a terrible car crash on Water Street nearby.
“There were bodies everywhere,” said the Rev. Seth Wispelwey of Sojourners United Church of Christ, who rushed to the scene. “There was blood and glass all over the street.”
Fields, who authorities say was driving the car, has been charged with second-degree murder. He served briefly in the Army, military records show; a former high school teacher of his in Kentucky said that when Fields was a freshman, he wrote a report for a class “very much along the party lines of the neo-Nazi movement.”
The woman who was killed, Heyer, worked as a paralegal and was known as a strong, sensitive woman who stood up against “any type of discrimination,” her supervisor said.
The Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation. Marches in support of the counterprotesters were held across the country Sunday; in some cities, conservative groups also gathered.
On Sunday, as people in Charlottesville tried to make sense of it all, a vigil for Heyer was canceled, its organizers said, because of the threat or rumor of more white nationalist activity. Still, people here wanted the nation to know that this was not the Charlottesville they knew and loved. Heather Hutton’s blue eyes filled with tears as she walked away from the memorial to Heyer.
“It just hurts,” Hutton, 52, said, wiping the tears away. “It hurts us all as a town.”
Jess Bidgood, Hawes Spencer and Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.