PEOPLE Explains: The Deadly Car Attack at a White Nationalist Rally in Charlottesville and Its Aftermath
A woman was killed and at least 19 people were injured Saturday as a “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally sparked protests in Virginia
A woman was killed and at least 19 people were injured Saturday after a “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally drew attendees and counter-demonstrators into confrontation on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia.
The woman, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, died after a car intentionally plowed through a crowd of counter-demonstrators as the rally broke up, authorities said.
That attack followed a Friday night march through the University of Virginia’s campus by hundreds of torch-bearing white supremacists who witnesses said chanted “white lives matter” and anti-Semitic slurs.
The deadly violence was the climax of a chaotic weekend that was initially stirred by a gathering in protest of the planned removal of a Confederate memorial statute.
Here are five things to know about what happened.
1. Conflict Grew from Fight Over Confederate Statue
The weekend’s confrontation evolved from escalating tensions over Charlottesville’s proposed removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a public park.
In May, a nighttime protest that included prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer gathered around the statue bearing torches, reports Time.
And on July 8, more than 50 members of the Ku Klux Klan — who traveled from North Carolina to rally against the city’s action — were met by more than 1,000 people who turned out to protest against them, according to The New York Times.
The call for white nationalists to converge again this past weekend led those on both sides of the city’s decision to organize.
Right-wing blogger Jason Kessler, who reportedly organized the “Unite the Right” rally, acknowledged the conflict over the Confederate symbol but said in an interview, “This is about an anti-white climate within the Western world and the need for white people to have advocacy like other groups do,” according to Time.
On the eve of Saturday’s planned event, a crowd of white supremacists carrying torches marched through the University of Virginia campus chanting “white lives matter” and “you will not replace us.”
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
2. Victim Died ‘Doing What Was Right,’ Her Mother Says
Saturday’s rally devolved into violence as demonstrators and counter-demonstrators clashed, hurling projectiles and engaging in fisticuffs.
The assembly was declared unlawful by authorities, and police moved to break up the crowds. As one gathering of counter-demonstrators walked downtown, a car revved and raced into them.
Heyer, a paralegal, was struck and killed. The driver then fled the scene.
“She died doing what was right. My heart is broken, but I am forever proud of her,” Heyer’s mother said, according to a GoFundMe page set up to help her family and which quickly exceeded its goal to raise $50,000.
Heyer’s friend and former co-worker Marissa Blair said she was saved when Blair’s fiancé, Marcus Martin, pushed Blair out of the way of the oncoming vehicle, according to the Times. Although Blair walked away with only a scraped arm and a leg bruise, Martin attended a later memorial service for Heyer in a wheelchair with a broken leg.
“We were just marching around, spreading love — and then the accident happened,” Blair said. “In a split second you see a car, and you see bodies flying.”
3) Suspect’s Mom Thought He Was Attending ‘Something to Do With Trump’
Police identified the suspected driver as 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio, according to CNN, Washington Post and the Associated Press. He is being held on charges of second-degree murder, malicious wounding and failure to stop in an accident that resulted in death.
He was denied bond during an initial court appearance on Monday. It is unclear if he has retained an attorney.
Fields grew up in Kentucky and recently moved to Ohio with his mother, Samantha Bloom, according to NPR. Bloom said she was aware that her son had planned to attend a rally in Virginia, but she was unaware that it was focused on white nationalism.
“I thought it had something to do with Trump,” she said. “Trump’s not a supremacist.”
One of Fields’ high school teachers has since spoken out about what he claims were his former student’s apparent white-nationalist ideologies, including an admiration for the Nazi military.
4. Republicans Among Critics of Trump’s Initial Response
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, President Donald Trump spoke out against the violence in Charlottesville.
However, in remarks that immediately drew rebuke, Trump did not explicitly lay blame on the white supremacists — instead insisting that “bigotry and hatred” was coming from “many sides,” even as the U.S. attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said the car attack “does meet the definition of domestic terrorism,” according to the Times.
Trump’s initial statement sparked a backlash as critics said the embattled president’s remarks didn’t go far enough to specifically condemn the prejudice and racism at the root of the violence.
On Monday, a member of the president’s American Manufacturing Council, Ken Frazier of Merck pharmaceuticals, who is African-American, resigned from the council to protest Trump’s response and noted that he himself was taking “a stand against intolerance and extremism.”
“America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal,” Frazier said in a statement posted to Twitter.
Trump mocked the stand, responding with a Tweet of his own that Frazier “will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!”
On Monday, nearly 48 hours after the attack, Trump said, “Racism is evil,” the Times reports.
The president added, “Those who commit violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
5. Two Police Died in an Incident Related to Conflict
Two Virginia state troopers, Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, also died in a helicopter crash Saturday near the demonstrations.
The state police said in a statement that the helicopter was “assisting public safety resources with the ongoing situation” when it crashed in a wooded area.
“Three people died who didn’t have to die,” Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer said. “So we’re praying for them and their families and loved ones.”