CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Sunday strongly defended the police response to the violent demonstrations here on Saturday, saying that law enforcement authorities had done “great work” in “a very delicate situation.”
Governor McAuliffe, in an impromptu interview before addressing two church congregations on Sunday morning, said the police estimated that 80 percent of those at the white nationalists’ rally and counterprotests — including members of self-styled militias in camouflage gear — were armed, “yet not a shot was fired.”
He also said the death of a 32-year-old woman, Heather D. Heyer, who was killed when a driver intentionally plowed his car into a crowd, could not have been prevented, calling it “car terrorism.”
“You can’t stop some crazy guy who came here from Ohio and used his car as a weapon,” Governor McAuliffe said. “He is a terrorist.”
The police and other law enforcement officials have been criticized for their handling of the event, including by Jason Kessler, the organizer of the so-called Unite the Right rally. In a statement, he complained that the authorities had “exacerbated the violence” by failing to separate his followers from counterprotesters, leading to the melee.
Mr. Kessler said his group had “networked with law enforcement officials” months ago on a plan for maintaining safety, which he said was not followed, and he called the police “underequipped for the situation.”
Minutes before Mr. Kessler was scheduled to address the media on Sunday, the brick mall behind City Hall was packed with at least two dozen television cameras. Two uniformed officers, one armed with a sniper rifle, could be seen on the roof of a nearby building. A bouquet of flowers tied with a black ribbon lay in front of the City Hall doors.
When Mr. Kessler appeared, the crowed that had assembled called him a “murderer” and a “terrorist,” drowning out his words with cries of “shame, shame.”
The press conference ended when a man in a plaid shirt punched Mr. Kessler. Although the police detained him briefly, he was not arrested.
“Jason Kessler has been bringing hate to our town for months and has been endangering the lives of people of color and endangering other lives in my community,” the man, Jeff Winder, said in an interview later. “Free speech does not protect hate speech; Kessler’s rhetoric is fire in a crowded theater.”
The organizers of the Unite the Right rally had obtained a city permit to gather inside Emancipation Park around a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general. The park was barricaded off for the day and the Virginia State Police and the Charlottesville police were positioned inside when fighting first broke out on Market Street, outside the park.
Brittany Caine-Conley, a minister in training at Sojourners United Church of Christ, who had come with other faith leaders to protest against the white nationalists, said she was horrified to see officers in the park watching the violence take place outside in the street.
“There was no police presence,’’ she said. “We were watching people punch each other; people were bleeding all the while police were inside of barricades at the park watching. It was essentially just brawling on the street and community members trying to protect each other.”
Asked about the brawling and why police did not do more to control it, Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety, said in an interview on Sunday that “it was a volatile situation and it’s unfortunate people resorted to violence.’’ But, he said, “From our plan, to ensure the safety of our citizens and property, it went extremely well.’’
Governor McAuliffe also defended the police response, saying, “It’s easy to criticize, but I can tell you this, 80 percent of the people here had semiautomatic weapons.
“You saw the militia walking down the street, you would have thought they were an army,” he added. “I was just talking to the State Police upstairs; they had better equipment than our State Police had,” he said, referring to the militia members. “And yet not a shot was fired, zero property damage.”
The governor’s remarks came after he met with law enforcement officials in a bank building on Charlottesville’s downtown mall. The mall, like the rest of the city, was quiet as people absorbed the violence that had descended on this ordinarily tranquil college community. People on the mall seemed to be in shock.
“There are no words,” said Chuck Moran, a Charlottesville native who runs a digital marketing agency. “We’ve been through a lot in this city. We have a historic past. But yesterday was a tragedy of unimaginable proportion to me.”
Home to the University of Virginia, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, Charlottesville has become a target of white nationalists, who came to the city to protest the planned removal of a statue of General Lee from a city park.
The Unite the Right rally was scheduled to start at noon, but when violent clashes erupted between the two sides at around 11 a.m., the police declared an unlawful assembly and moved to clear the park so that officers in riot gear could move in.
“The police moved when they felt it was appropriate,” Governor McAuliffe said. “They had to give people an opportunity to clear out of the park so they sent the word first, before we come in.”