Council coup: Angry citizens take over meeting

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Anarchy ruled at the first City Council meeting after the August 12 alt-right rally.
Eze Amos Anarchy ruled at the first City Council meeting after the August 12 alt-right rally. Eze Amos

Barely 30 minutes into its August 21 meeting, City Council was in chaos. Three demonstrators were reportedly arrested, city officials left the chamber and the meeting’s video and audio feeds were cut off as protesters stood on the dais holding a banner that read, “Blood on your hands.”

The rage, frustration and trauma from the August 11-12 events that brought white supremacists and neo-Nazis to town were palpable among the more than 50 people who spoke when councilors came back into council chamber, and they blamed City Council for allowing it to happen.

Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy took control of the meeting, jettisoned the agenda and turned it into a public comment with speakers allowed to talk for a minute—or as long as they wished—for nearly four hours.

Mayor Mike Signer took the brunt of citizens’ rage. “Mr. Signer, it seems to me we should change your name to Dr. Frankenstein, because you’ve created a monster and the villagers are storming,” said council regular John Heyden.

Mayor Mike Signer struggled—in vain—to bring the meeting to order. Photo Eze Amos

At about that point, Signer said the meeting was canceled and left the chamber, but he was not followed by his fellow councilors. “Signer has shown his true colors,” said Don Gathers, who was chair of the city’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces.

Upon his return about 10  minutes later, Signer was derided, particularly by independent council candidate Nikuyah Walker, who demanded that he leave. “You just showed us you’re not a leader.”

“Why did you think you could walk in here with business as usual?”—independent City Council candidate grills officials. Photo Eze Amos

Again and again, speakers said the city had been warned those coming to Unite the Right rally intended violence.

“I told you so,” said one, a woman who described herself as a child of the ’60s. “I’ve seen this movie before,” she said.

“You want to call yourself the capital of the resistance,” said Emily Gorcenski, who videoed white nationalists marching through UVA Grounds August 11. She said the real resistance was from the medics who were there, and added, “Charlottesville is the capital of the antifa.”

Don Gathers said he was “filled with righteous indignation” and “morally outraged.” Phote Eze Amos

And when citizens blamed council for allowing the alt-right rally, Signer pointed out that a federal judge ruled against the city. “We really tried hard to get it out of downtown,” he said.

For hours, there was no placating citizens, who were ready for council to ignore state and federal law and remove the statues that night.

More than 50 citizens lined up to tell City Council how they felt, including former vice-mayor Kevin Lynch (in plaid shorts). Photo Eze Amos

“Will you charge us if we take them down tonight?” asked Jonny Nuckols.

It was around 11:30pm before City Manager Maurice Jones could begin to respond to questions about the event that left Heather Heyer dead and at least 30 injured when a neo-Nazi-driven Dodge Challenger plowed into a crowd on Fourth Street.

The number of those hurt was challenged by a woman whose daughter was injured in the deliberate crash and had two broken legs. The daughter was taken to Sentara Martha Jefferson, which had at least another dozen victims beyond the 19 reported taken to UVA, said the woman.

Jones explained that in Virginia, state law prohibits the removal of war memorials, unlike places such as Maryland and Texas that have removed Confederate monuments in the past week.

He also pointed to a federal judge who did not allow the city to move the rally to McIntire Park and issued his ruling about the same time polo-shirted neo-Nazis were swarming the Lawn. When asked why the city didn’t shut down the event after the tiki-torch march Friday night and the attacks on protesters at the Thomas Jefferson statue, Jones said, “We’d already lost in court.”

Councilors listed actions they wanted to take to prevent such an invasion of hate happening again.

Earlier that day, Councilor Kathy Galvin said at a press conference that she would introduce a resolution to remove the statue of Stonewall Jackson at Justice Park, as well as the statue of Robert E. Lee that she and Signer voted against removing in February. Galvin said the events of August 12 had shown her that keeping the statues in place was “untenable in the long run,” but it would be around 12:30am before she could introduce her resolution.

On August 18, Signer said he was changing his vote and he called upon the General Assembly to hold a special session and allow localities to determine the fates of their Confederate monuments.

At the council meeting, Signer said it was time for the Constitution to change to address “intentional mayhem” that is not covered in the First Amendment, much as courts have ruled it’s not okay to shout “fire” in crowded venues.

Among other questions from citizens, Jones denied that police had been told to not intervene. “There was no stand-down order from anyone in city government. None,” he said.

It was after 11:30pm before City Manager Maurice Jones could start responding to questions raised about the alt-right weekend. Photo Eze Amos

To concerns about the weapons-carrying militias, Jones reminded everyone that Virginia is an open-carry state, but admitted, “It caused great confusion having those gunmen in our parks.” Councilors want legislators to give them leeway to regulate that, as well.

The protection of Congregation Beth Israel on Jefferson Street was another concern, and Jones explained that there were almost 50 officers in the block and a half around the synagogue, including snipers on the roof of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. “I completely understand people feeling unsafe,” he said. “We had people keeping an eye on it.”

Perhaps one of the biggest questions is why Fourth Street was open in the first place. One woman said it was barricaded when she went by it around 6am August 12, and Jones said that is being investigated.

The other was why UVA police were not visible as torch-carriers terrorized Grounds. A question for the university, responded Jones.

Close to 1am, Councilor Kristin Szakos made a resolution that passed 5-0: to drape the statues of Lee and Jackson in black cloth for a city in mourning.

The meeting is officially out of control—and it had barely gotten started. Photo Eze Amos

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