CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Charlottesville, Virginia, was marking the anniversary of last summer’s white supremacist violence with marches, vigils and other community events that began unfolding peacefully Saturday amid a heavy police presence.
As many businesses in a popular downtown shopping district began to open Saturday, law enforcement officers outnumbered visitors. Concrete barriers and metal fences had been erected, and police were searching bags at two checkpoints where people could enter or leave.
“It’s nice that they’re here to protect us,” said Lara Mitchell, 66, a sales associate at a shop that sells artwork, jewelry, and other items. “It feels good that they’re here in front of our store. Last year was a whole different story. It looked like a war zone last year compared to what it is today.”
Saturday marked the anniversary of a nighttime march by torch-toting white supremacists through the University of Virginia’s campus a day ahead of a larger rally in Charlottesville’s downtown.
On Aug. 12, hundreds of white nationalists – including neo-Nazis, skinheads and Ku Klux Klan members – descended on Charlottesville in part to protest the city’s decision decided to remove a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a park.
Violent fighting broke out between attendees and counterprotesters that day. Authorities eventually forced the crowd to disperse, but a car later barreled into a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
The day’s death toll rose to three when a state police helicopter that had been monitoring the event and assisting with the governor’s motorcade crashed, killing two troopers.
Among the remembrance events scheduled for Saturday was a “morning of reflection and renewal” at UVA that featured musical performances, a poetry reading and an address from University President James Ryan.
Ryan recalled how a group of students and community members faced off against the white supremacist marchers near a statue of Thomas Jefferson on campus, calling it a “remarkable moment of courage and bravery.”
Later Saturday evening, students and activists planned to hold a “Rally for Justice” on campus.
By midafternoon, the city said hundreds of people had passed through the downtown checkpoints. Police arrested three men in or near the secured perimeter for trespassing, possessing prohibited items and being drunk in public, the city said in a news release.
Gov. Ralph Northam and the city both declared states of emergency earlier in the week, citing the “potential impacts of events” during the anniversary weekend. The state’s declaration allocates $2 million in state funds and authorizes the Virginia National Guard to assist in security efforts.
Some community activists were concerned that this year’s heavy police presence could be a counterproductive overreaction.
An independent investigation of the rally violence, led by a former federal prosecutor, found the chaos last year stemmed from a passive response by law enforcement and poor preparation and coordination between state and city police.
Lisa Woolfork, a University of Virginia professor and Black Lives Matter Charlottesville organizer, said police are mounting a “huge, overwhelming show of force to compensate for last year’s inaction.”
“Last year, I was afraid of the Nazis. This year, I’m afraid of the police,” Woolfork said. “This is not making anyone that I know feel safe.”
But others said Saturday they were comforted by the security measures.
Kyle Rodland, who took his young sons to get ice cream downtown, said he felt much safer than last year, when he left town with his family and stayed with his parents after seeing people armed with long rifles walking around outside his home.
Events marking the anniversary were also expected Sunday in both Charlottesville and Washington, D.C., where Jason Kessler, the primary organizer of last summer’s rally, has obtained a permit for a “white civil rights” rally.
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, said in an interview with the Associated Press that she has been dreading the anniversary of her daughter’s death for months.
Bro likened losing a child to standing in shallow water as waves roll continually in.
“You let the wave wash over, and you don’t chase it. You let it go and you’re OK until the next one comes,” she said. “But today, I feel like high tide is in.”
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