Charlottesville march results in violence, death

First posted September 17, 2017 4:39pm EDT
Last updated February 5, 2024 10:25am EST

All Associated Themes:

  • Hate Speech
  • Identity
  • National Security
  • Press
  • Protest Politics
  • Social Media
  • Violence / Threats

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On Aug. 12, 2017, several hundred Ku Klux Klan members, white supremacists, racists, and anti-Semites participated in Unite the Right, a march in Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the University of Virginia (UVA), to protest a decision by local officials to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park. Counterprotesters confronted the white nationalist demonstration. The heated encounter between the two opposing groups culminated in tragedy when a white nationalist drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters. Heather D. Heyer, a paralegal living in Charlottesville, was killed, and 35 others were injured, The New York Times reports. In December 2017, an independent investigation produced a report concluding that the Charlottesville Police Department had not been adequately prepared for the rally and that this had contributed to the disastrous results. After the release of the report, the Charlottesville chief of police resigned. 

Key Players

President Donald J. Trump responded to the violent protests in Charlottesville by condemning the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” reports The Times. Trump’s statement drew criticism from both Republicans and Democrats for failing specifically to condemn the white nationalist movement. White House Homeland Security Adviser Thomas P. Bossert told The Times that Trump did not want to “dignify the names of these groups of people.” First daughter Ivanka Trump tweeted, “There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis.” Two days later, apparently after pressure from White House staff members, Trump condemned the hate groups involved in the Charlottesville protests, saying “Racism is evil — and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazi’s, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” The Times reports. However, one day later, Trump told reporters in New York, “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now,” according to The Times. He also said, “What about the alt-left that came charging at them, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? Let me ask you this: What about the fact that they came charging, that they came charging with clubs in their hands swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do. So, you know, as far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day.”

Heather D. Heyer worked as a paralegal at the Miller Law Group in Charlottesville. According to The Times, “Friends described her as a passionate advocate for the disenfranchised who was often moved to tears by the world’s injustices.” The city of Charlottesville issued a statement in response to her death, saying, “This senseless act of violence rips a hole in our collective hearts. While it will never make up for the loss of a member of our community, we will pursue charges against the driver of the vehicle that caused her death and are confident justice will prevail.” A GoFundMe campaign to provide financial support to Heyer’s family raised over $200,000 in two days, according to The Times.

James Alex Fields Jr. received a life sentence in June 2019 for driving his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing Heyer and injuring 19 others. Fields, who lived in Maumee, Ohio, was initially charged with second-degree murder and was denied bail. His mother told the Associated Press that she knew he was attending the rally, but believed that it “had something to do with Trump.” A former high school teacher of Fields told The Cincinnati Enquirer that Fields was “a very bright kid but very misguided and disillusioned.”

Terry McAuliffe, then-governor of Virginia, declared a state of emergency in response to the events in Charlottesville. McAuliffe also defended the response of law enforcement from criticism by both the white nationalists and counterprotesters. He pointed out that not a single shot was fired during the protest and said the car attack could not have been prevented by law enforcement, The Times reports.

Alfred Thomas was the Charlottesville police chief at the time of the march. He resigned in December 2017 following the release of an independent report that criticized the department’s handling of the rally. The report said the police did not respond to break up fighting in the downtown area. The lack of a police response conveyed a passive stance that the independent report deemed a “tremendous tactical failure.” In a news release, Thomas said he was grateful to have had the opportunity to protect and serve the Charlottesville community. 

Further Details 

The Lead-up to Unite the Right

In February 2017, the Charlottesville Town Council voted to remove Lee’s statue and rename “Lee Park,” where the statue was located, along with a nearby park named for Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Their names were changed to “Emancipation Park” and “Justice Park,” respectively. In May, “a circuit court judge in Charlottesville issued a six-month injunction to halt the removal of the statue after a collection of individuals and groups — including the Virginia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans — filed a lawsuit against the city,” reported The Times. That same month, alt-right leader Richard Spencer led two marches through Charlottesville. At one, Spencer shouted, “We will never back down from the cowardly attacks on our people and our heritage. What brings us together is that we are white. We are a people. We will not be replaced,” CNN reports. 

Spencer later led two marches May 13, one during the afternoon and one during the evening, which received attention due to the carrying of torches, invoking imagery similar to a KKK rally. During the demonstrations, Spencer again shouted, “We will never back down from the cowardly attacks on our people and our heritage. What brings us together is that we are white. We are a people. We will not be replaced!” The crowd chanted, “You will not replace us,” and “Russia is our friend,” reports The Washington Post. Spencer also attended the Unite the Right protest in August and was photographed being detained by police. He is a graduate of UVA. 

