A month ago during the July 8 KKK rally, police were accused of overreacting and escalating things when they deployed tear gas on protesters at an event that was already breaking up.
At the August 12 Unite the Right rally, they faced the opposite complaint: That they stood and watched assaults take place.
Civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel was on Market Street after the rally was declared an unlawful assembly, and he says there were no police in sight.
“When fistfights broke out, state police did nothing,” he says. “I was a little surprised they made a decision to let all hell break loose.”
Throughout the weekend, people noted a number of occasions when the police were absent: the altercation in front of the Rotunda following the tiki-torch procession through UVA on Friday night. The assaults that took place on Market Street Saturday morning before Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency. And the brutal attack of Dre Harris by white nationalists in the Market Street Parking Garage beside the Charlottesville police station.
At an August 14 press conference, Police Chief Al Thomas disputed assertions that officers were ordered to not intervene. “Throughout the entire weekend, the Virginia State Police and Charlottesville police intervened to break up fights and altercations between those at the rally site, and that began Friday night,” said Thomas.
In many of the conflicts, someone was attacked and the attacker disappeared into the crowd, says Thomas. On Saturday alone, police received 250 calls for service at the rally, and state police treated 36 injured people.
And he says the department is still getting calls about assaults and civil rights violations that occurred over the weekend. The city has established a tipline and people can report incidents by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 970-3280.
City police and City Manager Maurice Jones said August 7 that they could not ensure the safety of Emancipation Park and used that as the basis for issuing rally organizer Jason Kessler a permit for McIntire Park, a change that was blocked in federal court the evening before the rally.
“We had a very large footprint to cover,” said Thomas, especially after the rally was canceled and opposing factions dispersed throughout the city.
At press briefings before August 12, Thomas said he’d learned a number of lessons from the KKK rally, and that the Unite the Right protest was an entirely different beast.
He also said there would be close to 1,000 law enforcement and emergency responders on hand.
Perhaps that’s why many wonder why this event was so much more violent than the KKK rally, with so many fewer arrests—six—compared with the 23 people charged July 8.
“Police obviously didn’t do their job,” says John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, which joined the ACLU of Virginia in representing Kessler in his suit against the city for its change of venue. “They didn’t separate the sides.”
Thomas says there was a plan to keep the factions separate by having the alt-rights enter through the back of Emancipation Park. “They did not follow that,” he says.
Alt-right attendees like Richard Spencer complained of having to run a “gauntlet” of counterprotesters, and Kessler said police did not do their job in protecting the people at his rally—at least before he was drowned out and chased by angry citizens at a press conference Sunday, when he had to run to the police for protection.
Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller told the New York Times, “It may have looked like a lot of our folks were standing around” because of the sheer number of officers on the scene, but “there were other troopers and law enforcement officers who were responding to incidents as they arose.”
Activist Emily Gorcenski livestreamed the tiki-torch procession through UVA Grounds Friday night, and was perplexed by the paucity of police at the event that ended with a brawl when white nationalists, vastly outnumbering a small number of protesters, surrounded them at the Thomas Jefferson statue in front to the Rotunda on University Avenue.
“The media showed up,” says Gorcenski. “If journalists knew and the event was publicized on Twitter, the police should have shown up.”
She says she did see police after she washed the pepper spray out of her eyes, and UVA says one officer was among those injured. University Police Chief Michael Gibson did not return a call from C-VILLE.
Gorcenski was not in the immediate rally area August 12, but says she saw from a distance “police using tactics for crowd dispersal with slow marches down the street that were very deliberate” efforts to calmly control the crowd.
“I thought police had significantly improved their tactics since July 8, when they did their job poorly,” says Gorcenski, referring to the “unnecessary deployment of chemical agents.”
While tear gas was in the air August 12, Charlottesville police say it did not come from them.
Former New York cop and prosecutor Eugene O’Donnell, now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says, “I think it’s unfair to do a wholesale condemnation of police. It’s a fallacy that by police acting emphatically, that automatically makes things better.”
There’s no “magic book” that tells police what to do, and “police wrestle with this all the time,” he says. Bigger cities are better equipped to handle situations such as the one Charlottesville faced because they do it all the time and “the more you do it, the better you get,” says O’Donnell.
And while the vast majority of protests are peaceful, he says Charlottesville was hit with a “double whammy” because it’s a department that doesn’t handle a lot of violent demonstrations and “the people who came were intent on causing trouble.”
Says O’Donnell, “Police really do feel any action you take, you’re subjected to much less criticism for not acting than acting.”
Arrested August 12
Troy Dunigan, 21, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, for disorderly conduct for throwing something into the crowd.
Jacob L. Smith, 21, of Louisa, Virginia, for misdemeanor assault and battery for allegedly punching a female reporter from The Hill in the face.
James M. O’Brien, 44, of Gainesville, Florida, for carrying a concealed handgun.
David Parrott, 35, of Paoli, Indiana, for failure to disperse in a riot.
Steven Balcaitis, 36, of York, South Carolina, for assault and battery for allegedly choking a woman in McIntire Park.
James Alex Fields, 20, of Maumee, Ohio, for second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and hit and run.