The Charlottesville car attacker gets a life sentence: How we got here

Posted at 6:10 PM, Jun 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-28 20:10:50-04

The violence that erupted in Charlottesville almost two years ago sent shock waves far beyond the picturesque university town in Virginia.

One woman died, dozens were injured, and a nation was traumatized by the specter of rising alt-right violence.

The Charlottesville story is far from over, but one chapter closed Friday when James A. Fields Jr. was sentenced to life in prison for hate crimes. The 22-year-old was behind the wheel of the car that plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer.

This is how we got here.

The statues

In February 2017, the Charlottesville City Council voted to rename two parks named for Confederate generals and to remove a bronze statue of one of those generals, Robert E. Lee, from an eponymous downtown park.

Other Southern cities had removed dozens of Confederate monuments from public property after a self-described white supremacist massacred nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

The Charlottesville move met with resistance, as some residents sued, and a judge blocked the statue’s removal for six months while the matter was litigated.

The City Council voted again in April, this time agreeing to sell the statue and let the buyer remove it, CNN affiliate WVIR reported.

The first response by white nationalists

In mid-May 2017, Richard Spencer led a demonstration that served a prelude to the deadly violence that occurred in August.

Spencer, a prominent white nationalist and a graduate of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, led torch-wielding demonstrators in a march on the city. They were met by counterprotesters. Three people were arrested, and one police officer was hurt.

In July, about 50 Ku Klux Klan members, some in Klan robes, arrived in the city, where they were outnumbered 20-to-1by counterprotesters.

Torches on campus

Jason Kessler, a vocal white nationalist, organized a “Unite the Right” rally for the weekend of August 11-12, 2017, that was aimed at “standing up for our history.”

On Friday night, August 11, a groupmarched across the University of Virginia campus carrying torches and chanting white nationalist slogans. Scuffles with counterprotesters broke out near a campus statue of President Thomas Jefferson. Police ran off the white nationalists and counterprotesters.

Saturday violence

On Saturday, August 12, the two groups again fought in the streets. The governor declared a state of emergency. More law enforcement officers poured into the city.

Around 1:30 p.m. ET, a silver Dodge Charger plowed into a crowd of people who opposed the white nationalists. The often-played video was dramatic, showing protesters flying through the air upon impact.

Police arrested the driver and identified him as James Alex Fields Jr., then 20, of Maumee, Ohio. Later that day, two Virginia State Police troopers died after their helicopter crashed while on patrol near the clashes.

Trump’s ‘fine people’ remark

Hours after the attack, President Donald Trump went onto Twitter and admonished “hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides.” Many people felt he should have singled out the white nationalists who staged the rally.

Two days later, Trump held a news conference and further inflamed critics, saying “both sides are to blame.”

“What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at, as you say, the ‘alt-right,’ do they have any semblance of guilt?” Trump asked. Trump also said there were some “very bad people” on both sides, but that there was some who came out to protest the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue who were “fine people.”

Critics replayed the comments over and over. Trump defended his words as recently as April, when former Vice President Joe Biden referred to them while announcing his candidacy for the presidency.

UVA bans Spencer

American universities, not just UVA, struggled with how to allow free speech while regulating hate speech.

In October 2017, Spencer led a third march in Charlottesville. That same month, he spoke on the University of Florida campus, where he was heckled. Earlier in 2017, he spoke at Auburn University and scuffles broke out.

In October 2018, UVA acted against Spencer, banning him from campus for four years. Nine other people involved in the United the Right rally were also banned.

The march toward justice

In December 2018, Fields wasfound guilty in state court of first-degree murderand nine other charges. He will be sentenced July 15.

Fields pleaded guilty to 29 federal hate crimes last March, a plea that allowed him to avoid capital punishment. On Friday, he was sentenced to life without a chance of parole.

The statues are still there

A Virginia judge ruled in April 2019 that the statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in Charlottesville are war monuments that the city cannot remove without permission from the state.