Federal probe launched after 3 killed, 23 injured in Virginia protests

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(Source: CNN) (Source: CNN)
(Source: CNN) (Source: CNN)
(AP Photo/Steve Helber) Some white Southerners are again advocating for what the Confederacy tried and failed to do in the 1860s: secession from the Union. So-called Southern nationalists are within the group of demonstrators who are fighting the... (AP Photo/Steve Helber) Some white Southerners are again advocating for what the Confederacy tried and failed to do in the 1860s: secession from the Union. So-called Southern nationalists are within the group of demonstrators who are fighting the...
(AP Photo/Steve Helber) White nationalist demonstrators class with counter demonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) White nationalist demonstrators class with counter demonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency.
(Source: CNN) (Source: CNN)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP/CNN) — Violent clashes between white nationalists and counter protesters Saturday in a Virginia college town has left three dead and 23 others injured. Saturday night a federal investigation was launched into the matter.

The day of violent clashes culminated in a car slamming into a street crowded with people, killing 1 person and injuring 19 others. Authorities are not releasing the name of the 32-year-old woman who was killed by the car. Authorities say others treated at the scene received life threatening injuries.

Police say the driver of the car was arrested and is the focus of a homicide investigation. The suspect has been identified as James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Maumee, Ohio, according to Superintendent Martin Kumer with the Albermarle-Charlottesville County Regional Jail.

Fields is being held on suspicion of second-degree murder, malicious wounding and failure to stop in an accident that resulted in death.

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Federal officials have opened a civil rights investigation into the circumstances of the deadly car attack. The investigation was announced late Saturday by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Virginia and the Richmond field office of the FBI.

In a statement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions says the investigation will have the full support of the Justice Department.

 "The violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice," said Sessions.

"When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated," he added.

Matt Korbon, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student who witnessed the attack, said counter-protesters were marching when "suddenly there was just this tire screeching sound." A silver sedan smashed into another car, then backed up, plowing through "a sea of people."

People scattered, running for safety in different directions, he said.

It happened about two hours after violent clashes broke out between white nationalists, who descended on the town to rally against the city's plans to remove a statue of the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and others who arrived to protest the racism.

Hundreds of people chanted, threw punches, hurled water bottles and unleashed chemical sprays. At least eight were injured and one arrested in connection to the earlier violence. It remains unclear if the driver of the car has been apprehended.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, and police dressed in riot gear ordered people out.

Small bands of protesters who showed up to express their opposition to the rally were seen marching around the city peacefully by mid afternoon, chanting and waving flags. Helicopters circled overhead.

Right-wing blogger Jason Kessler had called for what he termed a "pro-white" rally to protest the city of Charlottesville's decision to remove the confederate statue from a downtown park.

Colleen Cook, 26, stood on a curb shouting at the rally attendees to go home.

Cook, a teacher who attended the University of Virginia, said she sent her son, who is black, out of town for the weekend.

"This isn't how he should have to grow up," she said.

Cliff Erickson leaned against a fence and took in the scene. He said he thinks removing the statue amounts to erasing history and said the "counter-protesters are crazier than the alt-right."

"Both sides are hoping for a confrontation," he said.

Two others deaths resulted from the crash of a Virginia State Police helicopter that had been in the area monitoring the protest.  Two troopers aboard the aircraft were killed, no one on the ground was injured.  Click here for more

It's the latest confrontation in Charlottesville since the city about 100 miles outside of Washington, D.C., voted earlier this year to remove a statue of Lee.

In May, a torch-wielding group that included prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer gathered around the statue for a nighttime protest, and in July, about 50 members of a North Carolina-based KKK group traveled there for a rally, where they were met by hundreds of counter-protesters.

Kessler said this week that the rally is partly about the removal of Confederate symbols but also about free speech and "advocating for white people."

"This is about an anti-white climate within the Western world and the need for white people to have advocacy like other groups do," he said in an interview.

Between rally attendees and counter-protesters, authorities were expecting as many as 6,000 people, Charlottesville police said this week.

Among those expected to attend are Confederate heritage groups, KKK members, militia groups and "alt-right" activists, who generally espouse a mix of racism, white nationalism and populism.

Both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which track extremist groups, said the event has the potential to be the largest of its kind in at least a decade.

Officials have been preparing for the rally for months. Virginia State Police will be assisting local authorities, and a spokesman said the Virginia National Guard "will closely monitor the situation and will be able to rapidly respond and provide additional assistance if needed."

Police instituted road closures around downtown, and many businesses in the popular open-air shopping mall opted to close for the day.

Both local hospitals said they had taken precautions to prepare for an influx of patients and had extra staff on call.

