Civil rights probe launched after clashes at white nationalist rally in Virginia leave 1 dead

U.S. officials have opened a civil rights investigation after a car plowed into a crowd of people protesting a white nationalist rally on Saturday in a Virginia college town, killing a 32-year-old woman.

Demonstrators marched over planned removal of statue of Confederate general

Clashes erupt at white nationalist rally in Virginia

6 years ago
Duration 0:44
Clashes broke out at a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., with the governor later declaring a state of emergency


  • Gov. Terry McAuliffe declares state of emergency
  • Driver arrested, charged with second-degree murder
  • 3 others arrested in connection to violent clashes
  • 2 state troopers killed after helicopter monitoring rally crashes

U.S. officials have opened a civil rights investigation into the circumstances of the deadly car attack in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday.

A car plowed into a crowd of people protesting a white nationalist rally in the Virginia college town, killing a 32-year-old woman and ratcheting up tension in an increasingly violent confrontation that injured nearly three dozen people.

The 20-year-old male driver, James Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio, was arrested and later charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and one count related to leaving the scene. A bond hearing is scheduled for Monday.

James Alex Fields Jr., 20, has been charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and one count related to leaving the scene. (Charlottesville Police Department/Reuters)

The civil rights investigation was announced late Saturday by officials of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Virginia and the Richmond field office of the FBI.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said U.S. Attorney Rick Mountcastle had begun the investigation and would have the full support of the Justice Department.

"The violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice," said Sessions.

"When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated."

Saturday's rally had been planned as a protest against the city's plans to remove a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a downtown park but became violent when the white nationalists holding the rally clashed with demonstrators who arrived to protest against racism.

In advance of the event, right-wing blogger Jason Kessler had called for what he termed a "pro-white" rally to protest the city's decision to remove the Lee statue.

2 state troopers killed in helicopter crash

Virginia state police said two troopers were also killed Saturday when their helicopter crashed in the afternoon outside Charlottesville. Police said the helicopter was helping law enforcement officers monitor the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. Lt. H. Jay Cullen of Midlothian and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates of Quinton were killed in the crash.

Virginia State Police Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates, left, of Quinton, Va., and Lt. H. Jay Cullen, of Midlothian, Va., were killed Saturday when the helicopter they were piloting crashed while they were helping law enforcement officers monitor the white nationalist rally. (Virginia State Police/Associated Press)

Virginia State Police announced late Saturday that three other men had been arrested in connection to the violent clashes. Troy Dunigan, a 21-year-old from Chattanooga, Tenn., was charged with disorderly conduct; Jacob L. Smith, a 21-year-old from Louisa, Va., was charged with assault and battery; and James M. O'Brien, 44, of Gainesville, Fla., was charged with carrying a concealed handgun.

Matt Korbon, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, said protesters opposed to the white nationalist rally were marching when "suddenly there was just this tire-screeching sound." A silver sedan smashed into another car, then backed up, plowing through "a sea of people."

People scattered, running for safety in different directions, he said.

Two people stop to comfort Joseph Culver, centre, of Charlottesville as he kneels at a late-night vigil to pay his respect for a friend injured in a car attack on demonstrators protesting against a 'Unite the Right' rally organized by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

It happened about two hours after violent clashes broke out. Hundreds of people chanted, threw punches, hurled water bottles and unleashed chemical sprays on each other.

Take your hatred and bigotry and 'go home'

Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, and police dressed in riot gear ordered people out.

About two hours after clashes between protestors and white nationalists began, a car allegedly plowed through a crowd, killing a 32-year-old woman. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

At a news conference late Saturday, McAuliffe said, "I have a message to all the white supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today. Our message is plain and simple: Go home. You're not wanted in this great commonwealth. Shame on you. You pretend that you're patriots, but you're anything but a patriot."

He also said he spoke with U.S. President Donald Trump and told him "there has got to be a movement in this country to bring people together."

Trump blames 'many sides'

On Saturday, Trump blamed "many sides" for the violent clashes in Virginia. He said he spoke to the governor while on a working vacation at his New Jersey golf club,

"We agreed that the hate and the division must stop and must stop right now. We have to come together as Americans with love for our nation and ... true affection for each other," Trump said.

Donald Trump responds to violence in Virginia

6 years ago
Duration 2:11
Trump reacts to violent clashes between white nationalists and counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., appeals to Americans to love and respect each other

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides," he said. "It's been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump. Not Barack Obama. It's been going on for a long, long time."

The president said that "what is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives."

White nationalist demonstrators use shields as they clash with counter-demonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday. (The Associated Press/Steve Helber)

It's the latest confrontation in Charlottesville since the city about 160 kilometres outside of Washington, D.C., voted earlier this year to remove a statue of Lee.

In May, a torch-wielding group that included prominent white supremacist Richard Spencer gathered around the statue for a nighttime protest, and in July, about 50 members of a North Carolina-based KKK group travelled there for a rally, where they were met by hundreds of counter-protesters.

Kessler said this week that the rally is partly about the removal of Confederate symbols, but also about free speech and "advocating for white people."

"This is about an anti-white climate within the Western world and the need for white people to have advocacy like other groups do," he said in an interview.

Months of preparations

Officials had been preparing for the rally for months. 

Police instituted road closures around downtown Charlottesville, and many businesses in the popular open-air shopping mall opted to close for the day.

Both local hospitals said they had taken precautions to prepare for an influx of patients and had extra staff on call.

There were also fights Friday night, when hundreds of white nationalists marched through the University of Virginia campus carrying torches.

A university spokesman said one person was arrested and several people were injured.

Mayor Signer said he was disgusted that the white nationalists had come to his town and blamed Trump for inflaming racial prejudices with his campaign last year.

"I'm not going to make any bones about it. I place the blame for a lot of what you're seeing in American today right at the doorstep of the White House and the people around the president."

Liberal-leaning city

Charlottesville, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a liberal-leaning city that's home to the flagship University of Virginia and Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.

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. The city has also renamed Lee Park, where the statue stands, and Jackson Park, named for Confederate general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. They're now called Emancipation Park and Justice Park, respectively.

For now, the Lee statue remains. A group called the Monument Fund filed a lawsuit arguing that removing the statue would violate a state law governing war memorials. A judge has agreed to a temporary injunction that blocks the city from removing the statue for six months.

With files from CBC News