Days before the August 12 Unite the Right rally, City Manager Maurice Jones said the city would issue organizer Jason Kessler a permit—for McIntire Park, not for Emancipation Park, the site formerly known as Lee Park where he requested to protest the removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee.
And in response, Kessler says, “We didn’t request nor will we accept a permit anywhere other than Lee Park. That is where the Unite the Right demonstration is taking place.”
Where that leaves the city is unclear at press time, particularly as it recently has not required permits for free speech assemblies, such as Mayor Mike Signer’s declaration that Charlottesville was the capital of the resistance in January.
Clay Hansen, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, says free speech cases are fact specific and drawing parallels with a different location and event may not be helpful.
He points to the city regulation that requires permits for demonstrations, unless they involve 50 or fewer people and would not occur in a public right of way. If the city believes any gathering of Unite the Right would require street closings, “it’s likely the city could invoke this section” and limit the demonstration to 50 people at a time, says Hansen. “Logistically that would be a nightmare.”
Jones said at an August 7 press conference that the city had given “considerable thought” to Kessler’s permit application, and “decided to approve it on the date and at the time requested, provided he uses McIntire Park rather than Emancipation Park.”
The city manager affirmed Kessler’s First Amendment right to protest and the “city’s obligation to protect those rights” and to protect public safety. “We have determined we cannot do all these things effectively” at Emancipation Park.
Jones was joined by Police Chief Al Thomas and Mayor Mike Signer, and city councilors Kathy Galvin, Kristin Szakos and Bob Fenwick.
Thomas said McIntire Park was safer because it was large enough to accommodate the anticipated crowd. On his permit application, Kessler estimated 400 attendees, but on social media, between calls for national support from the alt-right, on the left, from Black Lives Matter and from the local clergy, estimates have swollen to thousands.
And if Kessler refuses to budge, and people show up at Emancipation Park, city spokesperson Miriam Dickler says, “The city will take actions deemed necessary to keep the community safe while honoring everyone’s freedom of speech and assembly. [Charlottesville Police Department] will continue to assess and plan for these possibilities as necessary.”
Several attendees at the press conference expressed relief that the city decided to move the event, which lists white nationalists and neo-Nazis as speakers.
Jalane Schmidt with Black Lives Matter says it’s “very fitting” to move the rally to McIntire because Paul Goodloe McIntire, who donated that park, Emancipation and Justice parks to the city, “is a Lost Cause benefactor.”
Cville Solidarity’s Emily Gorcenski, who says she’s gotten death threats, has mixed feelings about the change. “I would obviously like to see the event not happen, given that the people coming want to incite violence.”
She says she’s concerned about the layout of McIntire and its limited egress and ingress, as well as its lack of shade.
Backlash to the event and white-rights extremists coming to town has led to a rash of Airbnb reservation cancellations. The company says those using its services will accept people regardless of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or age.
“We’re having our civil rights violated left and right,” said Kessler on a video posted on his Twitter account.
Brazos Tacos announced it would close August 12, as have the Central Library, McGuffey Art Center and the Virginia Discovery Museum. Additional downtown business owners were contemplating doing the same at press time.
And the UVA Medical Center says it’s preparing for a mass casualty situation.
“As we routinely do when large events occur in the Charlottesville area, we are preparing for the possibility of incidents that could lead to an influx of patients, using components of our established emergency operations plan,” says UVA health system spokesman Josh Barney. That includes scheduling elective surgeries before or after August 12, having additional care providers at the hospital and on call, and having additional security officers on hand.
“These preparations aim to ensure that we can provide the best possible care to all our patients,” says Barney.