An estimated several hundred white nationalists descended on the University of Virginia’s campus in Charlottesville on Friday night for an impromptu torchlit rally.
The demonstration, which took place ahead of the alt-right Unite The Right event in the city’s Emancipation Park on Saturday, led to violent exchanges with counter-protesters on the university grounds.
The protest came amid an ongoing dispute over the proposed removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park, previously known as Lee Park.
Videos posted on social media by reporters at the scene showed Tiki torch-wielding marchers chanting, “End immigration,” “One people, one nation,” and “Blood and soil.” (‘Blood and soil’ is a Nazi-linked ideology based on ethnic descent (blood) and territory (soil)).
Other chants included, “You will not replace us” and “White lives matter.”
A smaller group of counter-protesters met the march at Jefferson Statue on campus, circling the monument and linking arms, according to the local Cavalier Daily.
They were then surrounded by the chanting white nationalists, before fighting broke out.
Police reportedly separated the two groups, having declared unlawful assembly.
Far-right figurehead Richard Spencer — who attended UVA — appeared to confirm via Twitter that the white nationalists had intentionally surrounded the counter-protesters.
There are also multiple reports of pepper spray being used. A local left-wing group posted pictures appearing to show one of the white nationalists deploying pepper spray against the counter-protesters.
A reporter for Huffington Post also said that anti-fascist and Black Lives Matter protesters had been pepper-sprayed. The reporter and other media outlets said journalists and residents had been threatened by some of the marchers.
Alex Spratley, a second-year college student who was among the counter-protesters, told the Cavalier Daily: “This is not something that we thought would ever happen, that we would ever see in our lifetime. It’s wild.”
UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan issued a statement in the early hours of Saturday morning condemning the march as “disturbing and unacceptable.”
“I am deeply saddened and disturbed by the hateful behavior displayed by torch-bearing protestors that marched on our Grounds this evening. I strongly condemn the unprovoked assault on members of our community, including University personnel who were attempting to maintain order,” Sullivan said.
“Law enforcement continues to investigate the incident, and it is my hope that any individuals responsible for criminal acts are held accountable. The violence displayed on Grounds is intolerable and is entirely inconsistent with the University’s values.”
Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer also issued a strong-worded statement of condemnation:
I have seen tonight the images of torches on the Grounds of the University of Virginia. When I think of torches, I want to think of the Statue of Liberty. When I think of candlelight, I want to think of prayer vigils. Today, in 2017, we are instead seeing a cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism, and intolerance march down the lawns of the architect of our Bill of Rights.
Everyone has a right under the First Amendment to express their opinion peaceably, so here’s mine: not only as the Mayor of Charlottesville, but as a UVA faculty member and alumnus, I am beyond disgusted by this unsanctioned and despicable display of visual intimidation on a college campus.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah was one of the first senior national lawmakers to condemn the march.
In a statement issued prior to Friday night’s events, Virginia’s Gov. Terry McAuliffe said that “personnel from Virginia’s National Guard were standing by to respond if needed” ahead of Saturday’s rally.
Charlottesville was also the scene of a smaller white nationalist rally in May.
Brandon Wall contributed reporting to this article.