Charlottesville on high alert as small groups of protesters march and hold impromptu memorials

Charlottesville remained on high alert Sunday as the city marks the one-year anniversary of the violent gathering of white supremacists on the University of Virginia campus that left one woman dead and heightened deeply-rooted racial tensions across the nation.

After a relatively calm morning, tensions rose around 2.15pm as dozens of cops massed at the Water Street junction with 4th Street. 

Chants of ‘We keep us safe,’ ‘C’ville we’ve got your back’ and ‘whose streets? Our streets,’ broke out from the crowd angry at the sheer number of cops in the town.

Police looked on impassively as several women openly taunted them. ‘F**k the police,’ one yelled repeatedly.

‘This is escalation. Where’s your de-escalation training?’ a second woman shouted. ‘You’re not welcome here.’ 

Within less than an hour later the crowds of protesters had almost entirely dispersed after the sky opened up and released a heavy downpour at around 3.30pm. 

Sunday felt considerably more tense than the previous day which had ended with a march from the university campus into the town center. Minor skirmishes were reported on the march but it dispersed peacefully.

The Commonwealth of Virginia was placed under a state of emergency this weekend as law enforcement officials braced for demonstrations both in Charlottesville and 115 miles away in Washington, DC.

Hundreds of police officers, many wearing riot gear, have been patrolling the downtown area searching people as they entered.

Sunday was the second day that the historic city – home to the University of Virginia – was under virtual police search. Fewer stores and restaurants were open in the 18-block downtown area which had been cordoned off. 

Several groups held impromptu memorial services at the site where 32-year-old Heather Heyer was mowed down by a speeding alleged Nazi sympathizer on August 12 last year.  

The only protesters on view were anti-Fascists and people wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts. No obvious white supremacists were to be seen.  

A group of some 60 people were seen marching up The Mall to the spot on 4th Street where Heyer was killed. The few passers-by clapped them as they chanted anti-Fascist slogans.  

Heyer’s mother Susan Bro also made an appearance at the site of her daughter’s death on Sunday. 

Bro was seen embracing supporters and placing a bouquet of flowers on the makeshift memorial that has been set up in the 32-year-old’s honor.

At one point, she asked the crowd to raise their fists in solidarity, saying there’s still ‘so much healing to do.’ 

She added that the city and the country have a ‘huge racial problem’ and that if it’s not fixed, ‘we’ll be right back here in no time’.

Bro also said the day was about more than just her daughter. She recognized the other victims of the attack, which injured dozens of people, and thanked the two Virginia state troopers killed in a helicopter crash for their sacrifice.

Lt Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke Bates died when their helicopter crashed while deployed as part of the response to last year’s violence.

Earlier this morning a group of more than 200 people gathered at a park to protest racism, singing songs and listening to guest speakers.

Among the group was Courtney Commander, a friend of Heyer’s who was with the 32-year-old when she was killed. 

Commander told AP: ‘She is with me today, too.’ 

On Saturday night more than 200 anti-racist protesters marched from the university into Charlottesville town center after dark chanting and at times taunting police. 

They unfurled a banner reading ‘Last year they came w/ torches. This year they come w/ badges’ and chanted: ‘Why are you in riot gear? We don’t see no riot here.’ 

Last year, 22-year-old Clara Carlson faced down a group of white supremacists who marched through campus, surrounding her and a group of friends. On Saturday night, she was angry at the police response to the student rally.

‘The university administration just let white supremacists roll through grounds with their torches, and for us, they’re afraid of us. They are afraid of us because we are demanding change from the university,’ Carlson said.

Around 1,000 police and members of Virginia National Guard were deployed to the university city with one aim — to prevent a repeat of the events that ended in mayhem last year.

Cops made three arrests inside an 18-block security area set up in the center of the city of 47,000 people. One was for trespassing and one for drunkenness.

Police said the third man arrested was white-bearded 62-year-old John Miska, who was summonsed for buying razors — which were among the items banned in the area.

The march broke up peacefully shortly after 9pm and the demonstrators – mainly students – straggled back home. 

Last year, on August 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. Authorities eventually forced the crowd to disperse, but a car later barreled into a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters, killing Heyer and injuring dozens more. A state police helicopter later crashed, killing two troopers.

Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, told The Associated Press that she has been dreading the anniversary of her daughter’s death for months. On Sunday afternoon, she plans to bring flowers to the spot where her daughter was killed.

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. But today, I feel like high tide is in.’

Some 115 miles from Charlottesville in Washington, authorities are preparing for protests on a much larger scale as the principal organizer of last year’s ‘Unite the Right’ event is scheduled to hold a so-called white civil rights rally, bringing with it a significantly higher number of counterprotesters. 

Jason Kessler, principal organizer of last year’s ‘Unite the Right’ who abandoned his bid to stage a similar anniversary event in Charlottesville, said in his permit application that he expects 100 to 400 people to participate in his event Sunday afternoon in Lafayette Park, in front of the White House. 

President Donald Trump won’t be there, though, as he is at his golf club in New Jersey.

The number of people at Kessler’s event could be lower than his estimate and likely will be dwarfed by counterprotests. 

Some leading figures in the U.S. white nationalist movement have said they won’t attend or have encouraged supporters to stay away.

The National Park Service also issued permits for events organized by DC United Against Hate, New York Black Lives Matter and other groups. 

Government and police officials in Washington have expressed confidence the city can manage the events without violence; the mayor and police chief have promised a massive security mobilization to keep protesters and counter-protesters apart.

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