The governor of Virginia has placed the National Guard on standby as Charlottesville braces for potentially violent protests Saturday over the city’s planned removal of a statue honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Thousands of demonstrators are expected to descend on the city Saturday afternoon for rallies being held against and in support of the statue’s slated removal, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe said Friday that he’s prepared to deploy the Virginia National Guard if the events get out of hand.
“Virginia is the birthplace of the rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly that make our country great. I expect that most of the individuals who participate in tomorrow’s events will honor that proud legacy by expressing their views safely and respectfully,” Mr. McAuliffe, a Democrat, said in a statement.
“However, in advance of tomorrow’s rally there have been communications from extremist groups, many of which are located outside of Virginia, who may seek to commit acts of violence against rally participants or law enforcement officials,” he continued. “In the event that such violent or unlawful conduct occurs, I have instructed state public safety officials to act quickly and decisively in order to keep the public and themselves safe.”
State and local law enforcement officials will be monitoring Saturday’s events, and the Virginia National Guard is “standing by to respond if needed,” he added.
Charlottesville voted in April to remove the nearly century-old statue from the former Lee Park, now known as Emancipation Park, but the monument has stayed put ever since pending further proceedings.
Jason Kessler, a local blogger, received a permit from Charlottesville last month to hold a “free speech rally in support of the Lee monument” at the site this weekend, but city officials on Monday ordered him to move the event to another park roughly a mile away, resulting in the filing of a First Amendment lawsuit in Richmond federal court Thursday evening. A federal judge granted an injunction against the city Friday night, effectively allowing Mr. Kessler’s “Unite the Right” rally to take place at Emancipation Park as initially planed.
City officials opposed holding the rally at Emancipation Park over safety concerns on account of the event likely drawing thousands of participants including demonstrators and counterprotesters alike.
Indeed, violence already broke out Friday evening when hundreds of torch-wielding protesters rallying in advance of this weekend’s event clashed with counterprotesters on the nearby Charlottesville campus of the University of Virginia, spurring several injuries and at least one arrest.
“I am beyond disgusted by this unsanctioned and despicable display of visual intimidation on a college campus,” Mayor Mike Singer said in a statement afterwards.
Police expect as many as 6,000 demonstrators and counterprotesters will participate in Saturday’s rallies, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, and the “Unite the Right” protest has the potential of being the largest white supremacist gathering in a decade, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
“White supremacists and extremists across the board have renewed their attempts to insert their hatred in a number of towns and cities across the country. However, the Charlottesville event could be a potentially historic showcase of hate, bringing together more extremists in one place than we have seen in at least a decade,” Oren Segal, the center’s director, said in a statement.
Virginians considering attending Saturday’s rallies should consider making “alternative plans,” Mr. McAuliffe said Friday, citing safety concerns.
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