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Sessions Calls ‘Evil Attack’ in Charlottesville an Act of Terror

The organizer of a Saturday rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va. that left one person dead and 19 others hospitalized was forced to flee his own press conference Sunday after an angry crowd rejected his assertions that city officials were to blame for the tragedy.

(CN) -  Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday said that a fatal attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, in which a driver plowed into a crowd protesting a rally of white supremacists, meets the legal definition of domestic terrorism.

"You can be sure we will charge and advance the investigation toward the most serious charge that can be brought because this unequivocally is an unacceptable evil attack," Sessions said on ABC's "Good Morning America" program Monday morning.

He also said terrorism and civil rights investigators are working on the case.

Also on Monday, Judge Robert Downer of the Charlottesville General District Court denied bond to James Alex Fields Jr., the 20-year-old Ohio man arrested in connection to Saturday's killing of Heather Heyer, 32. Though Downer said a lawyer would be appointed for Fields, the attorney will not come from the local public defender's office because someone from that office was among the 19 injured alongside Heyer.

President Donald Trump meanwhile is weathering criticism for his tepid response to the tragedy. He lashed out on Twitter this morning when one of America's most prominent black CEOs quit a White House panel in response of the controversy.

Jason Kessler, a Charlottesville resident who had organized Saturday's rally of white supremacists, provoked controversy as well for his initial response to the killing. In a statement blaming the city and its police force for the mayhem that unfolded Saturday, Kessler claimed that, "instead of maintaining law and order, the police purposefully created the catastrophe that led to a melee in the streets of Charlottesville and the death of a counterprotester."

Kessler attempted to repeat that statement at a news conference on the steps of city hall Sunday afternoon, but was immediately shouted down but spectators, some of whom called him a "murderer."

Charlottesville police whisked Kessler to the nearby police station and were later seen hurrying him into a police vehicle, which then sped off.

Later, an unbowed Kessler tweeted: "I tried my best but once again violence rules over speech and ideas in #Charlottesville, The First Amendment is finished it seems."

Fields is charged with second-degree murder after allegedly running down Heyer and other counterprotesters at Fourth and Water Streets, a busy intersection of downtown Charlottesville.

A spokeswoman for the University of Virginia Health System said in a statement that nine of the injured had been treated and released by the hospital. Ten others are in good condition, she said.

Two other deaths on Saturday have also been tied to the rally in the city's Emancipation Park. About two hours after the incident at Fourth and Water Streets, state troopers Jay Cullen and Berke Bates were killed when their police helicopter crashed.  Cullen and  Bates had been conducting rally surveillance throughout the day.

Kessler organized Saturday's rally to protest a vote by the Charlottesville City Council to remove a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee and rename a park bearing the Confederate general's name to Emancipation Park. Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the Rutherford Institute, Kessler sued the city on Aug. 10, claiming Charlottesville had reneged on promises to provide security at his then-pending protest.

According to the lawsuit, Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas told Kessler on Aug. 7 that the police would provide protection for the rally. Later that day, the city announced it would provide a permit for the rally only if Kessler agreed to move it to another location, citing security and safety concerns.

Then on Tuesday, Aug. 8, the lawsuit says, the city held a private meeting with Kessler at which he was told Chief Thomas had changed his mind about the previously announced security arrangements.

U.S. District Judge Glen Conrad granted the ACLU an injunction allowing Kessler's planned rally at Emancipation Park to go forward.

The ACLU issued a statement Saturday saying it was "sickened and distraught by the vile acts committed ... in Charlottesville."

"We mourn for the lives senselessly lost, agonize for those harmed both physically and emotionally, and grieve for the community of which we and our members, friends and families are an ingrained part," the statement continued. "White supremacy is abhorrent. Bigotry, racism and hatred in any form are indefensible. Violence of any kind combined with any of the above is terrorism."

The weekend of unrest in Charlottesville began Friday night when marchers assembled at the park carrying lit torches.

Richard Spencer, an alumnus of the nearby University of Virginia, spoke Saturday, telling the crowd, “What brings us together is that we are white, we are a people, and we will not be replaced.”

The marchers chanted, “You will not replace us,” “The Jews will not replace us,” and “White lives matter.”  They were soon surrounded by hundreds of counter-protestors who carried their own signs and soon faced off with the white-nationalist group. The anger at the scene quickly escalated to violence.

Barricades, which had earlier been erected to keep the opposing sides separated, were pushed down and the serious altercations began. Several marchers and counter-protestors were sprayed with pepper spray during the scuffles. Tear gas was also set off by police in a hope to quell the violence.

Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signor took to Twitter, urging "all people of goodwill" to go home. Later, after learning of Heyer's death, he said, "I am heartbroken that a life has been lost here."

Signor said Sunday that the rally stemmed from profound ignorance and was designed to instill fear in the city's minority community.

"As mayor of this city, I want everyone to know this: we reject this intimidation," Signor said. "We are a welcoming city, but such intolerance is not welcome here."

Signor also blamed President Trump for stoking the violence that erupted in Charlottesville. “I’m not going to make any bones about it," he said. "I place the blame for a lot of what you are seeing in America today right at the doorstep of the White House and the people around the president.”

Trump has been roundly criticized for not condemning the white supremacists strongly enough. After issuing what many took to be a rather bland response Saturday, the president remained silent on the incident on Sunday.

As the White House continued to defend the president, one of America's most prominent black CEOs, the controversy spurred the resignation Monday of Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier from the president's manufacturing council.

"America's leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy," Frazier said in a statement.

Trump attacked the executive on Twitter moments later, saying Frazier's resignation will give him "more time to lower ripoff drug prices."

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