Charlottesvillians pulled out the unwelcome mat for the Loyal White Knights of the KKK July 8 in Justice Park. An estimated 1,000 people surrounded the park before the arrival of the 50 or so out-of-town Klansmen, and the event was loud, but aside from the arrests of protesters who refused to move, without incident. It was afterward that Virginia State Police in riot gear tear-gassed protesters who refused to clear High Street, a first for protest-prone Charlottesville, at least in C-VILLE Weekly’s memory.
Charlottesville police officers, Daily Progress reporters and ACLU observers were gassed, as well as bystanders near those blocking High Street, leading some to question the show of force at a demonstration that was breaking up on a street that was already closed to traffic
.John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization, had advised local police before the event to avoid heavy-handed tactics and militarized equipment, and says people react differently when the riot shields come out. “What we had was an army,” he says. “What they were saying to the crowd was, this is a riot.”
Whitehead says he’s gotten calls from all over the country. “What I saw yesterday was not a community policing event. It was an armed police state. It’s not a good image to portray around the nation.”
“The city abdicated its duty to state police,” says civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel, who was present at Justice Park. “You can’t treat cops like human beings when they’re dressed like ninja turtles.”
Twenty-two people were arrested in the course of the afternoon. Local activist Veronica Fitzhugh, who already faces two charges from previous confrontations with right-wingers, lay down in front of the entrance police planned to use to bring in the Klan, and four officers carried her out, leaving her wig on the ground. She was booked and released, and her wig was returned.
Nic McCarthy also was arrested for obstructing free passage. “Even though [the KKK] had a permit, I didn’t think it was okay—for me as a citizen—for them to spew their hate in my town,” he says. “I didn’t feel right about it and I decided to use civil disobedience to block them.”
The city had geared up for the event for weeks with alternate events at the Jefferson School, IX Art Park and the Sprint Pavilion. Police Chief Al Thomas and Mayor Mike Signer urged citizens to ignore the white supremacist group.
But for many, such as Black Lives Matter, Showing Up for Racial Justice and religious groups, turning their backs on the KKK was not an option.
Former congressman and recent gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello was at the park. “It was a typical hometown weekend, seeing the family and protesting the Klan,” he says. “Ultimately silence is not an option.”
By 2pm protesters began filling and surrounding the park formerly known as Jackson Park. So too, did police. More than 100 Charlottesville police officers were present, assisted by Albemarle and UVA officers and dozens of Virginia State Police.
The Klan’s permit was from 3 to 4pm, but by 3pm, the only Klan supporter showing up was Crozet resident Colby Dudley, who wore a Confederate flag as a cape.
Around 3:20pm, police in riot gear filed out of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court building across the street from Justice Park, and cleared a path for the Klansmen to enter the park, which they did at 3:45pm.
A white-hooded man who identified himself as Douglas Barker said he was there so “they can’t take our statue down.” It was unclear if he was aware the statue City Council voted to remove—General Robert E. Lee—is located at a different park.
The Klanners assembled in a free speech corral set up by city police, carrying signs such as, “Jews are Satan’s Children,” shouting, “White power” and waving Confederate flags, while the crowd of counterprotesters that vastly outnumbered them shouted, “Racists go home.”
It was uncertain if the Loyal Whites’ imperial wizard, Christopher Barker, was going to appear because he’s facing charges from a stabbing in his home in Yanceyville, North Carolina, and his bond prohibits him from leaving the county. According to an imperial kludd who identified himself as James Moore, Barker was present in purple robes—although that man did not resemble Barker’s NC mugshot.
Moore, who has also been identified as Richmond area resident James T. Seay, says he came because he was “sick and tired of the ongoing cultural genocide of white people.” He cited Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy and his infamous tweets about white women as another reason for protesting, but when asked about the conduct of the imperial wizard stabbing a grand dragon, Moore shrugged.
After the rally, he said the gang would have a cookout and cross burning on private property in Culpeper, where he expected to welcome new members.
The Loyal Whites and their coterie were escorted out around 4:40pm, and they were followed by protesters down Fourth Street NE, where they were parked in a garage behind the juvenile court. With the street clogged, Deputy Chief Gary Pleasants declared the assembly of people there “unlawful” and warned, “If you don’t disperse, you will be arrested.”
A parade of vehicles exited the garage. And then things got ugly.
Angry protesters shouted at police and blocked still-closed High Street. At least two people were wrestled to the ground near the juvenile court, and the order was given to disperse or chemicals would be used. Riot-clad police donned gas masks, and three rounds of tear gas were fired off, catching even some city police in the crossfire.
“It had gotten past the point of being dangerous, and we had to stop it,” Pleasants told CBS19. “People could not control themselves and became violent and we had to step in and take measures we absolutely didn’t want to take.”
“There was no reason for that stuff,” says Whitehead about the tear gas. He had advised police to shake protesters hands, but he says they feared the rally would become the next Ferguson. “When I saw those guys with the shields, I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ I was just hoping no one got killed.”
In a statement, Charlottesville police Chief Al Thomas says, “First and foremost, our primary goal was community safety and protecting the civil liberties of all of our citizens. At the end of the day, three people were transported to the hospital; 2 for heat related issues and one for an alcohol related issue.”
Thomas did not respond to a request for comment about the use of tear gas, but says in the statement that over the next few weeks, police would be reviewing events of the day “to assess our successes and shortcomings.” And they’ll get to do it again for an even larger August 12 Unite the Right demonstration.
An earlier version of this story appeared July 8.