HARI SREENIVASAN: At President Trump’s press conference yesterday in New York, he made a series of statements about the participants in the deadly weekend protests in Charlottesville.
NewsHour’s P.J. Tobia was at the protests. He compares what he saw on the ground to the president’s comments.
P.J. TOBIA: The Unite the Right rally was formally supposed to begin on Saturday, but neo-Nazis and white nationalists held a surprise torchlight march on Friday night. They filed through the University of Virginia’s main campus, chanting, in a display reminiscent of 1930s Germany.
PROTESTERS: Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us! Blood and soil! Blood and soil!
P.J. TOBIA: But at his Trump Tower news conference yesterday, President Trump defended the marchers.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I looked the night before. If you look, there were people protesting, very quietly, the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I’m sure, in that group, there were some bad ones.
P.J. TOBIA: NewsHour producer Mark Scialla and I arrived in Charlottesville the next morning. By that time, police were pushing white nationalists and neo-Nazis from the grounds where they had originally been permitted to demonstrate. The city called for a state of emergency and canceled the permit.
On their way out of the park, they clashed with counterdemonstrators. The white nationalists were far outnumbered, but most looked ready for a fight, wearing helmets and carrying sticks and shields. From what we observed, the white nationalists were far more aggressive than the counterprotesters.
Yesterday, though, the president suggested, again, both sides were equally violent.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It looked like they had some rough, bad people, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them.
But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest, because, you know, I don’t know if you know, they had a permit.
P.J. TOBIA: A few of those protesting the Nazis and white nationalists were armed with sticks and helmets too. The president accused them of also using violent tactics, as he defended the so-called alt-right, a loose affiliation of white nationalist supremacist groups.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Excuse me. What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Let me ask you this. What about the fact that they came charging — that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.
P.J. TOBIA: The vast majority of counterprotesters we saw were unarmed, like this group of local clergy.
WOMAN: Fear and hate have been given license in our country. Violence — racialized violence has been given permission in this country, and we are here to stand for love.
COUNTERPROTESTERS: Black lives matter! Black lives matter!
P.J. TOBIA: There were also many local people who came to defend what they see as Charlottesville’s values.
WOMAN: It’s not what we love, and it feel, you know, like abuse. It feels like our wonderful city is being abused.
P.J. TOBIA: By midday, the white nationalists were routed from the park, and regrouped at a separate location. It appeared the counterprotesters had won the day, as I explained on Saturday’s NewsHour.
The protest had turned kind of festive. There were people with funny signs. There was laughing and sing and chanting.
But, moments later, a car driven by 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. plowed into the group of anti-white nationalist Nazi protesters, killing one and sending 19 more to the hospital. Those who know the driver, Fields, say he had long idolized Adolf Hitler, and believed in white supremacy.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family and this country, and that is — you can call it terrorism. You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want.
P.J. TOBIA: Even those who were physically unscathed were shaken and terrified.
After the attack, protesters and counterprotesters dispersed. We followed a Pennsylvania militia carrying long guns and Confederate Battle Flags. They wandered into a largely African-American neighborhood. They were soon met by angry locals, who pelted them with rocks.
Soon after, they packed up their guns and left the area.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m P.J. Tobia in Washington.