CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The driver accused of crashing his car into a crowd protesting a white supremacist rally in Virginia had been photographed hours earlier carrying the emblem of one of the hate groups that organized the “take America back” campaign.
Vanguard America denied on Sunday any association with the suspect. A separate hate group that organized the initial rally pledged on social media to organize future events that would be “bigger than Charlottesville.”
Meanwhile, the mayor of Charlottesville and political leaders of all political stripes vowed to combat the hate groups and urged President Donald Trump to forcefully denounce the organizations that had promoted the protest against the removal of a Confederate statue. Some of those groups specifically cited Trump’s election after a campaign of racially charged rhetoric as validation of their beliefs.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced late Saturday that federal authorities will pursue a civil rights investigation into the circumstances surrounding the crash. The violence and deaths in Charlottesville “strike at the heart of American law and justice,” Sessions wrote. “When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated.”
Police charged James Alex Fields Jr. with second-degree murder and other counts after a silver Dodge Challenger they say he was driving barrelled through a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman and wounding at least 19.
In a photo taken by the New York Daily News, Fields, a 20-year-old who recently moved to Ohio from Kentucky, stands with a handful of men, all dressed similarly in the Vanguard America uniform of khakis and white polo shirts. The men hold white shields with a black-and-white logo of two axes. The Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee is in the background.
The Daily News said the photo was taken about 10:30 a.m. Charlottesville officials say Fields crashed his car into the crowd at 1:42 p.m. The Anti-Defamation League says Vanguard America believes the U.S. is an exclusively white nation, and uses propaganda to recruit young white men online and on college campuses.
In a Twitter post, the group said it had handed out the shields “to anyone in attendance who wanted them,” and denied Fields was a member. “All our members are safe an (sic) accounted for, with no arrests or charges.”
In blog posts that appeared Saturday after the violence, the Daily Stormer, a leading white nationalist website that promoted the Charlottesville event, pledged to hold more events “soon.”
“We are going to start doing this nonstop,” the post said. “We are going to go bigger than Charlottesville. We are going to go huge.”
Saturday’s chaos erupted as neo-Nazis, skinheads, members of the Ku Klux Klan, and other white supremacist groups staged a rally to protest the city of Charlottesville’s plans to remove the Lee statue. Peaceful counter-protesters arrived and marched downtown, carrying signs that read “black lives matter” and “love.”
The two sides quickly clashed, with hundreds of people throwing punches, hurling water bottles and unleashing chemical sprays. Some came prepared for a fight, with body armour and helmets. Videos that ricocheted around the world on social media showed people beating each other with sticks and shields. Amid the violence, the Dodge Challenger tore through the crowd.
The impact hurled people into the air and blew off their shoes. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed as she crossed the street.
“It was a wave of people flying at me,” said Sam Becker, 24, sitting in the emergency room to be treated for leg and hand injuries.
Those left standing scattered, screaming and running for safety. Video caught the car reversing, hitting more people, its windshield splintered from the collision and bumper dragging on the pavement. Medics carried the injured, bloodied and crying, away as a police tank rolled down the street.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, police in riot gear ordered people out of the streets, and helicopters circled overhead, including one that later crashed, killing two state police troopers. Officials had not provided a crowd estimate but it appeared to number well over a thousand.
Fields’ mother, Samantha Bloom, told The Associated Press on Saturday night that she knew her son was attending a rally in Virginia but didn’t know it was a white supremacist rally.
“I thought it had something to do with Trump. Trump’s not a white supremacist,” said Bloom.
Trump criticized the violence in a tweet Saturday, followed by a press conference and a call for “a swift restoration of law and order.”
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” he said.
The “on many sides” ending of his statement drew the ire of his critics, who said he failed to specifically denounce white supremacy and equated those who came to protest racism with the white supremacists. The Rev. Jesse Jackson noted that Trump for years questioned President Barack Obama’s citizenship and his legitimacy as the first black president, and has fanned the flames of white resentment.
“We are in a very dangerous place right now,” Jackson said.
McAuliffe said at Saturday’s news conference that he spoke to Trump on the phone, and insisted that the president must work to combat hate.
Trump said he agreed with McAuliffe “that the hate and the division must stop and must stop right now.”
At a news conference, Signer remarked, “There is a very sad and regrettable coarseness in our politics that we’ve all seen too much of today. Our opponents have become our enemies, debate has become intimidation.”
In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Signer said of Trump, “Look at the campaign he ran… Look at the intentional courting, both on the one hand of all these white supremacists… and then look on the other hand the repeated failure to step up, condemn, denounce, silence… put to bed all those different efforts, just like we saw yesterday… There’s two words that need to be said over and over again: domestic terrorism and white supremacy. That is exactly what we saw on display this weekend.”
New York Gov. Mario Cuomo on Sunday launched an online petition calling on Trump to denounce Saturday’s white supremacist rally. The violence prompted responses from around the country, including in West Virginia and Florida, where activists and others pledged to work to remove Confederate statues in their cities, staged protests against white supremacy, and planned candlelight vigils in support of Charlottesville and in honour of the victims.