'When So Many Demonstrators Come Out Armed, It Only Takes One to Ignite a Fire'

Charlottesville residents are disappointed in Trump's failure denounce white supremacists, but some say he can still fix the damage

A member of a white supremacists militia stands near a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017.   REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

CHARLOTTESVILLE – Emancipation Park in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia is surrounded by trees and tucked in between the town's main shopping street and a quiet residential neighborhood. When you see it with your own eyes for the first time, it's hard to believe that this serene little spot, which sits across the street from a local concert hall, lies at the center of a violent political drama that erupted on Saturday and quickly became the most important news story in America.

>> Rabbis, Jewish students face down white nationalists ■ Nazism and anti-Semitism take center stage at Charlottesville rally ■ Opinion: Charlottesville, Virginia: A predictable atrocity in Donald Trump's America >>

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Professor William Antholis, who lives just a few blocks from the park and passes through it almost every day, told Haaretz after the day’s tragic events that he still found it hard to grasp what exactly had happened in his hometown, minutes away from his house, over the last 48 hours. 

First, there was the gathering of hundreds of far-right activists, who came to Charlottesville to protest the town's decision to rename the small park, which was originally named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, but recently became "Emancipation Park," for the famous presidential proclamation by Abraham Lincoln which abolished slavery in the United States.

Then there was the deadly incident in the early afternoon in which a car drove into a crowd of counterprotesters who came to push back against the neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan supporters. At least one person died as a result of the incident, which is being investigated, and dozens were wounded. On Saturday night, a number of Republican Senators called to investigate the incident as a suspected case of "domestic terrorism." 

And to make things even worse, later on Saturday, a police helicopter assisting in monitoring the tense situation in the town crashed in a country area just outside of Charlottesville, leading to the death of the pilot and a local state trooper. All in all, it was one of the most violent and disturbing days that this quiet historical town, home to the University of Virginia, has known in many years. 

Antholis, who is executive director of the local university's Miller Center – which specializes in presidential scholarship and research – said that from the early morning hours, it was clear that "this was not a regular Saturday" in Charlottesville. "People were mostly avoiding the downtown area, unless they were there specifically to witness the protests. Our family went to the local farmers' market, and you could see maybe 20 percent of the usual number of people who come out to the market on a Saturday morning." 

Ever since the town made public its decision to change the park's name, and also stated that it was contemplating removing a statue of Robert E. Lee from the area (as of Saturday, the statue is still in place), there have been a number of demonstrations by far-right groups in and around Charlottesville, including a KKK-oriented march that included burning torches just last month. A similar event took place on Friday night, ahead of Saturday's rally. What made this weekend's events different right from the beginning, according to Antholis, was the presence of weapons in the hands of the far-right protesters. 

"There were dozens of people walking around town carrying weapons out in the open. I have been involved in politics for many years and witnessed demonstrations in the U.S. and abroad, but I don't recall seeing a demonstration in which dozens of people come out armed. That made the whole situation very tense and dangerous, because when you have rival political groups protesting in the streets, and many people in the crowd are carrying guns, it takes just one person to ignite a fire." 

A mugshot of James Alex Fields Jr., who was charged with one count of second degree murder after ramming into a crowed in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017.

This situation was one of the reasons that Virginia's governor, Terry McAuliffe, declared a state of emergency on Saturday morning, thus allowing the local police to get any armed person away from the town center, where the two opposing rallies were set to take place. "That was a very important decision, for which I applaud the governor and the state police," Antholis said. "As bad as things have turned out, it could have been much, much worse if someone had used a gun." 

The car-ramming incident took place on the corner of Main Street and 4th Street, less than half a mile from the contested park. The area is part of a pedestrian mall in the center of the city, full of local stores and restaurants, which usually attract a large crowd on the weekends. On Saturday night, however, most of the stores were shut, and the police was limiting access to the crime scene and its surroundings. It was unclear if the area would return to full commercial activity on Sunday.  

Antholis said that he was standing at an ice-cream shop, less than a minute away from the junction, when the car hit the left-wing counterprotestors. "We don't yet know what exactly was the nature of the event, but I can tell you, as someone who was standing right next to the place, that the crowd this person drove into was very easy to identify as a left-wing crowd, as people who were there to protest against the “alt-right” demonstration. So if this was a politically motivated event, there is no doubt with regards to the political affiliation of the people who were hurt, and it was impossible to miss their signs and realize who they were and what they were doing there." 

On Saturday night, the local police announced that the suspect in the car-ramming incident was Alex Fields, a 20-year-old Ohio resident (his car had Ohio license plates.) While the incident is still being investigated, the national spotlight in the hours since it took place has focused on U.S. President Donald Trump's failure to strongly denounce the racist far-right movements which initiated the violence on Saturday, or to clearly distance himself from their ideology, which he has been accused of cozying up to ever since the 2016 election. 

Brad Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia who is identified as politically Conservative, said that he was disappointed by the president's reaction, and expected him to denounce the racist "alt-right" movement in much stronger terms. "The president's remarks were too ambiguous and weak. He should have delivered a strong condemnation of the white nationalist movement, and he didn't. It was very disappointing." 

Wilcox added that other Republican politicians, such as Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, spoke in much stronger terms, as was appropriate to do. Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, wrote on Twitter that "white supremacists aren't patriots – they're traitors. Americans must unite against hatred and bigotry." According to Wilcox, "it's very important for Conservatives to strongly denounce and reject this dangerous ideology, which is opposed to our ideals as Americans. We need to fight back against these elements." 

Antholis, whose research focuses on presidential history and who worked in the White House during the Clinton administration, said that he shared the sense of disappointment from Trump's statements on Saturday, but said that it was still possible for Trump to fix the damage, if he will find the ability on Sunday to strongly and unequivocally denounce the “alt-right.” 

The most negative word Trump has used thus far to describe the situation in Charlottesville was “sad.” One local police officer, standing close to the scene of Saturday's car ramming, said that he agreed with the president on that point. "It's definitely sad," said the officer, who asked not to be named since he was not authorized to give interviews. "But it's more than just sad, if you ask me." It remains to be seen if Trump shares that opinion.