Gov. Terry McAuliffe is urging Virginians to “stay away” from a large white nationalist rally planned for Charlottesville on Saturday, citing “communications from extremist groups ... who may seek to commit acts of violence against rally participants or law enforcement officials.”

On Friday night, echoing a May rally at the foot of Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue, hundreds of torch-wielding white nationalists who are attending Saturday’s Unite the Right rally gathered at the University of Virginia.

They marched to the university’s Rotunda, chanting: “You will not replace us.” Ralliers also declared that Charlottesville is their city now.

After the march, which police later declared an unlawful assembly, protesters and opponents alike reported being affected by pepper spray.

At the feet of a statue of Thomas Jefferson, fights began breaking out and some wielding tiki torches swung them at people. At least one person was arrested, and several people were treated for minor injuries.

Saturday’s event has been described as the largest hate gathering of its kind in decades, and police have estimated 2,000 to 6,000 rally attendees and counterprotesters will descend on the city.

“I want to urge my fellow Virginians who may consider joining either in support or opposition to the planned rally to make alternative plans,” McAuliffe said in a statement Friday.

“Many of the individuals coming to Charlottesville tomorrow are doing so in order to express viewpoints many people, including me, find abhorrent. As long as that expression is peaceful, that is their right. But it is also the right of every American to deny those ideas more attention than they deserve.”

McAuliffe said that in addition to a large contingent of state and local police, the Virginia National Guard will be standing by to respond if necessary.

The Unite the Right rally aims to bring together members of a variety of white nationalist and white supremacist groups to protest Charlottesville’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. It comes a month after the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan organized a small rally around the statue, which sparked a large counterprotest that ended with state police firing tear gas to disperse a lingering crowd.

“We’re trying to do a pro-white demonstration,” rally organizer Jason Kessler said Friday in a radio interview posted on his website. “I want to stand up for my people. I feel like right now, there is officially an ethnic cleansing being done against white people in the United States. ... They are replacing us ethnically and culturally. That’s why the statue issue is so important. It’s a symbol.”

Several Richmond-based organizations have been encouraging residents to travel to Charlottesville to protest the event, which is scheduled for noon to 5 p.m. No one interviewed Friday said they planned to heed McAuliffe’s call to ignore it.

“I think that’s putting your head in the sand,” said Camille Rudney, a member of Showing Up for Racial Justice RVA. “And there’s this creeping shift in what is viewed as acceptable and white nationalist beliefs. ... That (the) creep is happening is undeniable. So I would like to just say, I don’t want to pay attention to those guys. They’re scary. They’re highly armed. I’m genuinely scared to go down there. But I don’t see ignoring them as a viable alternative.”

Lana Heath de Martinez, a leader of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, which is rallying clergy members to attend the event, said it’s important to demonstrate that white nationalist and racist ideas won’t go unchallenged.

“It’s a popular narrative to just ignore it and think that maybe it will go away,” she said. “But ... the only way to counter their narrative is to show up with our own, and ours is not hate, it’s love and it’s an invitation. ... That invitation is to put down our hate and put down our fear and turn toward one another to offer love and justice for all.”

Based on the large number of people expected to attend, city officials said this week that they would issue a permit for the event only if it was relocated from Emancipation Park, where the Lee statue is located, to McIntire Park, a much larger space about a mile north. Emancipation Park used to be called Lee Park.

But Kessler has refused, saying it makes no sense to protest the statue’s removal at a different park. Backed by the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Rutherford Institute, he sued Charlottesville, arguing that the city denied his permit not because of crowd size but because of the content of the rally.

On Friday night, a federal judge granted an injunction that allows the rally to be held at Emancipation Park as originally planned.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, said earlier this week that the event is “shaping up to be the largest hate gathering of its kind in decades in the United States” and that the “event may well become a seminal point for the ‘alt-right’ and the extremist hate fringe: It’s a bold move beyond the anonymity of websites, message boards, pseudonyms and social media — a move to take the hardcore, racist, white nationalist message to the public square.”

The organization cited a recent radio interview hosted by former KKK leader David Duke, in which a promoter of the event called it “the biggest rally event we’ve had this millennium.”

Nazi imagery has figured prominently in promotional materials for the event, and a list of speakers slated to attend includes Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who organized a now notorious torch-lit rally around the Lee statue in May.

Spencer’s website estimated between 500 and 1,000 supporters will attend, including “self-defense units” equipped with shields. “We welcome a fight,” the website said.

McAuliffe said he has directed public safety officials to “take every precaution necessary to ensure the safety of their personnel, the Charlottesville community and rally attendees.”

noliver@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6178

Twitter: @nedoliver

Information from The Daily Progress was used in this report.

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