This is what democracy looked like March 31 outside UVA’s Garrett Hall, the scene of Congressman Tom Garrett’s first town hall: rowdy.
Demonstrators armed with bullhorns both for and against Garrett pushed up against one another and made their positions known with shouts of “USA! USA! USA!” and “Hey, hey, ho ho, white supremacy’s got to go.”
While the pro-Garrett faction, many of which were carrying Garrett or Trump campaign signs, was outnumbered, they did manage to keep the volume up, and even inside Garrett Hall, chants could be heard for the first hour of the forum.
Groups like Indivisible Charlottesville have called on Garrett to hold a town hall since he took office in January, and many were not pleased that his first meeting in the blue-hued center of the mostly red 5th District was limited to 230 people—50 Batten students and 180 chosen by lottery out of the 850 who signed up, according to Batten Dean Allan Stam, who led the discussion.
Dozens of police officers were stationed outside Garrett Hall to keep the peace, and despite heated exchanges between the factions, primarily Showing Up for Racial Justice and western heritage defender Jason Kessler’s Unity and Security for America, no arrests were made, according to university police.
Kessler, who recently was thwarted in court on his petition drive to remove Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy from office, filmed a video in front of Garrett Hall detailing his equipment for the event, which included a sign with Pepe the Frog, a symbol appropriated by white nationalists, bearing the message, “Kekistani American Day,” and a shield to fend off the “antifas”—anti-fascists in alt-right lingo.
And the shields were used to push back on banner-carrying SURJ members in front of Garrett Hall. Among the dozen or so activist groups that have sprung up since the 2016 election, SURJ has emerged as the most militant. Its members surrounded and shouted down GOP gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart February 11 when he was in town to denounce City Council’s vote to remove the statue of General Robert E. Lee.
At the town hall, this time Stewart was equipped with his own bullhorn to broadcast his promise to protect his supporters’ culture, heritage and history.
“The strange part was outside the building, having to go through that gauntlet,” says town hall attendee Diana Mead. “It made me a little nervous.”
Also on Kessler’s video, Albemarle County Republican Committee’s new chair, George Urban, shares a tip that a “group of anarchists partially funded by George Soros were boarding a bus in Richmond headed for this event to cause trouble.” Urban declined to comment on “protesters’ organizing efforts” when contacted by C-VILLE.
University Democrats, whose offer of a larger space to hold the town hall did not receive a response from Garrett, held a non-partisan democracy festival in the amphitheater across from the town hall. That event was relatively calm in comparison, says communications coordinator Virginia Chambers. She said between 18 and 20 groups set up tables, and she estimates 600 attended.
Despite the rain, says Chambers, “People were walking around and engaging with people at the tables.”
A March 1 release from Garrett’s office said Batten’s rules for the town hall prohibited signs, cheering, clapping, booing and chanting; several of these were broken immediately.
A handful of SURJers made it into the front row of the town hall, where they unfurled a banner that read, “No dialogue with white supremacy.” They chanted “white supremacy has got to go” as they headed out of the room on their own volition.
“It didn’t bother me,” says Mead, “because they were so efficient. They got their message out and didn’t have to be dragged out. It was pretty classic civil disobedience—except they didn’t want to go to jail.”
In a statement, SURJ said, “Engaging in polite conversation with Garrett normalizes his extreme views and allows them to spread. Instead, we need to disrupt this language…”
Garrett acknowledged the chants outside and in. “There’s no place for white supremacy in the forum of Thomas Jefferson’s university or in the nation of the United States of America,” he said.
During the two-hour forum, Garrett responded to questions submitted by attendees and randomly chosen by the Batten School on health care, President Trump, Russian influence, immigration and guns in the District of Columbia.
At times his responses seemed to draw bipartisan applause, such as when he said he would support the removal from office of any officials determined to collude with Russia, or when he said he did not believe all refugees should be banned from entering the U.S.
His detailed and rapid-fire responses to some questions caused Stam to remark, “I think you’re turning out to be a little more wonkish than people expected.”
Garrett promised to hold more town halls in the future, and has one scheduled May 9 in Moneta.
He concluded with thanks to the Batten School and to the attendees. “Whether you think I’m the best congressman or the worst ever, thanks for caring enough to come out,” he said. “This is what drives the greatest nation on earth.”