(CNN) — Demonstrators clashed Saturday on the streets of Charlottesville ahead of a “Unite the Right” rally as white nationalists and other right-wing groups — and counter-protesters — converged in this college town in the latest flare-up of a running nation debate over the country’s identity.
Fist fights and screaming matches erupted before the rally, which police expect to attract thousands of people. The skirmishes unfolded just hours after a scuffle Friday night between torch-bearing demonstrators and counter-protesters at the nearby University of Virginia.
Saturday’s rally is the latest event drawing white nationalists and right-wing activists from across the country to this Democratic-voting college town — a development first precipitated by the city’s decision to remove symbols of its Confederate past.
Though the rally is scheduled for noon ET, hundreds had gathered by mid-morning on Charlottesville’s streets and at a city park.
Shortly before noon, city officials signaled they might move to break it up, declaring it an “unlawful assembly” on Twitter. A local emergency also was declared.
At one point, a few dozen white men wearing helmets and holding makeshift shields chanted, “Blood and soil!” Nearby, a group of clergy and other counter-demonstrators, including activist and Harvard professor Cornel West, held hands, prayed and sang. “This Little Light of Mine.”
Police presence was heavy on this overcast day, with more than 1,000 officers expected to be deployed, city officials said.
Police anticipate the rally will attract as many as 2,000 to 6,000 people and could be the “largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades in the United States,” as described by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Friday clashes in a city attracting far-right activists
Charlottesville, once home to Thomas Jefferson, is known as a progressive city of about 47,000 people. Eighty percent of its voters choose Hillary Clinton during last year’s election.
But far-right activists and Ku Klux Klan members have come here in recent months, outraged by the city’s intention to remove traces of its links to the Confederacy — including plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The move follows efforts by communities across the South to remove Confederate iconography from public property since the 2015 rampage killings of nine black churchgoers in Charleston by a self-described white supremacist.
Ahead of Saturday’s rally, tensions roiled Friday night as white nationalists — some holding what appeared to be backyard tiki-style torches — marched onto the University of Virginia’s campus.
Chanting, “Blood and soil” and “You will not replace us,” the group rallied around a statue of Thomas Jefferson before they clashed with counter-protesters, CNN affiliate WWBT reported. The group left the university’s grounds when police arrived and declared the gathering an unlawful assembly.
City and UVA officials condemned Friday’s march.
“In my 47 years of association with @UVA, this was the most nauseating thing I’ve ever seen. We need an exorcism on the Lawn,” Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics tweeted.
Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer released a statement referring to Friday’s rally as a “cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism, and intolerance march down the lawns of the architect of our Bill of Rights.”
“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,” he added.
Friday’s march took place shortly after a federal judge granted a temporary injunction allowing right-wing activists to hold Saturday’s rally.
City officials had tried to “modify” the rally’s permit to move the demonstration from the park with the Lee statue more than a mile away to McIntire Park, citing safety concerns.
‘We don’t want to see a bloodbath’
In February, the city council voted to remove the Lee statue, but that is on hold pending litigation. Two city parks that were named after Confederate generals were renamed, including Emancipation Park, the site of Saturday’s rally.
Saturday’s event has residents on edge, and more than 40 local business owners near the park have asked the city to protect them.
“I have a lot of fears. I think most of us are just anxious, we don’t want there to be violence,” business owner Michael Rodi said of the rally.
“We don’t want to see a bloodbath, we don’t want to see looting, we don’t want to see mass arrests we don’t want to see the police having to turn on citizens,” he added.
Many businesses came together to discuss their rights and how to protect their staff in anticipation of Saturday’s event. Others expect to be understaffed, with some planning to hand out water and sandwiches to police officers.
“If diversity makes you uncomfortable, this is probably not where you want to be” reads a sign that hangs in the entrance of Rodi’s business.
Jason Kessler, who organized Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally, said he doesn’t consider himself to be a white nationalist. But, he said, “we’re going to start standing up for our history.”
“The statue itself is symbolic of a lot of larger issues. The primary three issues are preserving history against this censorship and revisionism — this political correctness,” he told CNN Friday.
“The second issue is being allowed to advocate for your interests as a white person, just like other groups are allowed to advocate for their interests politically. And finally this is about free speech. We are simply trying to express ourselves and do a demonstration, and the local government has tried to shut us down.”