Car ploughs into crowd, kills one, at violent U.S. white nationalist rally

By Brandon Shulleeta
Car ploughs into crowd, kills one, at violent U.S. white nationalist rally

By Brandon Shulleeta

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Reuters) - One person was killed on Saturday when a car slammed into a crowd in Virginia after clashes at a gathering of white nationalists who oppose plans to remove the statue of a Confederate general from a public park, officials said.

At least 34 people were injured in hours of violence between white supremacists and counter protesters in the town of Charlottesville. The state's governor declared an emergency and halted the white nationalist rally, while President Donald Trump condemned the violence.

"I am heartbroken that a life has been lost here," Charlottesville Mayor Mike Singer said on his Twitter feed.

Video on social media and Reuters photographs showed a car slamming into a large group of what appeared to be counter-protesters, sending some flying into the air.

The car incident was being treated as a homicide, local TV broadcaster WVIR reported, citing a city attorney.

“We’re closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia," Trump told reporters at his New Jersey golf course.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides."

A reporter shouted a question to Trump about whether he had spoken out strongly enough against white nationalists but the president made no comment.

The clashes highlight how the white supremacist movement has resurfaced under the "alt-right" banner after years in the shadows of mainstream American politics.

'DOMESTIC TERRORISM?'

Prominent Democrats, civil rights activists and even a few Republicans said it was inexcusable of the president not to denounce white supremacy.

Republican U.S. Senator Cory Gardner wrote on Twitter: "Mr. President - we must call evil by its name," adding "These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism."

"What we’ve seen today in Charlottesville needs to be condemned and called what it is: hatred, evil, racism & homegrown extremism," former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a tweet. Kerry served under Democratic President Barack Obama.

The Charlottesville confrontation was a stark reminder of the growing political polarization that has intensified since Trump's election last year.

"You will not erase us," chanted a crowd of white nationalists, while counter-protesters carried placards that read: "Nazi go home" and "Smash white supremacy."

A silver sedan driving at high speed ploughed into the crowd before reversing along the same street. The incident took place about two blocks from the park that houses the statue of Robert E. Lee, who headed the Confederate army in the American Civil War.

Witnesses said it looked like the driver intended to mow down people. Police have not offered any details on the car incident.

“From what I saw, it looked extremely deliberate,” Will Mafei, 23, of Charlottesville said. He also witnessed the car hitting pedestrians as it went in reverse.

The University of Virginia Health Systems received 20 patients from the scene near the car strike. One of those people died and 19 were being treated, a spokeswoman said without offering details on the injuries.

The City of Charlottesville said 15 people were injured at the nearby site of the rally.

Earlier, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency in the city, home of the University of Virginia's flagship campus. The gathering was declared an "unlawful assembly," allowing police to disperse the protesters, and police cleared the park where the rally was to be held.

"I am praying that God help us all," Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy said in an interview with CNN. "We are better than this."

The violence broke out on Friday night, when hundreds of white marchers with blazing torches appeared at the campus of the University of Virginia in a display that critics said was reminiscent of a Ku Klux Klan rally

On Saturday morning, fighting broke out in the city's downtown when hundreds of people, some wearing white nationalist symbols and carrying Confederate battle flags, were confronted by a nearly equal number of counter-protesters.

David Duke, a former leader of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, was in Charlottesville for the rally, according to his Twitter account.

The rally was part of a persistent debate in the U.S. South over the display of the Confederate battle flag and other symbols of the rebel side in the Civil War, which was fought over the issue of slavery.

(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson, Jeff Mason and Yasmeen Abutaleb in Washington and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Frank McGurty and Alistair Bell)

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