BREAKING: Multiple injuries reported after car strikes crowd in #Charlottesville

Fistfights and screaming matches erupted shortly before rally's scheduled noon ET start. The skirmishes unfolded following a scuffle Friday night between torch-bearing demonstrators and counter-protesters at the nearby University of Virginia.

Saturday's rally was the latest event drawing white nationalists and right-wing activists from across the country to this Democratic-voting college town -- a development precipitated by the city's decision to remove symbols of its Confederate past.

• Police began to break up crowds shortly before noon after city officials declared the gathering an "unlawful assembly." Police officers spoke on bullhorns, directing people to leave.

• The declaration was made after fistfights and screaming matches erupted in several locations late Saturday morning.

• Some protesters fired pepper spray at other demonstrators, state police said.

• Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency "to aid state response to violence," according to a post on .

• An unspecified number of protesters have been arrested in Charlottesville, state police said.

Police in riot gear stood shoulder to shoulder behind shields early Saturday afternoon, at times advancing toward crowds, CNN video shows. Members of the Virginia National Guard also were there.

By 1 p.m. ET, police had cleared the park where the rally was to be held. It wasn't immediately clear how many demonstrators remained in other parts of the city.

"It is now clear that public safety cannot be safeguarded without additional powers, and that the mostly out-of-state protesters have come to Virginia to endanger our citizens and property," McAullife said. "I am disgusted by the hatred, bigotry and violence these protesters have brought to our state over the past 24 hours."

It wasn't immediately clear what led to the fights, though tensions and rhetoric were running hot. At one point, a few dozen white men wearing helmets and holding makeshift shields chanted, "Blood and soil!" Later, another group chanted slogans like, "Nazi scum off our streets!"

Demonstrators gather Saturday ahead of a "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Demonstrators gather Saturday ahead of a "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Demonstrators gather Saturday ahead of a "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

People punched and kicked each other during various scuffles, which often were broken up from within crowds, without police intervention, CNN video shows.

Earlier, 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, with more than 1,000 officers expected to be deployed, city officials said. Police anticipated the rally would attract as many as 2,000 to 6,000 people, and the Southern Poverty Law Center said it could be the "largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades in the United States."

Counter-protesters gather Saturday morning in Charlottesville, Virginia, ahead of a "Unite the Right" rally.

Counter-protesters gather Saturday morning in Charlottesville, Virginia, ahead of a "Unite the Right" rally.

White nationalists wield torches

White nationalists carrying torches surround protesters Friday night at the foot of a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the University of Virginia's campus.

White nationalists carrying torches surround protesters Friday night at the foot of a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the University of Virginia's campus.

Charlottesville, once home to Thomas Jefferson, is known as a progressive city of about 47,000 people. Eighty percent of its voters choose during last year's election.

Why white nationalists are drawn to Charlottesville

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 effort developed amid a push 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 planned 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.

White nationalists and others march Friday night through the University of Virginia campus.

White nationalists and others march Friday night through the University of Virginia 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's 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're going to start standing up for our history'

In February, the city council voted to remove the Lee statue, but that is on hold pending litigation. The council also voted to rename two city parks that had been named for Confederate generals; one of those, Emancipation Park, was due to be the site of Saturday's rally.

What can communities do with Confederate monuments? Here are 3 options

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."

CNN's Kaylee Hartung and Devon M. Sayers reported from Charlottesville. CNN's Jason Hanna and Nicole Chvaez wrote from

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