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Friday 20 April 2018

Man charged over white supremacist rally car incident 'had hate group's emblem'

James Alex Fields has been charged with second-degree murder after a car ploughed into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville (Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail via AP)
James Alex Fields has been charged with second-degree murder after a car ploughed into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville (Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail via AP)

The man accused of ploughing a car into a crowd protesting against a white supremacist rally in Virginia had been photographed hours earlier carrying the emblem of one of the hate groups that organised the Take America Back campaign.

Vanguard America has denied any association with the suspect, even as a separate hate group that organised Saturday's rally pledged on social media to set up future events that would be "bigger than Charlottesville".

The mayor of Charlottesville and political leaders of all political stripes vowed to combat the hate groups and urged President Donald Trump to forcefully denounce the organisations that had promoted the protest against the removal of a Confederate statue.

Some of those groups specifically cited Mr Trump's election after a campaign of racially charged rhetoric as validation of their beliefs.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced late on Saturday that federal authorities would pursue a civil rights investigation into the circumstances surrounding the crash.

The violence and deaths in Charlottesville "strike at the heart of American law and justice", Mr Sessions wrote. "When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated."

Police charged James Alex Fields with second-degree murder and other counts after the silver Dodge Challenger they say he was driving barrelled through a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman and injuring at least 19 other people.

Hours later, two State troopers were killed when the helicopter they were flying in as part of a large-scale police effort at the rally crashed into a wooded area outside the city.

In a photo taken by the New York Daily News, 20-year-old Fields is shown standing with a group of other men, all wearing the Vanguard America uniform of khakis and white polo shirts.

The men held white shields with Vanguard America's black-and-white logo of two crossed axes, with the Confederate statue of Robert E Lee in the background.

The Daily News said the photo was taken about 10.30am on Saturday, just hours before authorities say Fields crashed his car into the crowd at 1.42pm.

The Anti-Defamation League says Vanguard America believes the US is an exclusively white nation, and uses propaganda to recruit young white men online and at college campuses.

In a Twitter post, the group said it had handed out the shields "to anyone in attendance who wanted them", and denied Fields was a member. "All our members are safe an (sic) accounted for, with no arrests or charges," it said.

In blog posts after the violence, the Daily Stormer, a leading white nationalist website that promoted the Charlottesville event, pledged to hold more events "soon".

It said: "We are going to start doing this non-stop. We are going to go bigger than Charlottesville. We are going to go huge."

Saturday's chaos erupted as neo-Nazis, skinheads, Ku Klux Klan members and other white supremacist groups staged a rally to protest against the city of Charlottesville's plans to remove the Lee statue. Peaceful counter-protesters arrived and staged a march, carrying signs that read "black lives matter" and "love".

The two sides quickly clashed, with hundreds of people throwing punches, hurling water bottles and unleashing chemical sprays.

Videos that ricocheted around the world on social media showed people beating each other with sticks and shields. Amid the violence, the Dodge Challenger tore through the crowd.

The impact hurled people into the air, and Heather Heyer, 32, was killed as she crossed the street.

Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, police in riot gear ordered people out of the streets, and helicopters circled overhead, including the one that later crashed.

Mr McAuliffe and Charlottesville mayor Michael Signer, both Democrats, lumped the blame squarely on the rancour that has seeped into American politics and the white supremacists who came from out of town into their city.


Press Association

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