There were also fights Friday night, when hundreds of white nationalists marched through the University of Virginia campus carrying torches.

A university spokesman said one person was arrested and several people were injured.

Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer said he was disgusted that the white nationalists had come to his town and blamed President Donald Trump for inflaming racial prejudices with his campaign last year.

"I'm not going to make any bones about it. I place the blame for a lot of what you're seeing in American today right at the doorstep of the White House and the people around the president."

Charlottesville, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a liberal-leaning city that's home to the flagship University of Virginia and Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.

The statue's removal is part of a broader city effort to change the way Charlottesville's history of race is told in public spaces. The city has also renamed Lee Park, where the statue stands, and Jackson Park, named for Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. They're now called Emancipation Park and Justice Park, respectively.

For now, the Lee statue remains. A group called the Monument Fund filed a lawsuit arguing that removing the statue would violate a state law governing war memorials. A judge has agreed to a temporary injunction that blocks the city from removing the statue for six months.

Why Charlottesville?

Like many cities, Charlottesville has grappled with what to do with its Confederate monuments -- symbols of the Civil War that represent heritage to some, hate to others.

In April, the city council voted to remove the bronze statue of Robert E. Lee, CNN affiliate WVIR reported. It was one of several steps Charlottesville is taking to reduce its Confederate monuments. The removal is on hold pending litigation.

The city became an ideal protest site for white nationalists.

"This entire community is a very far left community that has absorbed these cultural Marxist principles advocated in college towns across the country, about blaming white people for everything," said Jason Kessler, who organized the "Unite the Right" rally.

Kessler, a Charlottesville resident, blames what he calls "the anti-white hatred that's coming out of the city."

Although other cities such as New Orleans, St. Louis and Austin have contended with the Confederate monuments issue, it is Charlottesville where the rallies are happening.

"Charlottesville has kind of been put on the map recently," the city's mayor Mike Signer said last month. "We want to change the narrative by telling the true story of race through public spaces. That has made us a target for groups that hate that change and want to stay in the past, but we will not be intimidated."

Lasting impact of May's torch protest

Outraged by the decision to remove the Lee statue, protesters in May converged around the monument carrying torches led by Spencer, who had returned to his college town. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia and lives in the state.

The gathering was swiftly condemned by city leaders, including Signer who said it was "either profoundly ignorant or was designed to instill fear in our minority populations in a way that harkens back to the days of the KKK."

But the fiery imagery from that event had a searing effect.

Kessler called it a "fantastic first event."

"Obviously that first event kickstarted public interest," he said.

The torch light rally was well-received by extremists, said Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and extremists.

"They love what they consider to be a powerful image. A lot of people pointed out that it looked like Klan harassing black people. They didn't have a problem with that."

"It's partly because that went so well, that's why they keep returning to Charlottesville," Beirich added.

KKK rally in Charlottesville

Two months later, the Ku Klux Klan held a rally at another Charlottesville park, which had been renamed Justice Park from Stonewall Jackson Park.

Clad in Klan robes and carrying Confederate flags, members of the North Carolina-based Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan marched to the park and chanted "white power."

They were met with about 1,000 counterprotesters. The local chapter of the NAACP organized a counter-rally. Shouting "racists go home," the crowd drowned out the Klansmen's chants.

Kessler: 'We're going to have bigger events'

The previous two rallies were "seen as an affront to the liberal population of this city and of the country," Kessler said.

The events "reopened the wound. It stuck a finger on the raw nerve of this population that has already failed to get over the election of Donald Trump," he said.

Charlottesville, which has a population of 47,000, had 80% of its voters for Hillary Clinton last year.

The city has not been known as a hotspot for white nationalism. There aren't historical precedents to the current white nationalist gatherings in Charlottesville, a local historian Rick Britton said in an email.

And it may not be over after Saturday if Kessler gets his way.

"We're going to have bigger and bigger events in Charlottesville," he said.

While Charlottesville was once named America's happiest city in 2014 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, some residents aren't very happy about what's happening. Many are tired of the white nationalist rallies and have demanded the city revoke their permit.

In July, more that 200 Charlottesville residents packed City Hall demanding that the city cancel Saturday's rally, CNN affiliate WVIR reported.

"I can very easily see this just eroding and erupting throughout the streets of Charlottesville and putting our citizens in danger," said one speaker, Don Gathers.

"A five-hour block with over 400 angry folks coming in spewing just hatred and vitriol can truly be a problem and I don't know how you can control that," he said.

Meanwhile, some businesses have declared their stores as safe spaces and posted signs of support for equality and diversity ahead of the weekend's event, reported WVIR.

CNN's Brandon Griggs, Ralph Ellis and Kwegyirba Croffie contributed to this report.

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