Va. White Nationalist Rally: 1 Dead After Car Crashes Into Crowd, 2 Troopers Dead in Helicopter Crash

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency and police dressed in riot gear ordered people to disperse after violent clashes broke out between white nationalists and counter protestors

Authorities have charged a 20-year-old Ohio man for the deadly car ramming incident in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, as the Department of Justice announced a civil rights investigation into the circumstances surrounding the crash.

James Alex Fields Jr. allegedly plowed into a crowd of people peacefully protesting a white nationalist rally Saturday in a Virginia college town, killing Heather Heyer, 32, hurting dozens more and ratcheting up tension in an increasingly violent confrontation.

Fields has been charged with one count of second degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and one count of failing to stop, according to officials.

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions, meanwhile, said late Saturday that federal authorities were launching a civil rights investigation in response to the deadly ramming.

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

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia and the FBI’s Richmond field office confirmed that they, along with the Civil Rights Division, opened an investigation into the circumstances of the deadly incident in Charlottesville, noting that they are collecting “all available facts and evidence.” 

The chaos boiled over at what is believed to be the largest group of white nationalists to come together in a decade: the governor declared a state of emergency, police dressed in riot gear ordered people out and helicopters circled overhead. The group had gathered to protest plans to remove a statue of the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and others who arrived to protest the racism.

Virginia police arrested three others in relation to the unrest at the rally.

Troy Dunigan, 21, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct; Jacob L. Smith, 21, of Louisa, Virginia, was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault and battery; and James M. O’Brien, 44, of Gainesville, Florida, was arrested and charged with carrying a concealed handgun.

Footage shows a vehicle appear to drive into a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. Clashes between white nationalists and counter protesters had been ongoing on Aug. 12.

Matt Korbon, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, said counter-protesters 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.

The incident happened about two hours after violent clashes broke out between the opposing groups.

Hundreds of people chanted, threw punches, hurled water bottles and unleashed chemical sprays. Over a dozen people were injured and one arrested in connection to the earlier violence, officials said. 

Five patients were in critical condition Saturday evening, four in serious condition, six in fair condition and four in good condition, according to the University of Virginia Health System.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency.

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Adding to the chaos on Saturday, a helicopter that was assisting public safety resources with the rally in Charlottesville crashed and killed two Virginia state troopers later in the afternoon, Virginia police said.

The FAA is investigating the helicopter crash, and the National Transportation Safety Board will determine probable cause, NBC News reported. The pilot, Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen, 48, of Midlothian, Virginia, and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates of Quinton, Virginia, died at the scene.

President Donald Trump, speaking Saturday afternoon from New Jersey where he has been on a working vacation, condemned the violence in Charlottesville, calling it an "egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides."

"The hate and division must stop now," he said.  

He did not respond to questions about whether he would denounce support from white nationalists.

A unnamed White House official clarified to NBC News about what the president meant by "violence on many sides," saying that Trump was "condemning hatred, bigotry and violence from all sources and all sides. There was violence between protesters and counter protesters today."

The attorney general of Virginia fired back at Trump's comment, saying, "the violence, chaos, and apparent loss of life in Charlottesville is not the fault of 'many sides.' It is racists and white supremacists."

Before the car crash, Trump condemned the earlier clashes on Twitter, writing, "We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!"

The president and his representatives have not yet acknowledged the death in the incident.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia released a statement saying: "We condemn the intolerance behind it and those who would pass it off as a legitimate political movement."

[NATL] Dramatic Photos: Violent Clashes at White Nationalist Rally in Virginia

First lady Melania Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan also took to social media to denounce the clashes between protesters and counter-protesters.

Small bands of protesters who showed up to express their opposition to the rally were seen marching around the city peacefully by midafternoon, chanting and waving flags. Helicopters circled overhead.

Right-wing blogger Jason Kessler had called for what he termed a "pro-white" rally to protest the city of Charlottesville's decision to remove the confederate statue from a downtown park.

Colleen Cook, 26, stood on a curb shouting at the rally attendees to go home.

Cook, a teacher who attended the University of Virginia, said she sent her son, who is black, out of town for the weekend.

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"This isn't how he should have to grow up," she said.

Cliff Erickson leaned against a fence and took in the scene. He said he thinks removing the statue amounts to erasing history and said the "counter-protesters are crazier than the alt-right."

"Both sides are hoping for a confrontation," he said.

It was the latest confrontation in Charlottesville since the city about 100 miles 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 nationalist Richard Spencer gathered around the statue for a nighttime protest, and in July, about 50 members of a North Carolina-based KKK group traveled there for a rally, where they were met by hundreds of counter-protesters.

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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.

Between rally attendees and counter-protesters, authorities were expecting as many as 6,000 people, Charlottesville police said this week.

Among those expected to attend were Confederate heritage groups, KKK members, militia groups and "alt-right" activists, who generally espouse a mix of racism, white nationalism and populism.

Both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which track extremist groups, said the event had the potential to be the largest of its kind in at least a decade.

Officials had been preparing for the rally for months. 

Police instituted road closures around downtown, 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.

Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer said he was disgusted that the white nationalists had come to his town and blamed President Donald 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."

"I am heartbroken that a life has been lost here," he wrote on Twitter later Saturday on Twitter. "I urge all people of good will - go home."

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.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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