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United States

Charlottesville anti-racism rally turns into protest against police

Massive security operation criticised, as city marks anniversary of last year’s chaotic and deadly demonstrations

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 August, 2018, 1:23pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 August, 2018, 10:32pm

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday as a rally to mark the anniversary of last year’s fatal white nationalist gathering turned largely into an anti-police protest.

With chants like, “Cops and Klan go hand in hand”, the protesters’ criticism of both police and the University of Virginia underscored the resentment that still exists a year after white supremacists marched through campus, shouting far-right slogans.

Several students said they were angry that the police response was far larger this year compared with last year, when those attending the white nationalist rally went mostly unchecked. This year, more than 1,000 law enforcement officers lined the streets.

At one point on Saturday, dozens of officers in riot gear formed a line near where the rally was taking place, prompting many protesters to rush over yelling, “Why are you in riot gear? We don’t see no riot here.” The stand-off ended without any clashes as organisers urged the crowd to move away and begin marching off campus. Police, who appeared to be avoiding a confrontation, rode bicycles ahead of the march to stop traffic.

James Ryan, the new president of the University of Virginia, apologised for the school’s inaction last year while speaking at an event to commemorate the anniversary.

Jason Kessler, organiser of last year’s far-right rally, has moved on to Washington, where he has received a permit to stage a “white civil rights rally” on Sunday in front of the White House.

While no official far-right protests are planned in Charlottesville this weekend, many residents in the city were still shaken and frustrated by what they see as the excessive security presence imposed by local and state officials.

On Saturday, the streets were barricaded and the city’s downtown area closed to traffic. Law enforcement officers had set up checkpoints with concrete barriers and metal fences, and were searching bags for objects that might be used as a weapon.

The university is also restricting access to parts of its campus.

Virginia’s governor declared a state of emergency last week to unlock extra funds to help coordinate planning and response to the anniversary weekend.

Charlottesville resident Cynthia Viejo, who went to a downtown mall for lunch described the security as “a little over-the-top, obviously”. As a local business owner herself, she said she wanted to support the barricaded businesses.

On Saturday morning, small groups of people came to pay tribute to Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old killed when a car rammed into a packed street of protesters in downtown Charlottesville on August 12 last year.

Nearly two dozen people were also injured in the attack, which officials said was carried out by James Alex Fields, a 21-year-old white man from Ohio who had demonstrated with the white supremacist groups.

In a dramatic change of tone from last year, when he said there was “blame on both sides” for the violence, President Donald Trump said he condemned “all types of racism and acts of violence”.

Local activists said they were hoping for a quiet two days of memorials and remembrance in the city. But white supremacist groups have staged multiple visits and flash protests around Charlottesville before and after last August’s violent rallies, and the legal battle over whether the town can remove statues of Confederate generals from two parks is still going on.

On Sunday, thousands of people are expected to attend counterprotests against white supremacy in Washington. The “white civil rights” anniversary rally organised by Kessler is expected to attract a few hundred people, according to the official permit for the event.

Kessler applied for a permit to hold his anniversary rally in Charlottesville, then sued the city when it was denied but dropped his battle with the city in July. Kessler said on Thursday he would be in Washington on Saturday, as well, and did not know of any plans for events in Charlottesville.

National Public Radio faced criticism on Friday for running an interview with Kessler in which he recited white nationalist talking points and ranked the intelligence of different races on air.