A couple of weeks ago at a community meeting, Chief Al Thomas said he wasn’t worried about handling the KKK at its July 8 rally. What concerned him more were local citizens making “poor choices.” Now some are wondering if local police made poor choices in showing up at activists’ homes and asking about their plans for the Klan rally, the names of other activists and offering to help with any plans they were making, according to a letter attorney Pam Starsia sent to Thomas June 23.
Starsia, who is also a member of Showing Up for Racial Justice, says that after one of her clients received a visit from a Charlottesville police sergeant June 20, she left a voice message for Captain Wendy Lewis and said the home visits to activists were unnerving, intimidating and chilling to their exercise of First Amendment rights, and that officers should immediately desist. She “specifically advised that CPD should not visit the home of another activist client—Veronica Fitzhugh,” says her letter.
Fitzhugh is facing assault and disorderly conduct charges stemming from interactions with whites-righter Jason Kessler May 20 on the Downtown Mall, as well as a separate May 21 assault charge at Lee Park filed by Jason Turner. Despite Starsia’s warning—Lewis said she hadn’t heard the voice message—the sergeant showed up at Fitzhugh’s house the next morning.
“If a policeman shows up at your door with a badge, you’re intimidated,” says civil libertarian John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute. “This is an activity that’s illegitimate.”
Following Starsia’s June 23 press conference in front of the city police station, police spokesman Steve Upman issued a release that said officers were gathering information from a dozen organizations, including the KKK and SURJ, to assist in keeping citizens safe.
“Overkill,” says Whitehead. Visiting activists is a tactic of regimes like Nazi Germany and the KGB, he says. “The police’s job is to show up at the protest and keep the people safe.”
However well-meaning the information gathering might be, says Whitehead, “I think it’s a major misstep” to do anything that inhibits free speech activity. “They should back off.”