Charlottesville Mourns Deaths Of Counterprotester, 2 State Police Officers

Aug 15, 2017
Originally published on August 15, 2017 8:00 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're going to spend some time now in Charlottesville, Va. The deadly violence there over the weekend has politicians and police rethinking how they handle future demonstrations. The community is mourning one counter-protester and two state police officers and also looking for answers, as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: When white nationalists came to a downtown Charlottesville park bearing shields and military gear as if heading to war, it was a recipe for trouble, says local NAACP President Janette Martin.

JANETTE MARTIN: What do you do when people show up with helmets and bats and - what do you think they're going to do, play Monopoly or something?

ELLIOTT: Martin says the ensuing violence should not come as a shock.

MARTIN: We all know this is terrible and what's happening shouldn't happen. And I have nothing against people expressing their point of view. But do you have to go to the extreme that they went?

ELLIOTT: Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas says his force had planned for a peaceful demonstration in a contained area but had to regroup amid clashes between hate groups and counter protesters. He says officers shut down the demonstration and cleared the park only to confront a bigger problem.

AL THOMAS: We had groups that were moving constantly. We were following a number of groups ensuring that they were being peaceful. But it was a challenge. It was certainly a challenge. We were spread thin once the groups dispersed.

ELLIOTT: A 20-year-old white man is accused of plowing his car through a group of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others. Thomas says he regrets the tragic loss of life. He says there were mutually engaged combatants. But when asked, he appears to lay blame on one side.

THOMAS: This was an alt-right rally.

ELLIOTT: Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe is ordering a review of how the Commonwealth issues rally permits and how police prepare for such public demonstrations. Monday there were verbal battles between white nationalists and people who want them gone from Charlottesville.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Nazis go home. Nazis go home. Nazis go home.

ELLIOTT: This outburst came after a court hearing for James Alex Fields Jr., the man charged with murder, malicious wounding and hit and run in the car attack.

MASON PICKETT: I think Charlottesville is a mess.

ELLIOTT: Retired businessman Mason Pickett stopped by the courthouse after placing a wreath at the side of the car crash.

PICKETT: I'm telling you, both sides came looking for a fight.

ELLIOTT: He described Charlottesville as a usually peaceful town now disrupted by extremists who are pushing middle-of-the-road voices like his from the public square.

PICKETT: Because if you're not with them, you're against them.

ELLIOTT: Community leaders say as they mourn, they'll look for new ways to talk about bringing people together. That same kind of soul searching and debate over Confederate symbols happened in the aftermath of a racist attack on a Charleston, S.C. church that left nine black worshipers dead. For now the symbol at the center of the Charlottesville divide, a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee astride his horse, remains on the grounds of a downtown park even as others elsewhere in the South are coming down.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Charlottesville, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.