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Wall Street Journal / News - Politics

One Dead as White Nationalists, Protesters Clash in Charlottesville

A car slammed into a group of people demonstrating against the white nationalists, killing a 32-year-old woman and prompting the FBI to open a civil-rights investigation.


Douglas Belkin ,

Ben Kesling and

Cameron McWhirter

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—Violent clashes between white nationalists and their opponents turned deadly on Saturday, prompting the FBI to open a civil-rights investigation into a car crash that left one woman dead.

After a morning of confrontations, a car slammed into a group of people demonstrating against the white nationalists on Saturday afternoon, killing a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19. Of the injured who were brought to the University of Virginia Medical Center, five were in critical condition and four were in serious condition, according to a spokeswoman.

The vehicle’s driver was arrested, local police said.

James Alex Fields Jr., shown in a photo provided by the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, was charged with second-degree murder and other counts after a car slammed into a group of protesters, killing a woman.Photo: /Associated Press

The alleged driver, James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old Ohio resident, was charged with one count of second-degree murder and other charges, according to local police. He was being held at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, a spokesman for the jail said.

“The violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement announcing the investigation. “When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated.”

President Donald Trump condemned “this egregious display of hatred” and offered his condolences via Twitter to the family of the woman who died. However, Republican leaders criticized Mr. Trump for his response to the violence, in particular over his decision to blame “many sides” for the conflagration and not to condemn the white nationalists whose rally sparked the incident.

At a press conference Saturday evening, Gov. Terry McAuliffe called on Mr. Trump to take action to reunite the nation. When asked if he thought Mr. Trump has contributed to divisiveness in the country, the Democratic governor said his “words speak for themselves.”

Shortly before 5 p.m., a Virginia State Police helicopter assisting with Charlottesville public-safety measures crashed into a wooded area near a residence in Albemarle County. Two police officers, including the pilot, were killed in that crash, which Mr. McAuliffe blamed on the events of the day. No one on the ground was injured. State police said Saturday night they are investigating the cause of the crash.

Earlier Saturday, police had ordered crowds gathered for a protest to leave Emancipation Park, where the scheduled removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee touched off the initial demonstrations. The cancellation of the event late Saturday morning dispersed the protesters across the city, which is the home of the University of Virginia.

The scattered groups of demonstrators clashed in melees, fighting with batons and with some throwing newspaper boxes. Some protesters carried sticks and handmade shields and wore helmets.

As the violence spread, leaders of the white nationalist faction said their rights to free speech and assembly had been abrogated.

Jason Kessler, the 33-year-old leader organizer of the demonstration, said the rally was canceled around 11:30 a.m. when the Charlottesville Police “declared an unlawful assembly and forced us to leave.”

Mr. Kessler had dubbed the demonstration “Unite the Right” and worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to gain access to the park. The Anti-Defamation League said the event had the potential to be the largest demonstration of white nationalists in years.

Mr. McAuliffe decried the violence in the city early in the day. “The acts and rhetoric in #Charlottesville over past 24 hours are unacceptable & must stop,” the governor wrote on his Twitter account. “A right to speech is not a right to violence.”

Ahead of a veterans’ bill signing in New Jersey, Mr. Trump condemned “this egregious display of hatred” in Virginia, saying the venom came “on many sides.”

“No matter our color, creed, religion or political party, we are all Americans first,” the president said without condemning any specific group involved.

Charlottesville resident Brennan Gilmore witnessed the fatal incident with the car at the corner of 4th and Water Streets. Mr. Gilmore, 38, said he was in the middle of the street with a number of friends demonstrating against the white nationalists when he heard a car coming up behind him. He said he jumped out of the way and he saw the same car drive into a group of people.

The “vehicle came down a street where no traffic was passing, clearly saw what was going on, accelerated into the crowd,” said Mr. Gilmore, who works in Democratic politics. “The guy was deliberately plowing through the crowds, sending bodies flying. The car stopped, reversed fast back up the street and disappeared.”

Vicky Harris was waiting to cross 4th Street, which was open to traffic, when a car went past her going at what she thought “was about 50 miles per hour,” barreling down the hill toward Water Street. She didn’t see the car crash, but she knew when it happened.

“I heard people start screaming,” the 62-year-old Charlottesville resident said. “I worked on a rescue squad, so I know when somebody’s been hit.”

Helicopters circled the site of the car crash Saturday afternoon and hundreds of police and National Guardsmen blocked routes to the park—which were cordoned off with yellow police tape—and patrolled some streets.

At the corner where the fatal crash occurred, two cars sat in the intersection, one a sedan with its back end smashed in. Police walked around the scene with measuring tape while National Guardsmen kept the crowds back.

Late Saturday afternoon, dozens of people gathered in a park just a few blocks from the Gen. Lee statue at the heart of the protests to pray for the person killed in the crash. The people laid flowers in the center of the circle they formed after a moment of silence.

