Rashomon effect: Police chief defends tear gas; activists allege police brutality

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Riot-shield-wielding police were called in to assist in getting the KKK out of town.
Eze amos Riot-shield-wielding police were called in to assist in getting the KKK out of town. Eze amos

In the post-mortem of the July 8 KKK rally in Justice Park that resulted in 22 arrests and riot-garbed Virginia State Police tear-gassing protesters, widely diverging accounts of the event are playing out like a Kurosawa film.

Police Chief Al Thomas says his force has gotten “hundreds and hundreds of compliments” for how city police handled the estimated 1,500 people who attended. At the same time, activists are decrying the “brutality” of militarized police and the tear gassing of protesters, and demanding that the charges against those arrested be dropped.

Chief Al Thomas defends the use of tear gas to disperse protesters after the KKK left. Photo Eze Amos

And four legal organizations—the ACLU, Legal Aid Justice Center, the National Lawyers Guild and the Rutherford Institute—have asked City Council and Governor Terry McAuliffe to investigate the “over-militarized” police presence, the declarations of unlawful assemblies and the use of tear gas, and called for a permanent citizen review board.

Thomas defends its use. “The crowd was becoming more aggressive toward law enforcement,” throwing water bottles, using a pepper gel and spitting, he says.

According to Solidarity Cville, police escalated a peaceful demonstration against “white supremacist hate” by declaring an unlawful assembly after the Klan left. At a July 14 press conference in front of the police department, Emily Gorcenski, who was one of those tear-gassed, called the decision “unnecessary and unreasonable” and pointed out, “Charlottesville residents can’t clear out of a Dave Matthews concert in under an hour, yet police declared a peaceful crowd to be an unlawful assembly within minutes of the KKK departure.”

In the timeline of events, the Loyal White Knights of the KKK had a permit to protest the removal of Confederate monuments from 3 to 4pm. Because of the crush of counter-protesters surrounding the park, the KKK wasn’t able to get in until about 3:45pm. Shortly before 4:30pm, Chief Thomas ordered an end to the Klan demonstration, and protesters followed the Loyal Whites out to a secured garage on Fourth Street NE.

Protesters clogged the street, and Deputy Chief Gary Pleasants declared the first unlawful assembly of the day. Police and protesters agree on one thing: “We were trying to get them out of here as fast as possible,” says Thomas.

“No one wanted to bar the KKK from leaving the city,” says Gorcenski. “We wanted to make sure the Klan didn’t spend a minute longer in Charlottesville than necessary.”

After the KKK left around 4:44pm, police headed toward High Street, where Thomas describes a hostile crowd of several hundred people becoming aggressive toward police. On-scene commanders from city police and the Virginia State Police made the decision to deploy tear gas, says Thomas.

At 4:58pm, fewer than 15 minutes after the Klan left, police declared an unlawful assembly, says Solidarity Cville.

“We reject the allegation the deployment of chemicals was in response to a police defense strategy,” says Gorcenski. “Video evidence shows police went through a lengthy, minutes-long process of preparing gas masks.”

The Rutherford Institute’s John Whitehead contends police use of military equipment, including riot shields, assault weapons, grenade launcher and BearCat, changed the dynamic of the event, and the civil liberties orgs say the “heavy-handed demonstration of force” escalated rather than de-escalated the event.

“I would say bringing a hate group in changes the event,” counters Thomas. “That’s when we saw a change, when the Klan arrived. They brought hate and fear into our city.” Thomas also notes that city cops were in their normal uniforms for most of the day and did not have riot gear.

After the Klan left, there was a scuffle on the ramp leading up to the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, and two people were detained there, says Gorcenski. “It was a very, very confusing situation,” she says. Police were giving contradictory instructions, and people on the ramp had nowhere to go, she recounts.

Solidarity Cville alleges one of the people sitting on the ramp was kicked in the head three times by police. In a video the group provided, it appears an officer trying to get around them stumbled against one of the seated protesters, Tracye Prince DeSon, and looks horrified when people start shouting that he’d kicked the activist.

DeSon claims police used pepper spray on him six minutes before the first tear gas was fired. A video shows a Charlottesville police officer with a cannister in his hand, and moments later people in the vicinity are filmed coughing and reacting to an irritant, including this reporter.

A number of people, among them street medics, bystanders, ACLU observers and journalists, have discussed getting tear-gassed, and many of them said they didn’t hear the order to disperse, nor the warning that a chemical agent would be used.

Solidarity Cville’s Laura Goldblatt says medics were treating a woman in distress on the grass beside the juvenile court when the first tear gas went off beside her.

C-VILLE photographer Eze Amos was behind police taking photos of a dancing man when the first cannister went off and the wind shifted. “Around my mouth was burning, around my eyes were burning,” he says. “I was choking.”

Civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel also got tear-gassed, and says it was unreasonable to order people to leave immediately after the Klan left. “Two people were arguing at the end and police said it was an unlawful assembly,” he says. “Does that justify using tear gas on 100?”

Thomas says, “It is unfortunate” that bystanders on the sidelines got caught in the tear-gas crossfire. “It does travel. A number of our officers not wearing gas masks took in some of the gas as well.”

Three people were charged with wearing a mask—a felony—and at the July 14 press conference, Don Gathers with Black Lives Matter said, “They used their shirts and scarves to protect themselves from the chemical agents released by police.” Earlier, a masked Klansman was asked to remove his mask and not arrested, says Gathers.

City Councilor Kristin Szakos, who was not present at the KKK rally, says, “I wish there hadn’t been tear gas.” She adds, “It wasn’t unprovoked. There were people who were actively confronting police.”

Police kept people safe, while allowing people to stand up to the hatred of the KKK, she says. “The Klan knows they’re not welcome here.”

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