Protesters clash again in Virginia city ahead of white nationalist rally

News Reuters

White nationalists clashed with counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday ahead of a rally to protest the planned removal of a Confederate general's statue that critics say glorifies the era of slavery.

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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.

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.

Many of the 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.

"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."

After the crowd was 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.

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Two people were injured in clashes on Saturday, Virginia 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.

The incident highlights 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.

Lee was a symbol for white people threatened by immigration and "ethnic cleansing," blogger Jason Kessler, who organized the rally, said in an interview with Pennsylvania's WHLM radio on Thursday.

More broadly, the confrontation reflects growing political polarization that has intensified since U.S. President Donald 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 more florid rhetoric and a steady wave of protests.

The Charlottesville clashes started on Friday night when both groups 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 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.

City officials had planned to move the event to a larger park beyond downtown, citing safety concerns at the 1-acre (0.4 hectare) Emancipation Park, where the rally was to be held. Kessler sued the city, and on Friday night a federal court sided with him.

Mimi Arbeit, an organizer of the planned counter-protests, rejected Kessler's argument that the rally was about freedom of speech.

"Fascism functions by using the institutions of a democracy towards its own ends," she told Reuters on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Von Ahn)