Charlottesville prepares for white nationalist rally anniversary

Charlottesville braces for the one-year mark of the deadly clash between white nationalists and counterprotesters, and the city is responding by holding anti-racism events this weekend.

WASHINGTON — Charlottesville, Virginia, braces for the one-year mark of the deadly clash between white nationalists and counterprotesters, and the city is responding by holding anti-racism events this weekend.

“The Hope that Summons Us: A Morning of Reflection and Renewal” at the University of Virginia was a sold-out event Saturday morning, seating 650 that included poetry readings, music and a moment a silence to reflect on the events that took place last year. University President Jim Ryan spoke about the pain the city experienced following the rally in Charlottesville, honoring Heather Heyer and Virginia State Police troopers who died on Aug. 12 of last year.

Ryan praised the students and others who were at the Thomas Jefferson statue on the university’s campus surrounded by “neo-Nazis and white supremacists.” He said the clash “symbolized the ongoing struggle between our aspirations and our reality” and called the marchers at last year’s rally “an extreme group of lost souls.”

Ahead of Saturday’s events in Charlottesville, the University of Virginia closed the Lawn Friday night out of an abundance of caution; it will stay closed until noon Sunday. Entrance to the Lawn is limited to Lawn residents.

A statement from the university said that restricting access to the Lawn will help them “continue to prepare for and secure both the UVA-sponsored events and a student-organized rally on the North Plaza of the Rotunda” that will be from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday.

The Thomas Jefferson statue was also sealed off and guarded Friday night, as the university tightened security for the “morning of reflection.” U.Va. was the scene of a torch-lit march the night before the first Unite the Right rally last year, where hundreds of white nationalists, carrying Tiki torches, gathered at the rotunda and surrounded a group of counterprotesters around the Jefferson statue.  

In downtown Charlottesville, barriers were set up at the Downtown Mall, turning it into a locked-down area that can only be accessed through security checkpoints until the end of the weekend.

Local businesses in the downtown area put out signs stating who they would serve including one that read, “if equal and diversity aren’t for you then neither are we.”

On Friday night, chalk messages and flowers lined the area where Heather Heyer was killed a year ago. Charlottesville dedicated part of the street to the 32-year-old who was struck when a car plowed into a crowd protesting the white nationalist rally.

Fencing and rails have been placed on Confederate monuments throughout the city. The Stonewall Jackson monument near the courthouse has been barricaded; mesh fencing has been placed on the Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park.

No permits have been granted for white nationalist groups in Charlottesville but a counterprotest group has planned a protest Saturday night against the university for what it says is failure to stand up strongly enough against white supremacy.

Last December, “Unite the Right” organizer Jason Kessler applied for a permit in Charlottesville for the one-year mark, but the city denied his request, which led to a lawsuit that he eventually dropped.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and the city of Charlottesville declared states of emergency earlier in the week.

The Virginia state of emergency ordered by Northam will allow state agencies to quickly mobilize resources to aid local authorities, the governor’s office said. The order also allows Virginia National Guard to assist in security efforts.

Since last year’s rally, city officials have ween working on a public safety plan. Charlottesville city spokesman Brian Wheeler told WTOP that they have a “comprehensive and unified plan that’s in place.”

Among the safety measures are restrictions to parking and access to the downtown area, and restrictions to what participants can bring to an event.

A report on last year’s rally found city and state police weren’t able to communicate by radio during the unrest because they didn’t properly coordinate ahead of time.

Wheeler added, “We’ve integrated our communications systems with the Virginia State Police and we’ve learned some real lessons about how to secure our downtown and especially what is now called Market Street Park.”

Lisa Woolfork, a University of Virginia professor and Black Lives Matter Charlottesville organizer, told the Associated Press that 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.”

Grace Aheron, an organizer for Showing Up for Racial Justice, said a “militarized police presence” doesn’t make the city safer.

“I’m not looking forward to what that’s going to look like this weekend,” she said.

WTOP’s Max Smith and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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