‘Martial law’: Officials say 1,000 cops necessary, searches ‘consensual’

To enter the Downtown Mall, citizens had to submit to a search of purses and wallets. Police say that was “consensual.”
Photo Eze Amos To enter the Downtown Mall, citizens had to submit to a search of purses and wallets. Police say that was “consensual.” Photo Eze Amos

The August 12 weekend passed with no loss of life or serious injury, but many Charlottesville residents were not reassured by the show of police force and the restrictions on pedestrian access to the Downtown Mall that were announced a couple of days before they went into effect.

The Virginia State Police provided 700 officers, and the total number of cops on hand was around 1,000, according to officials.

“Last year, I was afraid of the Nazis,” says Black Lives Matter organizer and UVA professor Lisa Woolfork. “This year, I’m afraid of the police.”

Civil rights attorneys blasted the decision to limit pedestrian access to the mall to two entry points on Water Street—and that was before everyone entering had to submit to a search of bags and wallets.

“You wonder why some people in our community distrust you,” writes Jeff Fogel in an email to city officials. The decision to withhold notice of the mall lockdown “smacks of deception, manipulation, and lies,” he says.

Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead criticizes the lack of transparency and disclosure of a specific threat before restricting citizens’ ability to move freely. “To me it looks like martial law,” says Whitehead. “It creates a police state.”

At an August 13 press conference, public safety officials continued to refuse to answer whether there had been credible threats that warranted having 1,000 cops on hand.

“We had very large crowds here,” says Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney. “We had to plan for the variable of the unknown”—even if it was pretty clear the alt-right wasn’t coming.

Virginia State Police Superintendent Gary Settle says, “Some intelligence that I can’t reveal in a public forum caused us to make certain decisions and err on the side of caution.”

Brackney says the last-minute announcement of restricted mall access was to keep those points “close to the chest” and not reveal vulnerabilities to people who were surveilling social media for entry points into the controlled area.

On August 8, she said that citizens would not be subjected to searches unless there was reason to believe they had something that was on the lengthy list of prohibited items, including sticks, aerosol sprays, and knives. But on August 11, everyone who wanted to go to the mall had to submit to a search of bags and wallets.

Says Brackney, “Everyone actually was given the option. There was no one that was searched that was not consensual. Everyone was allowed in. It was their items that were not allowed in.”

City councilors C-VILLE talked to were vague about what they knew about the mall lockdown. “I don’t think we’re allowed to talk about that,” says Wes Bellamy. Vice-Mayor Heather Hill says she knew there would be restrictions, but didn’t know exactly what they were.

Even after mourners had paid their respects on Heather Heyer Way, state police continued to block Water Street and tensions remained high. Staff photo

Some saw the measures as an insult and over-compensation for last year’s deadly rally.

“I feel violated,” says activist Rosia Parker. “I feel completely violated. The presence we have here now should have been here last year.

She adds, “They’re protecting property, not people.”

Parker also objects to being searched to walk on the Downtown Mall, and seeing police officers in riot gear protecting the Lee statue.

“I think it made things more tense,” says UVA prof and activist Jalane Schmidt. “The solution to last summer is not over policing.”

She notes that initially officials said they were not going to check bags, and then ended up searching even wallets. “We’re under martial law in all but name,” she says.

Some made a point of braving the downtown hassles and came to support businesses there, like Kat Imhoff, Montpelier president and CEO. “I thought the police did a pretty good job,” she says. “A couple of times we left the barricaded area and had to go all the way around to get back in.”

Her friend, Dorothy Carney, compares the security measures to the Transportation Security Administration after 9-11. “It felt like an overreaction because nothing was shared about threats.”

The appearance of riot police did not did not put protesters at ease at the UVA student rally Saturday night. Eze Amos

Carney attended the student rally Saturday night and said it was really peaceful around Brooks Hall until about 100 cops in riot gear came marching in. That’s about the point Imhoff arrived, and she says, “You can see how quickly things can fall apart.”

Both Carney and Imhoff say cops were a lot friendlier this year than last, when they would not make eye contact.

“I had a lot of police smiling at me with my Black Lives Matter T-shirt on,” says Carney.

One other thing struck her: “You have a security checkpoint but you’re still allowing guns in. We need to change those laws.”

City Council is holding a community listening session from 6 to 8pm Tuesday at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.

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