Council listens: Citizens unhappy about heavy police presence, downtown lockdown

City councilors Nikuyah Walker, Heather Hill, Wes Bellamy and Kathy Galvin—Mike Signer was on vacation—listened to citizen reaction to the August 12 anniversary weekend for almost three hours.
Staff photo City councilors Nikuyah Walker, Heather Hill, Wes Bellamy and Kathy Galvin—Mike Signer was on vacation—listened to citizen reaction to the August 12 anniversary weekend for almost three hours. Staff photo

In sharp contrast to an August 13 press conference, in which 18 officials representing public safety agencies thanked and congratulated each other for a job well done over the August 12 anniversary weekend, city councilors heard a different assessment the next night.

Around three dozen citizens at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center voiced concern and outrage about the presence of 1,000 cops, often in militarized gear, as well as the lockdown of the Downtown Mall and the searches of bags before entering the mall.

Several times over the weekend, including at the UVA Students United demonstration August 11 at UVA’s Brooks Hall and the memorial for Heather Heyer August 12 on Fourth Street, the presence of riot-clad police threatened to set off an actual riot.

Roberta Williamson called for police de-escalation training and offered to pay for it. “I almost want to demand this become a line item in the next city budget,” she said.

Nancy Carpenter denounced the appearance of BearCats and snipers at Fourth Street on the anniversary of Heyer’s death. “How dare you do that?” she asked. “We were in mourning.”

Several people complained about the presence of K9 dogs. “That’s a Bull Connor visual,” said Carpenter.

Civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel excoriated the limited access to the mall and the searches to enter. “You could be stopped on the streets of your city without probable cause,” he said, calling that the “hallmark of an authoritarian” government.

“And then to play that game of calling it consensual,” he said, a reference to police Chief RaShall Brackney, who said the day before that all the searches of bags before coming onto the mall were “consensual.”

Fogel and others questioned the declaration of a state of emergency without a factual basis of a threat.

“What intelligence did the city have to shut this city down?” asked Katrina Turner, a member of the newly formed Police Civilian Review Board. “Was it shut down because of antifa?”

One speaker castigated Vice-Mayor Heather Hill for thanking police, although Councilor Wes Bellamy said he appreciated Hill’s attempt to help with negotiations when officers refused to let mourners enter the mall at Fourth Street.

Of the 30 plus speakers, only one said he was glad police were there, although an unexpected defender was Mayor Nikuyah Walker. “The police were rather calm,” she said. “I did not see police officers as aggressive as what I’ve seen my entire life.”

And she said, “If we had similar people show up as last year, I’d want police to be there.”

Several people thanked Bellamy for defusing the tense scenes at Brooks Hall and Fourth Street. He acknowledged that in some instances, a “lack of communication about what was going on” could have exacerbated the situation.

And he also experienced the anxiety many felt seeing masses of riot-attired cops. Said Bellamy, “When I saw police marching choo choo choo, my blood pressure went up.”

He explained that Sunday when police removed the barricades on Fourth Street, people moved out onto Water Street, and were upset police wouldn’t let them back in and sent them through the checkpoints. “We don’t know who was in the crowd,” he said.

One thing City Council learned from last year’s violent weekend was to let people speak out about the weekend sooner rather than to wait more than a week, and the August 15 listening session was already on the calendar.

And the question asked by Tyler Magill—and many others, still to be determined: “Where is the middle ground between last year and this?”




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