City Council’s first meeting after the July 8 KKK rally had 57 people wanting to voice their concerns about police use of force and tear-gassing protesters. Legal organizations asked for investigations and multiple citizens wanted the permit for Jason Kessler’s August 12 Unite the Right revoked.
At times the July 17 meeting was like a civics lesson on basic constitutional rights. City Manager Maurice Jones disputed protesters’ contentions that city police protected the Klan and its hate speech. “We’re not defending this speech,” he said. “We’re defending their right to speak.”
Mayor Mike Signer also explained that City Council has no control over the prosecution of criminal charges, which falls under the purview of the commonwealth’s attorney.
And Jones and other councilors pointed out they could not revoke the Unite the Right permit, because that’s protected speech as well, although Signer said he did have “grave” concerns about the logistics of holding an event that will draw hundreds to Emancipation Park.
Mary Bauer with Legal Aid Justice Center spoke on behalf of three other legal groups—the ACLU, National Lawyers Guild and Rutherford Institute—that jointly had written City Council and Governor Terry McAuliffe that day about police handling of the constitutionally protected right to assemble July 8 after the Klan left. “We have profound concerns about the militarized police presence,” she said.
Bauer asked for an investigation into who invited the riot-clad Virginia State Police, who determined the event was an unlawful assembly and who ordered the use of tear gas, as well as calling for a permanent citizen review board.
A number of people talked about heavy-handed police tactics toward demonstrators. UVA prof and activist Jalane Schmidt tossed an empty tear gas cannister to councilors and asked them to imagine that hitting their flesh. “This has to stop, this militarization of police,” she said. “To a hammer, everything is a nail.”
And for activist Don Gathers, July 8 will be one of those dates that people always remember where they were, as “the day the KKK came to town and the day Charlottesville citizens were tear-gassed.”
As has become typical for City Council, Signer had to suspend the meeting when attendees became unruly and booed Jones’ timeline of police actions after the Klan left, particularly his assertion that “after numerous requests for the crowd to disperse,” Chief Al Thomas made the decision to “deploy a dispersion irritant.”