Ahead of a rally planned in Charlottesville, Virginia at Emancipation Park on Saturday, the 12th of August, protesters carrying torches marched from a nearby municipal park onto the University of Virginia's grounds on Friday night, starting at around 9:30 p.m. The protesters from white nationalist group Unite the Right marched around the university's Rotunda and ended at a statue of Thomas Jefferson, who founded the school, where they fought with a group of counterprotesters, the New York Times reports.
Reporters on the ground shared videos over Twitter of the protesters marching and chanting "End immigration/one people, one nation" and "white lives matter" as well as giving Nazi salutes.
Charlottesville mayor Mike Singer issued a statement on the Friday night march, saying, "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."
Reports on the ground, shared on Twitter, indicate that the march quickly broke up after protesters and counterprotesters clashed. The crowd was hit with pepper spray, Visuals Manager & Photojournalist for the Indianapolis Star Mykal McEldowney explained in a live video.
The Washington Post reports that at least one counterprotester used mace on the protesters who swarmed them as counterprotesters ringed around the Jefferson statue. Police then broke up several fights, and by all reports the rally quickly disbanded.
Chants of "you will not replace us" (heard by some to morph into "Jew will not replace us") as Unite the Right members and supporters marched across the campus late in the evening evoked the cause for their protest in the city of Charlottesville: the removal of Civil War monuments. As CNN reports, various factions of white nationalists, including the Ku Klux Klan in July, have been holding protests in Charlottesville. The city's vote in April to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park, formerly known as Lee Park, seems to have drawn ire from various factions of white nationalists, starting with a protest lead by alt-right leader Richard Spencer in May.
"This entire community is a very far left community that has absorbed these cultural Marxist principles advocated in college towns across the country, about blaming white people for everything," Jason Kessler, organiser of this weekend's Unite the Right rally and Charlottesville resident told CNN. Kessler promised "bigger and bigger events" to come in the city.
Friday night's march is a precursor to a planned rally on Saturday in Emancipation Park. Charlottesville Police tried to have the event moved to a bigger park as the anticipated crowd size swelled. In court documents tweeted by Mic's Jack Smith, the police anticipated attendance of between 1,100 and 1,450 protesters and an unknown number of counterprotesters. When police asked to move the location, Unite the Right and the ACLU filed a counter suit claiming that it would violate their First Amendment rights if the venue were changed. A judge agreed, issuing an injunction on Friday night that allowed the rally to stay in Emancipation Park on Saturday.
"We are grateful that the court recognised that the First Amendment applies equally to everyone regardless of their views," ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga said in a statement. "We hope that the city will focus tomorrow on managing the expected crowds using de-escalation tactics and flexibility, and avoid the kind of over-militarised response that was mounted on the 8th of July. We encourage everyone participating to commit to non-violence and peaceful protest. We will be there to observe and document police practices as we were on July 8 and at other rallies and protests across Virginia since January and before."
Saturday's Unite the Right rally is scheduled to begin at noon local time in Charlottesville's Emancipation Park.