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A federal judge's ruling has cleared the way for the alt-right group "Unite the Right" and white nationalists to hold a rally in downtown Charlottesville, Va., Saturday near the endangered statue of Robert E. Lee over the objections of wary city authorities.
U.S. District Judge Glen Conrad ordered a preliminary injunction late Friday night in a lawsuit filed against the city by right-wing blogger Jason Kessler.
The rally is expected to draw white nationalists, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates and alt-right activists to Charlottesville's Emancipation Park to protest the city's vote to remove the statue of the Confederate general.
"It's important we preserve this history that is under attack," said Kessler, who organized the rally.
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The city had tried to get organizers to move the rally to a different park. After the judge's Friday night ruling, Mayor Mike Signer, who opposed holding the rally near the Lee monument, said the city would now turn its full attention to "protecting the downtown area" during Saturday's protest.
After the ruling, far-right protesters gathered at the University of Virginia ahead of Saturday's rally. Protesters marched on the school grounds with torches, who later were ordered to disperse by university police after they declared the protest an "unlawful assembly." Images of the protest circulated on social media.
University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan issued a statement, condemning the demonstrations and confirming that law enforcement officials are investigating the incident.
"I am deeply saddened and disturbed by the hateful behavior displayed by torch-bearing protesters that marched on our Grounds this evening," Sullivan said. "I strongly condemn the unprovoked assault on members of our community, including University personnel who were attempting to maintain order."
"It is my hope that any individuals responsible for criminal acts are held accountable," Sullivan said, adding: "The violence displayed on Grounds is intolerable and is entirely inconsistent with the University's values."
In a statement, Signer also slammed the rally, calling the protest "a cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism, and intolerance."
"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," Signer said.
In the past few months, white nationalist groups have paid particular attention to Charlottesville, a progressive college town where over 80% of residents voted for Hillary Clinton. In May, several dozen demonstrators, led by prominent white supremacist Richard Spencer, gathered at night by the Lee statue, wielding torches.
In July, Ku Klux Klan members held a rally in Charlottesville in Justice Park, where they were met with more than a thousand upset counter-protesters.
White nationalist groups continue to return to Charlottesville partly because they saw the May torch light gathering as a great success, noted Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"They loved the imagery of that. They were over the moon about that," she said. "They viewed it as having been a wonderful recruiting tool.
Neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer told readers to bring tiki torches for a planned torchlight ceremony.
On Monday, the city said the rally would not be allowed to go forward unless it was moved to another park about a mile from the city's downtown, citing safety concerns due to crowd size. Police expect anywhere between 2,000 to 6,000 people, said city police captain Victor Mitchell in a press conference Friday.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization in Charlottesville, filed suit against the city on behalf of Kessler on Thursday, saying his constitutional rights had been violated.
"While the message of the 'Unite the Right' rally may raise strong feelings of opposition among area residents and political leaders, that opposition can be no basis for government action that would suppress the First Amendment rights of demonstrators who have acted according to the law," the organizations wrote in a joint letter to city officials on Tuesday.
Kessler, who resides in Charlottesville, said he was "absolutely not" going to change venues, regardless of the judge's ruling.
"We are going to Lee Park no matter what the outcome of the court case," he said.
Residents described a city on edge, with helicopters circling overhead and heavy police presence.
"We are on pins and needles over here," said David Straughn, a member of Black Lives Matter Charlottesville.
People are concerned about potential violence during clashes among protestors, counter-protestors and the police, said Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.
"It's a tense feeling. We don't know what's going to happen," she said.