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In Charlottesville, some in the left came armed, too

Most of the counterdemonstrators were peaceful, but a subset came ready to rumble.

A counterdemonstrator uses a lighted spray can against a white nationalist demonstrator at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va.
A counterdemonstrator uses a lighted spray can against a white nationalist demonstrator at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va.Read moreSteve Helber / AP Photo

Say what you will about President Trump's initial reactions to the violence in Charlottesville, Va., and whether he was sufficiently harsh in his assessment of the neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, and other members of the "alt-right" there, some of the counterdemonstrators also appeared to be looking for a fight, and some were heavily armed.

The alt-right marchers included a unit of semiautomatic-rifle-toting men, and one apparent Nazi sympathizer drove a car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing a 32-year-old woman and gravely injuring others. Most of the counterdemonstrators were peaceful, but some  showed up with semiautomatics of their own and at one point formed a  defensive perimeter around a counterdemonstration staging area, according to the New York Times. Other counterdemonstrators wielded baseball bats, clubs, bottles, and chemical sprays.

Among the images from Charlottesville's grisly day of violence was one counterdemonstrator captured in a photograph wielding an aerosol can turned into a flamethrower, directing a fire plume at a neo-Nazi. (In an interview with the Root, the counterprotester, identified as Corey Long, said he had planned to be nonviolent "until someone pointed a gun at my head. Then the same person pointed it at my foot and shot the ground." He said he used a can of white spray paint that had been thrown at him.)

In his initial remarks Saturday, Trump did not specifically denounce the white supremacists, who had organized the march clearly intent on provocation, and laid blame on both sides, inflaming many people. In subsequent statements, he decried the racist marchers at the event, but then  doubled back and blamed both sides for the violence, further inciting his  critics.

The left-wing protesters, Trump said Tuesday, reacted "very, very violently… charging with clubs in their hand."

Most of the counterdemonstrators were nonviolent. A substantial contingent marched and sang peacefully in protest of the white nationalists'  agenda.

But television coverage showed images of others, some clad in the antifascist uniform of black, wearing helmets and wielding clubs and sticks. The confrontations followed a pattern: Small groups of marchers faced off and engaged in shouting matches. Suddenly, punches were flying, others joined, and a melee ensued.

One group on the left that bills itself as the Redneck Revolt came armed with semiautomatic rifles and reported on its website that 20 of its members had formed an armed security perimeter around Justice Park, where the counterdemonstrators had formed a staging area.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, responding to criticism that state and local law enforcement response was lax in face of the escalating violence, said he counted the police response a success since "not one shot was fired."

The neo-Nazis, Klan members, and other followers of the alt-right seemed intent on inspiring fear with a torch-carrying march Friday night whose images harked back to the Nazi parades of 1930s Germany. Hundreds marched to a statue of Thomas Jefferson shouting, "You will not replace us," "Jews will not replace us," and "White lives matter," and  encircling a small contingent of counterdemonstrators.

But protesters on the left have produced frightening images of their own, notably at the University of California at Berkeley in February to oppose the planned appearance of right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulis.

More than 1,000 peaceful demonstrators had gathered outside Sproul Hall, where Yiannopoulis was scheduled to speak. Soon, demonstrators whom the university called members of an anarchist group in Oakland broke away and for hours smashed windows, set fires, and tossed M80 firecrackers with little police interference, preventing Yiannopoulis' appearance. The university said damage totaled $100,000.