Montae Taylor of Richmond, Va., spoke at the vigil and recalled when his African-American great-grandfather used to tell him about life in the South. During the white nationalist rally Saturday, he said those stories became visceral for him.

“I could see exactly what my ancestors told me about,” Mr. Taylor, 21, said. “I can see and smell and taste what they did,” he added. “I can see history repeating again.”

Officials had been preparing for the rally for months while access to the park was being debated in court. Mr. Kessler had originally taken out a permit to demonstrate at Emancipation Park, which contains the statue of Gen. Lee. But the city decided the rally would attract too many demonstrators and moved it to a larger park a mile away.

On Thursday, Mr. Kessler, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, arguing that the decision of the city and its manager Maurice Jones was based on their disdain for the views of Mr. Kessler and his supporters.

“The city’s action is unconstitutional in that it denies Mr. Kessler and his supporters the ability to fully express their views in the location most closely associated with their message while leaving in place permits granted other organizations with opposing views,” said ACLU-VA Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga.

On Friday, the judge sided with Mr. Kessler, but on Saturday morning, Mr. Kessler said police failed to clear demonstrators or make it possible for his group to speak. The assembly later was declared unlawful and the crowd was ordered to disperse.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Kessler said he wants Mr. Trump to “know that many of his supporters are being denied their First Amendment rights.”

The canceled demonstration on Saturday followed clashes between white nationalists and those demonstrating against them on Friday evening. Several fights broke out after hundreds of young white men marched through the University of Virginia campus carrying torches. A university spokesman said one person was arrested and several people were injured.

On Saturday, police instituted road closures around downtown, and many businesses in the area opted to close for the day. Local hospitals said they had taken precautions to prepare for an influx of patients and had extra staff on call.

Photos: Deadly Violence at White Nationalist Rally in Virginia

At least one person was killed after a car hit pedestrians amid violent clashes between white nationalists and their opponents at a rally in Charlottesville

Protesters confront Jason Kessler, an organizer of ‘Unite the Right’ rally, outside the Charlottesville City Hall on Sunday.Win McNamee/Getty Images

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, center, holds hands with Deaconess Beverly Terrell, left, and Pastor Alvin Edwards during Sunday services after the attack on protesters at the rally organized by white nationalists in Charlottesville.jim bourg/Reuters

A memorial to Heather Heyer near the spot where she was killed when a man rammed a car into her and others protesting a white-nationalist gathering in Charlottesville.Scott P. Yates for The Wall Street Journal

People fly into the air as the car drives into the protesters in Charlottesville on Saturday. The driver was later arrested and charged with second-degree murder.Associated Press

The car drives into protesters at the Charlottesville rally on Saturday.Associated Press

Rescue workers assist a victim who was injured by the car in Charlottesville on Saturday.Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Authorities work near the scene of a deadly helicopter crash near Charlottesville on Saturday. Virginia State Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates and Lt. H. Jay Cullen died in the crash.Shelby Lum/Richmond Times-Dispatch/Associated Press

White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the ‘alt-right’ clash with other protesters as they enter Emancipation Park in Charlottesville on Saturday during a ‘Unite the Right’ demonstration. The white nationalists were protesting the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from the park.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

White nationalists exchange insults with those protesting their rally at the entrance to Emancipation Park.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A man falls to the pavement during a clash in Charlottesville on Saturday.Joshua Roberts/Reuters

A smoke bomb is thrown at a group of protesters during a confrontation with white nationalists on Saturday.Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Members of a white supremacists’ militia stand near the rally in Charlottesville on Saturday.Joshua Roberts/Reuters

‘Unite the Right’ protesters clash with police after demonstrators were told to leave Emancipation Park.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Participants of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally march down East Market Street toward Emancipation Park in Charlottesville.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Clashes break out at the Charlottesville rally on Saturday.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

White nationalists carrying tiki torches march through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville on Friday.Zuma Press

The firestorm is the latest flare up in a debate over the Lee statue that has been going on for a year and a half after a high-school student started a petition to have it removed.

The dark gray statue, covered in a weathered, green patina, stands on a stone plinth with “Robert Edward Lee” inscribed clearly enough to be seen from the First Presbyterian Church across the street. All told, the statue sits a couple dozen feet in the air, but the topography of the park gives it a commanding position above part of Charlotteville’s downtown open-air mall, reminding visitors and residents of its presence.

In April, the Charlottesville City Council voted 3-to-2 to sell it, but lawsuits have held up the sale.

The statue’s removal is part of a broader city effort to change the way Charlottesville’s history of race is told in public spaces. Emancipation Park had formerly been named Lee Park.

Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer, a Democrat, pledged that none of the weekend’s actions would dissuade him, and the rest of the city, to make decisions about “truth and justice and equity.”

—Melanie Grayce West contributed to this article.

Write to Douglas Belkin at doug.belkin@wsj.com, Ben Kesling at benjamin.kesling@wsj.com and Cameron McWhirter at cameron.mcwhirter@wsj.com