CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Violence erupted between white nationalists marching with torches and counter-protesters on the University of Virginia’s campus Friday night.
People planning to counter-protest tomorrow’s rally were just leaving a mass prayer service at St. Paul’s Memorial Church, on the UVA campus, when word began to spread that hundreds of white nationalists were marching toward the area.
Across the street, a ring of young counter-protesters had surrounded the statue of Thomas Jefferson beneath the university’s iconic rotunda, holding a sign that read “UVA Students Against White Supremacy.” Legal observers, street medics, and others supporting the counter-protesters began to rush into place as the alt-right march approached.
Soon, hundreds of white, mostly male, protesters broke over the steps of the UVA rotunda, flaming torches held aloft. As they spilled into the courtyard below, the protesters surrounded the Jefferson statue and the counter-protesters with a circle of torches as they chanted “you will not replace us” and “white lives matter.”
The first chant was a reference to efforts to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from Charlottesville’s main square — a fight that’s made this Southern college town an epicenter for white nationalists seeking to stem what they see as a tide of political correctness.
As organizers on both sides worked to maintain calm, scattered protesters broke off into shouting matches. Soon, scuffles broke out inside the circle of torches, between the rotunda and the statue. One of the white nationalist protesters threw a torch into the circle, and another apparently sprayed the student counter-protesters with mace.
Ali, a counter-protester who asked that ThinkProgress not identify him further out of fear of retaliation, said he saw pushing and then saw a tiki torch thrown.
“At that point, I felt mace in my eyes and knew that I had to break the line,” he said in an interview. “So I ran.”
There was no visible police presence with the hundreds-strong white nationalist march, and the scene was extremely tense. A ThinkProgress reporter exited through the circle of white nationalists when the fighting broke out. Several, one wearing a sidearm, followed after him demanding to know his identity. They relented when he showed them his press credentials.
“In seemed like it was about to happen,” Ali said of the tense scene before scuffles broke out. “They were hinting violence.”
Shortly after the fighting broke out, organizers of the march demanded that their fellow protesters put out their torches. Protesters then surrounded the Jefferson statue as they forced the student counter-protesters away and off to one side. Not long after, a handful of police officers came on the scene and ordered the crowd to disperse. “This is over,” an officer told the protesters.
There was a lull as the white nationalist protesters disbanded and the student counter-protesters tended to members who’d been sprayed with mace. At one point, officers consulted with street medics caring for the injured counter-protesters and told them EMTs were on the way, while a small group stood to one side holding their banner and chanting “black lives matter.”
Soon, however, a line of Charlottesville police officers, aided by a handful of Virginia State Police officers, swept through the area with their batons in hand to clear out the lingering counter-protesters, street medics, legal observers, and media.
“If you stay, you’ll be arrested,” one officer said as the line prepared to make its sweep. “Press too.”
Asked if he knew why there was there was no police presence with the white nationalist march, a commanding officer on the scene answered, “No.” He directed all other media inquiries to the city’s press office. A spokesperson for the city could not be reached for comment Friday night.
In a statement posted to Facebook on Friday night, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer called the torch march “a cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism, and intolerance.”
“I am beyond disgusted with this unsanctioned and despicable display of visual intimidation on a college campus,” Signer wrote.
Signer has come under criticism from local Black Lives Matter activists for not doing more to address the white nationalist rallies that they say have become a regular part of life in Charlottesville since the city began to discuss removing the Lee statue.
“We’ve seen absolutely nothing in terms of results that would suggest this is actually his priority,” local activist Lisa Woolfork told ThinkProgress in an interview after the prayer service.
Another local Black Lives Matter organizer, David Vaughn Straughn, echoed those sentiments. Denying white supremacists’ rally permits could win the city an expensive lawsuit, he said. But, he pointed out, the security around these rallies is also very expensive.
“Why don’t you take the moral stand and say, ‘No,'” Vaughn Straughn asked.
Richard Spencer, a vocal white supremacist who is president of the National Policy Institute and a founding figure of the white nationalist “alt-right” movement, was present at the march. One of his bodyguards declined ThinkProgress’ request for comment from Spencer.
Unite the Right rally organizer Jason Kessler was also present. When asked for comment, one of his bodyguards stepped in to say that he couldn’t speak but said he would pass along an interview request.
“He’s very good at media outreach,” the bodyguard said.
Alan Pyke contributed reporting to this article.