“Wes is a jackass” became a familiar slogan to those living in Charlottesville last summer, as it was scrawled on a giant cardboard sign carried by local retiree Mason Pickett, and its derivative, “Bellamy is a jackass,” was often chalked on the Downtown Mall’s Freedom of Speech Wall as well as several sidewalks.
It’s a phrase that took a shot at City Councilor Wes Bellamy, who was vice-mayor at the time and called for the removal of the monuments of Confederate war heroes General Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson from their eponymous downtown parks. The verbiage with an unfavorable adjective left Pickett scorned by many and at the center of two misdemeanor assault charges.
Judge Joseph Sirks heard testimony from two alleged victims—Davyd Williams and Lara Harrison—who described what they deemed aggressive behavior from Pickett on two separate occasions.
On the first occasion, Williams said he was erasing “Wes is a jackass” off the free speech wall with a newspaper and a bottle of Windex on August 24. When Pickett approached Williams, the retiree allegedly “shoulder-checked” him as he was erasing, smacked his hand twice and snatched the bottle of liquid cleaner out of his hand “hard enough that the handle broke,” according to the testimony.
When officers with the Charlottesville Police Department spotted the interaction and intervened, Pickett allegedly walked a few hundred feet to a CVS, bought a bottle of Windex and gave it to an officer to give to Williams. He offered that he made a mistake and was sorry.
Williams told the judge he had erased multiple times Pickett’s “obscenities,” which were written on the wall directly outside the Virginia Discovery Museum, a hotspot for young kids.
“Did anyone designate you to be the obscenity police?” Sirks asked, and eventually said justice would not be furthered by finding Pickett guilty of assaulting him.
Pickett racked up his second assault charge on September 11, when he was holding a large cardboard sign, painted black and decorated with his aforementioned catch phrase in thick red letters, in front of the Albemarle County Office Building on the corner of McIntire Road and Preston Avenue.
Harrison testified she was driving past when she saw Pickett and his sign. She decided to park and display one of her own.
“I had seen him several times and I wanted to be able to counter his sign with a sign that I thought was accurate and protective of our community,” she gave as the reason she wrote “racist” on a legal pad she found in the backseat of her car and took her position on the sidewalk in front of him. The two had never met.
Pickett called police, and testified that he and Harrison were beside each other on the sidewalk. She allegedly stepped onto the street to get in front of him, and as he was moving his sign from side to side to face oncoming traffic, he says he may or may not have hit her in the face with it.
“He assaulted me,” said the woman who has attended meetings of the activist group Showing Up For Racial Justice. Its members are known for accosting people with beliefs that don’t match their own, according to Pickett’s defense attorney, Charles “Buddy” Weber, but Harrison said she has studied and taught nonviolent intervention.
You may recognize her from an August 15 image taken in Emancipation Park, where a lone young man dressed as a Confederate soldier and carrying a rifle and semi-automatic handgun was surrounded by numerous anti-racist activists, including members of SURJ. Harrison is photographed sticking her two middle fingers mere inches from the North Carolina man’s face.
In Pickett’s assault trial, prosecutor Nina Alice-Antony entered a photo of a red mark on Harrison’s left cheek as evidence, but the defendant insisted that he had “certainly no intention to hit the young lady.” The judge found him not guilty, citing that Harrison had witnessed Pickett turning his sign from side to side and still stepped in front of him on the street.
“Everyone has a right to protest, but you gotta use your common sense,” Sirks said. “Next time, use your common sense.”
Updated February 26 at 1:05pm with clarifications.