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‘We have a huge racial problem . . . in our country,’ says mother of woman killed at 2017 white nationalist rally

The mother of a woman killed when a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally last summer said Sunday there’s much healing to do a year after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Heather Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, laid flowers at a makeshift memorial at the site of the attack in downtown Charlottesville. With a crowd gathered around her, she thanked them for coming to remember her daughter but also acknowledged the dozens of others injured and the two state troopers killed when a helicopter crashed that day.

“There’s so much healing to do,” Bro said. “We have a huge racial problem in our city and in our country. We have got to fix this or we’ll be right back here in no time.”

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Susan Bro speaks at the spot where her daughter Heather Heyer was killed during the 'Unite the Right' rally, one year ago Sunday in Charlottesville, Va.

Steve Helber/The Associated Press

The vigil was one in a series of largely peaceful community events held in Charlottesville over the weekend to mark the one-year anniversary of the rally, one of the largest gatherings of white nationalists and other far-right extremists in a decade.

Some 115 miles (185 kilometres) away in Washington, Jason Kessler, the principal organizer of last year’s “Unite the Right” event, led what he called a white civil rights rally Sunday afternoon in Lafayette Square in front of the White House.

President Donald Trump wasn’t home — he has been at his golf club in New Jersey for more than a week on a working vacation.

Kessler said in his permit application that he expected 100 to 400 people to participate in his event, though the number appeared it might be far lower. Just before 4 p.m., a contingent of about 30 white nationalists began marching through the streets.

Counterprotesters assembled ahead of the rally’s scheduled start vastly outnumbered Kessler’s crowd. By midafternoon, more than 1,000 people had already gathered in Freedom Plaza, also near the White House, to oppose Kessler’s demonstration and they too planned to march to Lafayette Square.

Makia Green, who represents the Washington branch of Black Lives Matter, told Sunday’s crowd that: “We know from experience that ignoring white nationalism doesn’t work.”

Earlier this month, Facebook stunned and angered counterprotest organizers when it disabled their Washington event’s page, saying it and others had been created by “bad actors” misusing the social media platform. The company said at the time that the page may be linked to an account created by Russia’s Internet Research Agency — a so-called troll farm that has sown discord in the U.S. — but counterprotesters said it was an authentic event they worked hard to organize.

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Government and police officials in Washington have expressed confidence the city can manage the events without violence; the mayor and police chief have promised a massive security mobilization to keep protesters and counterprotesters apart.

Earlier in the day in Charlottesville, more than 200 people gathered in a park to protest racism and mark the anniversary. The group sang songs and listened to speakers, among them Courtney Commander, a friend of Heyer’s who was with her when she was killed.

“She is with me today, too,” Commander said.

Last year on Aug. 12, hundreds of white nationalists — including neo-Nazis, skinheads and Ku Klux Klan members — descended on Charlottesville in part to protest the city’s decision decided to remove a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a park.

Fighting broke out between attendees and counterprotesters. Authorities eventually forced the crowd to disperse, but a car later barrelled into the crowd of peaceful counterprotesters.

A state police helicopter later crashed, killing Lt. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke Bates.

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Law enforcement officials faced blistering criticism in the aftermath of last year’s rally for what was perceived as a passive response to the violence that unfolded. A review by a former U.S. attorney found a lack of co-ordination between state and city police and an operational plan that elevated officer safety over public safety.

The anniversary weekend was marked by a much heavier police presence, which also drew criticism from some activists.

At one point Sunday, demonstrators marched through Charlottesville, chanting, “Cops and Klan go hand in hand,” and “Will you protect us?”

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