Chanting “blood and soil,” “white lives matter” and “you will not replace us,” scores of white nationalists holding torches marched across the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville on Friday night.
Scuffles broke out between them and a small group of counter-protesters calling themselves “anti-fascists” who were surrounded as they demonstrated in advance of Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, expected to be one of the largest far-right gatherings in the U.S. in at least a decade.
Police soon cleared away the demonstrators, according to reporters at the scene.
“The fear we instill in them today only fuels our victory tomorrow,” one rally supporter wrote on Twitter, in a message retweeted by Richard Spencer, one of the nation’s most prominent white nationalists, who is attending the weekend’s events in Virginia.
Spencer also tweeted a selfie, showing him smiling with the marchers’ tiki torches in the background.
“I am safe. I am not fine,” one of the counter-protesters, Emily Gorcenski, tweeted, saying that white nationalists had attacked her group. “What I just witnessed was the end of America.”
Pictures and video of the nighttime march spread rapidly across social media, where many black and left-leaning Americans expressed disgust at the imagery, which to them recalled torch-lit Ku Klux Klan rallies of yesteryear.
“This is a disgrace,” tweeted Martese Johnson, a black University of Virginia alumnus who gained notoriety in 2015 when he was bloodied by police as a student. “I do not believe this is happening on my university’s campus.” (The university is currently between its summer and fall semesters, when more students would be on campus.)
Charlottesville’s mayor expressed outrage at the gathering of white nationalists, who at one point stopped to pay tribute to a statue of Thomas Jefferson, a founding father who owned slaves.
“When I think of candlelight, I want to think of prayer vigils,” Mayor Mike Signer wrote in a Facebook post.
“Today, in 2017,” he continued, “we are instead seeing a cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism, and intolerance march” in the hometown “of the architect of our Bill of Rights.”
Noting that everyone has a First Amendment right of assembly and free speech, he said, “Here’s mine: Not only as the Mayor of Charlottesville, but as a UVA faculty member and alumnus, I am beyond disgusted by this unsanctioned and despicable display of visual intimidation on a college campus.”
For weeks, white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other far-right figures have been preparing for Saturday’s rally, occasionally running into obstacles as the home-rental company Airbnb banned far-right users for violating the company’s anti-racism policies.
The city had also objected to the demonstrators’ hoped-for gathering spot — the formerly named Lee Park, where the city has ordered the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The city sought to block the rally at the park now called Emancipation Park.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties and human rights group based in Charlottesville, filed a lawsuit Thursday against the city on behalf of the rally organizers. The suit said that the city was unconstitutionally infringing on the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights by directing them to go to a different park.
The city contended that its request wasn’t prompted by the white nationalists’ political beliefs, but because the one-acre Emancipation Park would be too small for the number of demonstrators expected to arrive in the city on Saturday.
But Friday night, a judge sided with the white nationalists and ordered the city to allow them to gather in Emancipation Park, where local leaders promise to have hundreds of law enforcement officials monitoring events.