Car plows into crowd during violent protest, three dead

Rescue workers assist people who were injured when a car drove through a group of counter protestors at the "Unite the Right" rally Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.  – Police say that 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 public property, officials said. A 32-year-old female was among those killed, said Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas. Two additional people were killed with a Virginia State Trooper’s helicopter crashed while responding to the violence. more than a dozen people have been hospitalized with injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening.

At least 34 people were injured in hours of fighting between protesters in the town of Charlottesville during a rally called “Unite the Right.” The rally was planned to demonstrate against Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a city park.

The state’s governor declared an emergency and halted the rally after the two sides broke down into fist fights, screaming, swinging bats and throwing bottles and rocks. President Donald Trump condemned the violence.

“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.”

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, the Charlottesville mayor, Mike Singer said during a press conference Saturday with Charlottesville police and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.

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 Democrat and career politician Hillary Clinton was defeated in the presidential election by Republican businessman Donald Trump.

Conservative blogger Jason Kessler said earlier this week in an interview with Fox News that the rally was intended to not only oppose the removal of Confederate symbols but also about free speech and “advocating for white people.”

“This is about an anti-white climate within the Western world and the need for white people to have advocacy like other groups do,” he said.

The protest started with a crowd of white nationalists chanting “You will not erase us,” while counter-protesters carried placards that read: “Nazi go home” and “Smash white supremacy.”

On Saturday afternoon a silver sedan driving at high speed plowed 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, 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 counter-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.

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 two people killed in the helicopter crash have been confirmed to be police officers, although their identities have not been released. The Bell 407 helicopter with two people on board crashed 7 miles  southwest of Charlottesville, Jim Peters, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said in an email. The cause of the crash was not immediately determined.