Last week’s protests in Charlottesville turned violent and snowballed into a major issue facing the seven-month-old administration of US President Donald Trump. A woman was killed and at least 20 were injured after a car drove into a crowd of protesters. President Trump was slammed by Republicans, Democrats, and civil society activists for failing to outrightly condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis who had gathered at Charlottesville, in what is being reported to be the biggest gathering of white nationalists in over a decade. What prompted such a large gathering? The removal of a statue.
Nazi slogans, torches and more
On Friday, hundreds of supporters marched through the University of Virginia to protest against removal of pro-slavery Confederate general Robert E Lee’s statue from a park. However, this was not the first protest over it. After Charlottesville voted for the removal of the statue earlier this year, white nationalist leaders had protested against the decision multiple times. In May, white nationalist leader Richard Spencer arrived at the statue for a nighttime protest with his supporters. A month later, close to 50 members of a North Carolina-based Ku Klux Klan group travelled to Charlottesville for a rally, where they were met by hundreds of counter-protesters.
What was different this time from the previous protests is the sheer scale number of protesters and the open display of Nazi propaganda. On Friday night, torch-wielding protesters could be heard shouting slogans like “blood and soil”, “You will not replace us,” and “Jew will not replace us.” The Nazi ideology “Blut und Boden (blood and soil)” meant that ethnic identity was based on only blood line and the territory in which an individual lives, which has been a rallying point for the white nationalists who fear “ethnic cleansing of America.”
Saturday’s Unite the Right rally
Friday’s protest served as a prelude for Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally in which white nationalists took to Charlottesville streets to not only protest against the removal of the statue but also push back the “anti-white climate.” Richard Spencer told AP that the Confederate monuments are “a metaphor for something much bigger, and that is white dispossession and the de-legitimization of white people in this country and around the world.”
Among the protesters, some were heavily armed and carried Nazi flags. Many participants were seen carrying firearms, sticks and shields and some wore helmets. Counter-protesters too came equipped with sticks, helmets and shields. Related | Charlottesville violence: From Nazi slogans to counter-protests, here’s what happened so far
Two hours later, nationalist protesters and counter-demonstrators attacked each other, violently throwing punches, hurling water bottles and using pepper sprays. Then, a car rammed into protesters killing a 32-year-old woman and injuring at least 20 others. Visuals from the scene show bodies being flung in the air as the vehicle mowed into the crowd. The 20-year-old suspect, James Alex Fields, was apprehended and charged with one count of second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and one count of hit-and-run.
Police records released on Monday show that Fields was previously accused of beating his mother and threatening her with a knife. A state of emergency was declared by Democrat Governor Terry McAuliffe who blamed neo-Nazis for sparking the unrest in Charlottesville. “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,” he was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Donald Trump’s flip-flop
In his first statement on the violence, Donald Trump condemned the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” His comments invited widespread criticism from Republicans and Democrats for failing to name and shame the white supremacist groups involved in the Charlottesville violence and instead blaming “many sides” for it. On Monday, the President chose to add more, this time denouncing the KKK and neo-Nazis.
“Racism is evil,” he said while delivering a statement from the White House. “And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
On Tuesday, he once again went back to the “many sides” theory. “You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch. There was a group on this side. You can call them the left … that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is,” Trump said.
Read | Charlottesville violence: Donald Trump, again, casts blame on both sides in Virginia