Charlottesville Prepares for More Protests

Aug 9, 2017

On Saturday (Aug. 12), hundreds of alt-right activists are expected to gather in Charlottesville for a rally to save the city’s Robert E. Lee statue. The city is still reeling from a KKK rally one month ago, and struggling to find a balance between public safety and safeguarding civil liberties. WMRA’s Jordy Yager has more.

On Monday afternoon, Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones told a room of reporters that the city would approve the permit for Saturday’s alt-right rally, on one condition: that organizer Jason Kessler move it to nearby McIntire Park.

MAURICE JONES: We believe that the proposal to move the demonstration to McIntire Park strikes an appropriate balance between Mr. Kessler’s right to organize a demonstration on the one hand, and a city’s obligation to maintain public safety and protect public and private property on the other.

Kessler immediately rejected the proposal, calling for attendees to stick to the plan, gather in Emancipation Park. Though, Kessler called it by its former name, Lee Park. He said the city’s vote to rename the park and remove the Lee statue in its center, is at the heart of the rally.

But as the number of people expected to attend the rally has increased, from hundreds to perhaps thousands, so too has the anxiety for city officials. In no small part because one month ago, Charlottesville witnessed a protest and a police reaction on a scale never before seen. More than 1,500 people flooded the city’s streets in protest of the Ku Klux Klan, which itself was protesting the renaming of the park that surrounds a giant statue of Stonewall Jackson.

Police responded with more than 200 local and state officers, arresting 22 people over the course of the day. But it wasn’t until the Klan left that things got ugly. A small group of protesters, with backs turned to the police, locked arms across High Street, refusing to leave. The police, dressed in bulletproof armor with ballistic shields and gas masks, fired three canisters of tear gas into the crowd. 

Nine days afterwards, dozens of city residents packed into City Council’s chamber for its bi-weekly meeting. They were mad, but not at the Klan. Jalane Schmidt is an organizer with the local Black Lives Matter movement, and an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia.

JALANE SCHMIDT: This has to stop, this militarization of the police. When there’s militarization, the inevitable result is violence. To a hammer, everything’s a nail. [Applause]

Residents were deeply concerned, especially because two to three times as many people are estimated to be attending this Saturday’s white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally. Riot gear, tear gas, armored vehicles, how will the police respond this time?

MARY BAUER:Good evening, I’m Mary Bauer, I’m the executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center

After the KKK rally, Bauer, along with the Americans Civil Liberties Union, the Rutherford Institute, and the National Lawyers Guild, called for an outside investigation of police tactics.

BAUER: We appreciate that these are difficult issues but we have profound concerns about the militarized law enforcement presence on July 8th, with police dressed in riot gear, driving armored vehicles, and carrying weapons typically reserved for war zones. We ask the city to acknowledge that this choice to use these kinds of tactics instead of planning for de-escalation is inconsistent with Charlottesville’s values and good policing.

The city seems to have weighed these concerns, and others, in its decision to ask that Saturday’s rally be moved. In an interview following last month’s KKK rally, Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas said that upon the Klan’s arrival, city police lost control of the growing crowd of protesters and had to call in Virginia State Police reinforcements. And even then, Thomas said, the Klan had been granted a permit to assemble for an hour, but the increasing anger and vitriol in the crowd forced him to make another call.

CHIEF AL THOMAS: After 30 minutes of their rally, I made a decision to go ahead and cut it short. They had 30 minutes, and we told them they had to end it and they had to leave. I just — you could just sense the crowd becoming more volatile, and I was concerned at that point for public safety, and we shut it down and told them they had to leave.

Thomas saw the close quarters, the massive crowd, the mounting fury — it was a recipe for disaster. And when the Klan left, all of those ingredients switched focus — from the KKK, to the officers. Thomas, who is Charlottesville’s first African American police chief, said that while he didn’t like it, he understood it.

THOMAS: I was very disappointed, not necessarily surprised, I was very disappointed. But that’s what the Klan does, the Klan, they incite hate, violence, fear, anger, terror. That’s what they do. They incite that. And at times, it makes it very difficult for people to regulate their emotions when you deal with this. So, not so much surprised, just disappointed that it happened.

Now, city officials are hoping to avoid, or at least mitigate, some of those same aspects with Saturday’s rally. For starters, McIntire is a vastly larger park. Instead of one square block downtown, it would give activists, protesters, and police more than 50 acres to move about.

Additionally, nearly four-dozen area businesses and even the city library, said they were considering closing on Saturday out of fear for their safety and the negative potential economic toll the rally could take.

But Kessler, along with rally headliner and white nationalist Richard Spencer, have said they’ll assemble downtown as planned, at the base of the Lee statue. Meanwhile activists and those opposing the alt-right rally, including Cornel West and a coalition of faith leaders, have been granted permits to assemble in nearby Justice and McGuffey Parks.