On the ground: Witnesses say police stood by during Charlottesville clashes

As the fallout from Charlottesville continues to grip the nation, many are questioning the police response at Saturday’s white nationalist rally, prompting the city’s police chief to defend the actions of his officers during a press conference Monday.

It was a battle scene, wrote an Associated Press reporter in a firsthand account of what it was like on the ground.

“Despite the extended, violent skirmishes…I never witnessed an officer step in,” said AP reporter Sarah Rankin, who noted that state police made three arrests.

Rankin described pockets of fighting breaking out, only to be broken up by the comrades of those fighting — not police.

“The streets were not barricaded,” said Hunter Wallace, a far-right blogger. “Violent antifa [anti-fascists] were not penned in their own area as per our agreement with the Charlottesville Police Department, but were roaming the streets and blocking the entrance to Lee Park. They immediately launched an attack on our group with mace, pepper spray, bricks, sticks and foul liquids.”

“The police stood idly by on the sidelines while a brawl was allowed to ensue,” he said. “We had to fight our way into Lee Park and dozens of our people were injured by mace and pepper spray as we marched through the gauntlet.”

“Counter-protesters fought back, also swinging sticks, punching and spraying chemicals,” said Washington Post reporter Joe Heim. “Everywhere, it seemed violence was exploding. The police did not move to break up the fights.”

“Although Virginia State Police and Charlottesville police were stationed along the sides and the rear of Emancipation Park, the Market Street side was unattended,” Heim said. “As it filled with rally-goers and counter-protesters, the mix quickly became volatile.”

By 11:30 a.m., Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued a state of emergency and officers ordered the crowds to disperse. That’s when bands of people made their way through the city.

“Whose streets? Our streets!” chanted a group of counter-demonstrators on a main street south of Emancipation Park.

“Then I heard the sound of squealing tires — and screams,” wrote Rankin. A driver plowed into the crowd, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring more than a dozen more.

Two Virginia state troopers also died Saturday, when their helicopter crashed during a surveillance flight over the rally.

While those on the ground say police stood by during clashes, officials in Virginia, including Gov. McAuliffe, have defended law enforcement. They say officers showed restraint because some people in the crowd were heavily armed.

“To say we were unprepared or inexperienced is absolutely wrong,” said Virginia’s secretary of public safety, Brian Moran. “We unequivocally acted at the right time and with the appropriate response.”

“These folks were on that line protecting us and they did a magnificent job,” Gov. McAuliffe told Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson on the “Pod Save the People” podcast.

“They (law enforcement) were on very heightened alert because of the amount of weapons that we had been told and had seen who came to Charlottesville,” the governor said. “These folks came armed, and our biggest concern is that shots would be fired, and you could have the melee inside the park where a thousand people were jammed there.”

“But I’m very proud,” he said. “Not a single shot was fired.”