In Charlottesville, Where Were the Police?

In the wake of Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville, reports are emerging that a pattern of police inaction contributed to the violence in the city, and that this may have been a calculated political strategy to discredit Unite The Right (UTR) demonstrators.

At a Sunday morning press conference, Governor Terry McAuliffe defended the police, and claimed that nothing could have been done to prevent “car terrorism.”  Others disagreed, and argued that police should have done more to separate the combatants during the morning riot (here, here, here, and here.)  Photographic coverage of the event was extensive.

After the riot, reports began to circulate that there was a police stand-down.  Infowars reporter Millie Weaver claims that a police officer admitted to her that the mayor had given a stand-down order.  Doug McKelway told Fox News viewers that police left the scene when tear gas from the protestors began to fly:

“But when the tear gas started to fly, thrown by protesters, the police themselves began to evacuate then.  I asked the guy who was in charge, ‘Where are you going?’  He said, ‘We’re leaving. It’s too dangerous.’  They had a chance to nip this thing in the bud and they chose not to.”

Breitbart reports that a city official denied this in an email:

“When asked whether orders were given on Saturday for police to stand down, Charlottesville Director of Communications Miriam Dickler told Breitbart News in an email that ‘no stand down orders were given on Saturday.’ ”

However, details of the city’s tactical strategy began to emerge in a New York Times report from Sheryl Gay Stolberg.  Stolberg reported that:

Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, was watching the events from a command post on the sixth floor of a Wells Fargo bank on the downtown mall.  There were sporadic fights. ‘I compare it to hockey,’ he said.  ‘Often in hockey there are sporadic fights, and then they separate.’

Suddenly, people were throwing water bottles, some filled with urine.  Some used pepper spray; from his perch on the sixth floor, Mr. Moran saw smoke bombs being thrown.  People started clubbing one another.  The clergy retreated to a ‘safe house’ — a restaurant nearby.

Finally, Moran decided he had seen enough, and he called Governor McAuliffe at 11:22 a.m. and advised the governor to shut down the event.  By 11:35 a.m., a tweet from Charlottesville City Hall had declared the legal rally an unlawful assembly, and Governor McAuliffe had declared a state of emergency.  The legal demonstrators were ordered to disperse. 

According to Stolberg:

Asked why the police did not do more to control the brawling, Mr. Moran said, ‘It was a volatile situation and it’s unfortunate people resorted to violence.’

‘But,’ he said, ‘from our plan, to ensure the safety of our citizens and property, it went extremely well.’

Moran’s admissions to Stolberg establish that city officials had strategized about possible outcomes and had decided to permit some level of violence, with a heckler’s veto ready and waiting to shut it down.

In a public statement, UTR organizer Jason Kessler claims:

We networked with law enforcement officials and safety arrangements were made months ago, but despite this, the Charlottesville Police Department not only failed to act per the plan but exacerbated the violence: they did not separate the demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, they were poorly underequipped for the situation, they stood idly by when violent counter-protesters attacked the participants of the rally and then they forced our demonstrators out of Lee Park and into a melee with Antifa.

Moran’s and Kessler’s statements suggest that city officials actually implemented a plan separate from the safety plan they negotiated with Kessler.  Was Kessler set up for violence?

In a video interview from a little known YouTube channel, Kessler gave an extended explanation of what happened in the lead up to Saturday’s riot.  Kessler claims that, politically, city officials never wanted the UTR rally to take place under any circumstances, and that they were willing to do anything to stop it.

After issuing Kessler’s group a permit to demonstrate, and after months of planning, city officials revoked the permit days before the rally.  This appeared to be a squeeze maneuver deployed at the last minute to deny Kessler any time to counter the city’s actions.  However, Kessler scrambled, went to a federal court, and a federal judge reinstated the permit on the evening before the rally.

Kessler claims that after the permit was reinstated, the police backed out of the agreed-upon security plan.  On the day of the rally, he claims that barricades were never repositioned as if the rally were going to be held, that 180 city police did not show up to an agreed-upon area, that UTR couldn’t gain entry to an agreed-upon speakers area, that they were jammed into a small, barricaded, area, and that state police denied them access to a larger open area of the park.

According to Kessler, the state police claimed that only city police could move the barricades to expand access to the open area, and that city police were not there.  By the time city police arrived, Kessler says that the rally had been declared unlawful, and that UTR was then ordered out of the park. 

According to Kessler:

They didn’t care about federal law.  The only thing they cared about was stopping the Alt-Right, and that’s what they did.  The elites in this society, in the media and in the government, did everything in their power to shut us down in defiance of a federal court law.  And we are going to have a law suit.  We have to fight this…. We understood this was something they were going to try and do from the beginning.  They were game sessioning every way they could possibly try and defeat the Alt Right at this event, and we out maneuvered them at every corner.

Kessler essentially believes that the city’s actions constitute a criminal conspiracy to subvert the First Amendment.  Kessler continued:

The blood is on the hands of the Charlottesville City Council, and possibly on Terry McAuliffe. Before the event even started, people were saying the National Guard might be involved, the state of emergency might be declared… so they had it in mind that no matter what it takes we are going to stop the Alt Right because they knew this event was going to be live streamed out to the entire world… this was going to take our movement to a whole new level and they could not stand that even if they had to shred the Constitution, and that’s what they did.  This is an act of war against the American people....

Kessler’s claims are an explosive indictment of Governor McAuliffe and Charlottesville city officials. And there is ample circumstantial evidence to support the thesis that city leaders were doing everything they could to counter, neuter, and condemn the rally before it happened.

Local clergy and businesses mobilized against the rally.  On August 4, University of Virginia president Theresa Sullivan released a letter to the university community urging them to avoid the rally.  In a preemptive strike aimed at tarring the demonstrators before the rally even occurred, she claimed that leaders of the rally were inviting violence.

She said:

The organizers of the rally want confrontation; do not gratify their desire.

Similarly, the day before the rally, Governor McAuliffe issued a public statement warning of violence and condemning the UTR.

But the problems for the governor and city officials do not end with the controversy over the mid-morning riot.  At around 1:30 p.m., more than two hours after Emancipation Park was cleared and the state of emergency was declared, a crowd of radical communists were marching on Water Street on the other side of the downtown mall. This secondary march raises more questions about the effectiveness of the city’s policing strategy.