Downtown Charlottesville felt like the green zone of a war-torn city Saturday. More than a thousand local and state police officers barricaded 10 blocks of the city’s popular pedestrian district, the Downtown Mall, to prepare for the one-year anniversary of the white supremacist rally last year that left dozens injured and one dead.

To enter, people had to submit to bag checks and searches at one of two checkpoints.

Police faced heavy criticism last year for their failure to intervene in street brawling between rally attendees and anti-racist protesters. This year, they had far more officers on the ground, fencing around the park and street corner where fights broke out last year and heavy barricades to prevent car attacks.

Preparations aside, unlike last year, no white supremacist groups had said they were going to visit the city, and, by week’s end, none had. Instead, it was a normal day on the mall except for the heavy security, a military helicopter constantly circling overhead, and hundreds of police officers milling around. People streamed in, many just to get a drink, many carrying a flower arrangement to leave at the site of Heather Heyer’s death.

Anti-racist rally

Student activists at UVA rallied in front of the Rotunda, where last year torch-wielding white supremacists surrounded them. They symbolically reclaimed the space and called for the school’s hospital to forgive the medical bills of victims who were injured protesting last year.

The students avoided the school’s plans to require attendees to go through a check point with metal detectors by marching around the corner to the steps of a nearby building instead.

Tensions flared when students noticed state police troopers in riot gear massing nearby. Many of the protesters ran toward the line of officers and began chanting, “we don’t see no riot here, why are you in riot gear?”

A police supervisor yelled through a megaphone, declaring the event an unlawful assembly and two officers began preparing large bottles of chemical spray. City Councilman Wes Bellamy intervened, speaking to the officer while the protesters began encouraging each other to leave the area. The line of police didn’t move and officers ultimately lowered their shields.

A march through the city

After leaving the line of riot police, several hundred protesters began marching across the campus, pausing briefly at UVA’s Lambeth Field before stepping off on a multi-mile march through neighborhood streets then back to the downtown mall. They chanted Heather Heyer’s name, yelled that “all cops are racist,” and, as they neared the downtown mall, “what goes up, must come down; let’s go take those statues down.”

A police helicopter tracked the protesters, shining a spotlight down on them. But officers on the ground didn’t intervene other than to block traffic.

Night ends with a scuffle

When the group arrived at the mall, they briefly clashed with a small group of city police officers carrying clubs. The officers approached the protesters but kept moving past them. A small group of protesters began chasing the police. At some point, physical contact was made and an officer slammed a young woman into the ground as they quickly moved away.

The group did not approach the park, where hundreds of state police officers sat in near darkness around the statue of Robert E. Lee behind four layers of fencing.

The group then marched away, slowly dispersing.

The city of Charlottesville said four people were arrested in the downtown area, the Associated Press reported. Two arrests stemmed from a confrontation near the Lee statue where a Spotsylvania, Virginia, man stopped to salute, a Charlottesville woman confronted him and a physical altercation took place, officials said.

Police were also investigating the assault of a Charlottesville police officer who was knocked down during a demonstration related to the rally, per the AP. The officer was knocked to the ground and swarmed after approaching a man whose face was covered, according to police. The officer wasn’t hurt, but the investigation is ongoing.

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Ned Oliver
Ned, a Lexington native, has a decade’s worth of experience in journalism, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He also has the awards to show for it, including taking a pair of first-place honors at the Virginia Press Association awards earlier this year for investigative reporting and feature writing. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass.