VIRGINIA, U.S. - Hundreds of white nationalists as part of various groups gathered under the banner of ‘Unite the Right’ and held marches at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.
The groups chanted Nazi slogans and held torches, while clashing with counter-protesters, including students.
The group marched through the University shouting “Jews will not replace us,” “white lives matter,” "blood and soil," on Friday night, even as they prepared for the bigger march on Saturday.
The city’s mayor slammed the rallies as a “cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism and intolerance.”
The “alt-right” protest was held over plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee as on Friday, marchers surrounded a church, where many of those worshipping were black, with many expressing their fear on social media.
The march aimed at highlighting the persistent debate in the U.S. South over the display of the Confederate flag and other symbols of the rebel side in the Civil War fought over the issue of slavery.
Many skirmishes broke out between the demonstrators and counter-protesters and some of them claimed that the pro-statue protestors attacked the counter-demonstrators.
Some complained later that pepper spray was used and others said punches were thrown and they were pushed as police rushed to break up the clashes and one arrest was made by the end of the day.
Several people on campus were reportedly treated for minor injuries.
Police later declared the protest an unlawful assembly.
In a statement, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer said, “I have seen tonight the images of torches on the Grounds of the University of Virginia. When I think of torches, I want to think of the Statue of Liberty. When I think of candlelight, I want to think of prayer vigils. Today, in 2017, we are instead seeing a cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism, and intolerance march down the lawns of the architect of our Bill of Rights. Everyone has a right under the First Amendment to express their opinion peaceably, so here’s mine: not only as the Mayor of Charlottesville but as a UVA faculty member and alumnus, I am beyond disgusted by this unsanctioned and despicable display of visual intimidation on a college campus.”
The protest on Friday came a month after supporters of the Ku Klux Klan staged a march in Virginia, even though they were easily outnumbered by counter-protesters.
The Unite The Right, larger right-wing rally in the city on Saturday is expected to involve about 6,000 people.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said that extremist groups have threatened to try and attack rally participants, to express opposition to the statue’s removal and that the National Guard is on standby.
Further, the Virginia State Police is coordinating security in the city of 45,000, the governor added.
McAuliffe said, “I want to urge my fellow Virginians, who may consider joining, either in support or opposition to the planned rally, to make alternative plans.”
The University of Virginia president Teresa A. Sullivan too condemned the protesters in a statement and said, “As President of the University of Virginia, I am deeply saddened and disturbed by the hateful behaviour displayed by torch-bearing protesters that marched on our Grounds this evening. I strongly condemn the unprovoked assault on members of our community, including University personnel who were attempting to maintain order. Law enforcement continues to investigate the incident, and it is my hope that any individuals responsible for criminal acts are held accountable. The violence displayed on Grounds is intolerable and is entirely inconsistent with the University's values.”
Besides the statue removal, the rally is also aimed to protest against Charlottesville’s decision to rename downtown Lee Park, now called Emancipation Park.
Supporters are calling such statues racially insensitive, while opponents claim Confederate symbols honour Southern heritage and calls to remove them reflect “empty political correctness.”
Rally organizer and freelance journalist Jason Kessler said in an interview that Lee was a symbol for white people threatened by immigration and “ethnic cleansing.”
Kessler reportedly sued the city, and on Friday night a federal court sided with him.
However, reports quoted Mimi Arbeit, an organizer of the planned counter-protests as rejecting Kessler’s argument that the rally was about freedom of speech.
She said, “Fascism functions by using the institutions of a democracy towards its own ends.”