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Trump's response to US race riot was late and weak

Two police officers died when their helicopter crashed near the site of the clashes. A car plowed through people protesting against a rally planned by white nationalists killing one person.

world Updated: Aug 13, 2017 20:45 IST
Torch-bearing white nationalists rally around a statue of Robert E Lee, the Confederate general, near the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville on Saturday. Following violent confrontations on Saturday, a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring at least 19.
Torch-bearing white nationalists rally around a statue of Robert E Lee, the Confederate general, near the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville on Saturday. Following violent confrontations on Saturday, a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring at least 19. (NYT)

The college town of Charlottesville, Virginia erupted in violence as a car ploughed through people protesting a rally by white nationalists, killing one and injuring 19 others —a significant escalation in racial tensions unleashed by the election of Donald Trump in November.

The car drove through the counter-protestors on a pedestrian mall in a manner similar to recent terrorist attacks across Europe. It came to a stop against another car, and backed up all the way down the street before leaving.

The driver, later identified as Ohio resident James Alex Fields (20), was arrested while fleeing on foot. The person he killed was described as a 32-year-old woman. The justice department has also opened civil rights investigations into the car attack, to be conducted by the FBI.

In an unrelated incident, two police officers died when their helicopter crashed. Officials said the crash was linked to the rally but did not explain further.

Fifteen more people were injured in clashes that started in the morning as white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan gathered to protest the removal of a statue of Gen Robert E Lee, who had led the Confederate army in the American civil war.

Counter-protestors, comprising members of Black Lives Matter — an organization that is seen as leading the contemporary civil rights movement — and anti-fascist groups called “antifa” gathered in large numbers, determined to oppose the white nationalists.

Violence was expected, and the police were prepared. But late morning, governor Terry McAuliffe imposed a state of emergency in Charlottesville, saying he was “disgusted by the hatred, bigotry and violence.”

But Trump, who has been at his New Jersey golf club on a working vacation, did not say a word and delayed a tweet about it, despite reports of the violence leading all cable new channels.

Eventually he did tweet about the violence, writing: “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets (sic) come together as one!”

However, many dismissed it as weak and vague. Even Richard Spencer, an alt-right leader and a Trump supporter who was with the white nationalists at the rally, tweeted mockingly: “Did Trump just denounce antifa?”

Trump returned with a fuller statement later, but sparked more controversy. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides,” he said, leading Vanita Gupta, who headed the civil rights division of the justice department of under Barack Obama, to tweet: “On ‘many sides’? He just cannot acknowledge ‘white supremacy’.”

Even Republicans found that disturbing, and called upon Trump to say more. “Mr. President - we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism,” senator Cory Gardner tweeted.

There were genuinely unifying elements of his brief remarks, such as this one: “No matter our colour, creed, religion or political party, we are all Americans first. We love our country. We love our God. We love our flag.” But they were lost in the criticism that followed.

“Very important for the nation to hear @potus describe events in #Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by #whitesupremacists,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted.

Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the longest-serving Republican senator in US history, said: “We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.”