In response to the march, Teresa A. Sullivan, president of UVA, issued a statement in which she said that while the university does “respect the rights of free expression and assembly,” it also “reserve[s] the right to criticize those expressions and assemblies.” Her statement also asserted that the demonstration appeared to be a deliberate attempt to intimidate Black people. Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer wrote on Facebook, “This event involving torches at night in Lee Park was either profoundly ignorant or was designed to instill fear in our minority populations in a way that hearkens back to the days of the KKK,” and “such intolerance is not welcome here.”

On May 14, a counterprotest occurred in which speakers promoted tolerance and acceptance, surrounded by signs reading “Black Lives Matter” and “F–k White Supremacy.” Others associated with Spencer’s demonstration showed up, and several scuffles occurred. Police made three arrests, and one officer was hit in the head with an object thrown from the crowd. 

In July 2017, approximately 50 supporters of the Ku Klux Klan participated in a rally to save the Lee statue. They shouted “white power” for approximately half an hour, The Times reports. More than 1,000 counterprotesters confronted the KKK supporters, protesting “their presence by hurling insults, water bottles and apple cores,” according to the Times. Law enforcement officials deployed tear gas in an effort to force the counterprotesters to disperse. “City officials and church leaders had asked residents to stay away from the rally. Concerts and other events were planned to encourage residents to spend the day elsewhere,” The Times reports.

On Aug. 11, 2017, a day before the Unite the Right rally, a judge in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, Charlottesville division, granted an injunction allowing the event to be held in Emancipation (formerly Lee) Park. City officials had attempted to relocate the rally to a different venue, McIntire Park, due to safety concerns. While the proposed new location was larger and could accommodate more people, it was not where the statue of Lee stood. Jason Kessler, the event’s organizer, sued the city and was represented by the Rutherford Institute, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The two groups argued that moving the march’s location would violate Kessler’s Free Speech rights. After the injunction was granted, ACLU’s Virginia Executive Director, Claire Guthrie, said in a statement, “We are grateful that the court recognized that the First Amendment applies equally to everyone regardless of their views,” NBC 29 reported. Her statement continued, “We hope that the city will focus … on managing the expected crowds using de-escalation tactics and flexibility.” The Charlottesville mayor responded to the injunction, saying, “While the City is disappointed by tonight’s ruling, we will abide by the judge’s decision. The goal in moving the Unite the Right rally from Emancipation Park to a larger, more accommodating space like McIntire Park had nothing to do with the content of the demonstrators’ speech.”


Times reporter Richard Fausset called the white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville “perhaps the most visible manifestation to date of the evolution of the American far-right, a coalition of old and new white supremacist groups connected by social media and emboldened by the election of Donald J. Trump.” Additionally, the Southern Poverty Law Center described the rally as “the largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades in the United States.”

In addition to Heather Heyer’s death, two Virginia state troopers died in a helicopter crash the evening of the Unite the Right march. The helicopter was being used to monitor the protests from above. The reason for the crash was not immediately clear but was being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, according to The Times.

On Aug. 16, 2017, thousands of students and others participated in a peaceful vigil at UVA. The organizers intentionally kept their plans off social media and instead spread information by word of mouth, CNN reported. Participants in the vigil carried candles, sang the national anthem, and followed the same route the white supremacists had charted on the previous Saturday. The same day, Heather Heyer’s mother spoke about her daughter’s death at a memorial service. “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well, guess what? You just magnified her,” she said, according to CNN.

After the protests, Twitter users attempted to identify individuals who were photographed while participating in the Unite the Right rally. One successfully identified a man carrying a tiki torch as an individual who worked for a restaurant named Top Dog in Berkeley, California. Top Dog promptly fired the man, reports the Daily Mail. Additionally, Twitter users were able to use photographs to identify a University of Nevada, Reno student who had traveled to Charlottesville for the protest. “I came to this march for the message that white European culture has a right to be here just like every other culture,” he told KTVN’s Channel 2 News after being identified on Twitter. “As a white nationalist, I care for all people. We all deserve a future for our children and for our culture. White nationalists aren’t all hateful; we just want to preserve what we have,” he continued. University of Nevada, Reno President Marc Johnson released a statement acknowledging that a student at the school had been involved in the Unite the Right protest. It read, in part, “Racism and white supremacist movements have a corrosive effect on our society. These movements do not represent our values as a university. We denounce any movement that targets individuals due to the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, political beliefs, sexual orientation, ability/disability, or whether they were born in our country,” KTVN reported. Although Johnson’s statement did not identify the student, a petition on calling for the school to expel him garnered more than 13,000 signatures within 48 hours. The university declined, however, to expel the student.

Trump’s statements regarding the events in Charlottesville prompted many prominent business executives to resign from his business advisory councils. Inge Thulin, chairman and chief executive of 3M, announced his resignation from the Manufacturing Council, saying “the initiative is no longer an effective vehicle for 3M to advance its goals,” NBC News reports. Soon Denise Morrison, president and chief executive of Campbell Soup, resigned as well. Reacting to Trump’s comments at the news conference in New York, Morrison said, “Racism and murder are unequivocally reprehensible and are not morally equivalent to anything else that happened in Charlottesville.” On April 16, Trump announced via Twitter that he was dissolving both the Manufacturing Council and the Strategy and Policy Forum.

The events in Charlottesville prompted numerous editorials in national publications concerning hate speech and the First Amendment. Some argued that the ACLU ought to reconsider its decision to represent white supremacists, although the organization stood by its actions. “I want to be clear, the violence of this weekend was not caused by our defense of the First Amendment,” the ACLU’s executive director, Anthony Romero, told The Times.

In September, UVA released a report finding that the university’s administration had not adequately prepared for the alt-right rally. The report, authored by the Deans Working Group, led by UVA Law School Dean Risa Goluboff, cited numerous shortcomings in the university’s preparation and response to the Unite the Right rally, reports The Post. The report urged UVA to “forge new policies and practices that will prevent it from again becoming a locus of intimidation and violence while recommitting to the principles of free speech at the core of its mission.” Suggested improvements include procuring better information prior to protests, changing certain regulations concerning large gatherings on campus, and improving an understanding of campus rules, reported The Post. In one example of inadequate preparation, UVA campus police failed to enforce a rule prohibiting flames on campus due to incomplete knowledge and understanding of the regulation. Alt-right demonstrators carried torches on Friday night before the Unite the Right rally. 

In December 2017, Thomas resigned as chief of police following the release of an independent report analyzing the Charlottesville Police Department’s response to the marchThe independent report was prepared by Timothy Heaphy, a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia. It specifically criticized the department’s failure to maintain a separation between the demonstrators and counterdemonstrators, a reluctance on the part of the police to intervene in fights, and a lack of overall planning for responding to violence. Heaphy said during a news conference he had heard from a police officer that Thomas had told his officers to let protesters fight because it would be easier to declare the assembly unlawful. Thomas denied that he had made such a statement, reports The Post


One killed, 19 injured while protesting hate groups

Heyer was killed while participating in a counterprotest when a car driven by a white nationalist from Ohio plowed into a crowd. Nineteen other counterprotesters were injured, and the driver was charged with second-degree murder. He was denied bail two days later by a judge in the Charlottesville General District Court, reports USA Today. Additionally, two state troopers were killed in a helicopter crash while monitoring the protests. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the crash was likely caused by faulty maintenance.

D.C. and Charlottesville sequels generate anticipation in 2018, fizzle out

Kessler, one of the organizers of the deadly Unite the Right rally, planned two sequel demonstrations to be held on the anniversary of the initial event. One of them was set to take place in Charlottesville again, but the city determined the demonstration was a threat to public safety and blocked it. Kessler then shifted his focus to Washington, D.C., where he successfully obtained a permit from the National Park Service (NPS) to hold a protest in Lafayette Park, opposite the White House. Agencies such as the NPS and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) drew public backlash for seeming to accommodate the white nationalists and inadvertently magnifying their message.

On the Sunday of the protest, Aug. 12, 2018, only a few dozen white nationalists showed up to rally with Kessler. They were overwhelmed and out-shouted by counterprotesters, who numbered in the thousands, reported The Hill. Among them were contingents from such groups as Black Lives Matter and Shut It Down DC, a coalition of 19 anti-fascist, anti-racist, and feminist groups.

Several journalists on social media reported clashes with the anti-fascist (or antifa) groups, both in D.C. and in Charlottesville. A reporter for the local ABC station shared a photo on Twitter claiming that antifa protesters had cut his cameraman’s video cord, while an NPR reporter posted a video where he is seen dodging an egg thrown at him. Similar skirmishes were reported in Charlottesville, where antifa protesters gathered informally amid a heavy police presence. Protesters also clashed with police, both in Charlottesville and D.C.

