US President Donald Trump, often accused of denigrating non-white people, condemned racism Saturday as the nation marked the anniversary of deadly unrest triggered by a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
That protest left one person dead and highlighted the growing boldness of the far right under Trump. Another far-right rally was scheduled for Sunday, right outside the White House.
On Saturday, anti-fascist marchers in Charlottesville held peaceful demonstrations against white supremacy as many people laid flowers on a makeshift memorial to Heather Heyer, who was killed in last year’s violence while protesting the extreme right.
Trump drew scorn after the Charlottesville bloodshed for initially avoiding any condemnation of the torch-bearing white nationalists who took part in that rally.
But on Saturday, he tweeted: “The riots in Charlottesville a year ago resulted in senseless death and division.
“We must come together as a nation. I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence. Peace to ALL Americans!”
Democrat Mark Warner, a US senator from Virginia, insisted Trump cleared the way for white nationalists to spread “hate and bigotry.”
“These purveyors of hate and bigotry were emboldened to take their message public by a President who has refused to categorically and unequivocally condemn them in clear terms,” he wrote on Twitter.
“We must show that what sets us apart as citizens of this country are our values of respect, openness, and tolerance towards one another.”
Officials declared states of emergency for both the city of Charlottesville and the state of Virginia to help law enforcement mobilise state and local resources for security reasons.
A heavy security presence descended on the city, where concrete barricades and official cars encircled the downtown area, with just two entry points for pedestrians.
Authorities said two people were arrested, one for trespassing and the other for disorderly conduct. Both were released on misdemeanor summons.
Last year’s protests began August 11 and saw hundreds of neo-Nazi sympathisers, accompanied by rifle-carrying men, yelling white nationalist slogans and wielding flaming torches in scenes eerily reminiscent of racist rallies held in America’s South before the Civil Rights movement.
They had gathered to protest efforts to remove statues of Confederate leaders, including one of the Confederacy’s top general, Robert E Lee.
On August 12, fighting broke out between neo-Nazi supporters and anti-fascists from a black-clad group called Antifa.
The violence culminated with a man driving a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heyer and injuring 19 people.
In the immediate aftermath, Trump drew broad criticism when he initially appeared to establish a moral equivalence between the two groups of protesters and refused to criticise the extreme rightwingers.
‘Blame on both sides’
He did eventually yield to immense political pressure and condemn white nationalism.
But just a day later, Trump said there was “blame on both sides” for the violence in Virginia, pointing to anti-fascists who came “with clubs in their hands”.
“I think there’s blame on both sides,” Trump said. “But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
Trump is constantly fending off charges that he is misogynist and racist. He denies the allegations.
Trump has retweeted white nationalist material, said Mexicans crossing the US border are rapists and drug dealers, once referred to a Hispanic Miss Universe as “Miss Housekeeping” and employed Steve Bannon, a central figure of the new “alt-right” in America, as his campaign chief and top strategist for a time.
In a recent race-related flareups, a black former White House staff, Omarosa Manigault Newman, has written in an upcoming memoir that Trump was caught on mic uttering a racial slur “multiple times” while making his hit reality TV show “The Apprentice” prior to his presidential run, and that there are tapes to prove it.