In the aftermath of the anniversary Unite the Right rally, Washingtonian reported that the District spent $2.6 million in security costs, making sure that the few white nationalists did not come in direct contact with the thousands of counterprotesters.

Five men indicted in connection with Charlottesville rally

On Oct. 10, 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that a federal grand jury in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia had indicted four men from California in connection with the Charlottesville events in August 2017.  The indictment said the four had trained with the militant right-wing group Rise Above Movement, which, it alleges, openly expressed white supremacist views online and advocated violence against those with dissenting political opinions. The indictment charges each of the four men, all in their 20s, with one count of conspiring to violate the federal riots statute and one count of traveling in interstate commerce with the intent to incite a riot. It says they “incited, promoted, or encouraged a riot and committed acts of violence” in Charlottesville, and also in demonstrations that took place earlier in 2017 in Berkeley and Huntington Beach, California. 

James Fields sentenced to life in prison

Earlier in 2018, on June 27, The Times reported that the DOJ had indicted Fields, the driver who struck Heyer. The then 21-year-old was charged with one count of a hate crime resulting in Heyer’s death, as well as dozens of other counts of hate crime acts.

On June 28, 2019, Fields was sentenced to life in prison by a federal court. He was charged on 29 counts of committing federal hate crimes, including the murder of Heather Heyer. According to Vox, Fields’s lawyers asked for leniency during the trial, arguing that their client should not serve a life sentence due to his young age and a history of mental illness. The prosecution countered that due to the severe nature of his crime, a life sentence was warranted. Because he was convicted at the state level in 2018 on charges stemming from the attack, Fields will face further sentencing.

Charlottesville removes Lee monument

Cranes heaved the statue of the Confederate general from its pedestal on the morning of July 10, 2021, almost four years after violence consumed Charlottesville’s streets over its proposed removal. A crowd of residents cheered as a truck ferried the notorious monument to an undisclosed location for storage while the town’s governing council decides its future, according to The Washington Post

Federal jury, in related civil case, finds white nationalist organizers liable for injuries

On Nov. 23, 2021, Reuters reported that a federal jury in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville found the organizers of “Unite the Right” rally liable for injuries to counter- protestors, awarding some $26 million in civil damages. 

The civil lawsuit was filed by four men and five women, four of whom had been injured at the time Heyer was killed. According to The Times, these plaintiffs sustained various injuries, including concussions, a shattered leg, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, inability to concentrate, and panic attacks. 

On four of six counts, the jury sided with the victims, but were unable to come to an agreement on the other two counts alleging violation of federal conspiracy laws, The Post reported. 

“The jury clearly rejected the defendants’ arguments that this was somehow a matter of free speech, based on the overwhelming evidence presented during trial,” Amy Spitalnick, executive director of the nonprofit Integrity First for America, told The Free Speech Project. “It was a resounding victory for our plaintiffs that made clear the consequences for racist, antisemitic violence.” 

Spitalnick said that 42 U.S. Code Section 1985 and 1986, conspiracy to interfere with civil rights and action for neglect to prevent interference with civil rights, respectively, were the two counts the jury deadlocked on. 

Under Virginia law, the defendants were found to have engaged in a conspiracy that led to injuries. Among the defendants were Kessler, Spencer, Fields, neo-Nazi podcaster Christopher Cantwell, and several white nationalist groups.

The plaintiffs also sought compensatory and unspecified punitive damages, including medical costs and $3-10 million for pain and suffering. Twelve defendants were ordered to pay $500,000, while five white nationalist organizations were fined $1 million each. 

Fields, already serving multiple life sentences for murdering Heyer with his car, was found liable for $12 million and hundreds of thousands of dollars for medical expenses related to assault, battery, and emotional distress. 

Attempting to separate the murder of Heyer from their case, the defendants blamed the violence solely on Fields, stressing that they were engaging in their First Amendment rights during the events in Charlottesville and a had a legal permit to protest. 

Going forward, defense lawyers said that they would try to reduce the damage amounts.  “The defendants in this case are destitute,” defense attorney Joshua Smith told The Times.

Roberta Kaplan, the lead plaintiffs’ attorney who organized the case through Integrity First for America, said the verdict sent a message that the United States “does not tolerate violence based on racial and religious hatred in any form, and that no one will ever bring violence to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, ever again.”