In images from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, African-Americans in their Sunday best peacefully protested, and when violence occurred, it came from police or from virulent racists.
Those are not the optics of today’s demonstrations.
Instead, protesters knock cell phones out of people’s hands, blast them with bullhorns, block filming with hands or hats and link arms to prevent passage—and that was just at the May 14 vigil in Lee Park after the Richard Spencer white nationalist crew was there the night before.
And a video circulating from May 20 shows right-wing blogger Jason Kessler with three other people sitting at a restaurant table on the Downtown Mall, surrounded by a dozen or so people shouting, “Nazis go home” and ordering them to leave.
“You don’t get to dictate who comes in or out,” said a police officer responding to the scene.
“White supremacists should not be allowed to move quietly in public spaces,” says Pam Starsia with Showing Up for Racial Justice, which has been active in confronting Confederate memorial supporters and the alt-right—although Starsia says she’s speaking only for herself, not for SURJ.
In sharp contrast to the 1920s, when members of the Ku Klux Klan met secretly in the dark wearing white hoods, yet passed by day in polite society, she says, the strategy now is to disrupt and “to loudly call out white supremacists in public spaces.”
And yet some local activists’ tactics straddle the line between free speech and criminal behavior.
“It’s very disturbing,” says Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman. The heated rhetoric leads “to an atmosphere of antagonism,” which leads to escalation. “We should all discourage behavior that stops short of criminal offenses.”
In his more than 30 years as a prosecutor, Chapman has seen a number of protests. The difference in the current crop is “the intensity and the physical confrontation accompanying it,” he says, as well as the participation of people from outside the community.
UVA professor and activist Jalane Schmidt explains the trajectory of protest tactics since the 1950s, when Martin Luther King Jr. organized a movement of “respectability politics” and was influenced by Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau’s nonviolent resistance.
That changed in the 1960s and ’70s with the Black Panthers, who wore military garb and “eschewed respectability politics,” she says. “The tactics always change with time.”
She says, “The 21st century descendants of the Klan are the alt-right. They should not be allowed to circulate anonymously in polite society.”
A May 24 press release from the anonymous Cville Solidarity suggested a laundry list of ways to resist white supremacy. “Refuse to employ, work with, serve or shop with Nazis. Refuse to sit next to them at a bar or restaurant. Refuse to let them sit peacefully in a public space,” it said.
“There’s a harassment and intimidation campaign being led by Joe and Pam Starsia,” Kessler says. Joe Starsia was in the video of the mall shouters, and activist Veronica Fitzhugh can be seen yelling in Kessler’s face, “Fucking go home. Get up and go home.”
Earlier that night, Kessler said he went to Champion Brewery and was refused service. “They violated my civil rights,” he says.
Can businesses deny service to those whose politics or philosophy they don’t like?
“Beliefs and philosophies are protected constitutionally against actions by government,” John Jeffries, former dean of UVA’s law school, writes in an email. “Private parties are free to act against unwelcome beliefs and philosophies, unless there is a statute against such discrimination.”
For Champion owner Hunter Smith, Kessler’s civil rights “didn’t cross my mind for a minute,” he says. “He assaulted someone who works for the business. It was a safety issue.”
Jay Taylor, the man whom Kessler punched on the mall January 22, frequents the brewery and does work there, says Smith.
However, in the face of demands that service be denied, Miller’s is taking a different tack after some white nationalists came there for beers following the tiki-torch assembly at Lee Park. Miller’s Scottie Kaylor calls for courtesy on Facebook and writes: “Our policy is simple: if any person or group, on either side of the political spectrum, displays an overt hatred or disrespect for others at Miller’s, they will be asked to leave.”
Arrests from protests are mounting. After the February 11 Lee Park rally that brought gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart to town to protest City Council’s vote to remove the Robert E. Lee statue, Kessler filed charges against Sara Tansey for snatching his phone. She was charged with destruction of property and Tansey filed an assault charge against Joe Draego, claiming he grabbed her arm when he retrieved Kessler’s phone.
At the May 14 candlelight demonstration at Lee Park, Jordan McNeish was charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly spitting on Kessler, Charles Best was charged with felony assault for hitting an officer in the head with a thrown cell phone, and Kessler was charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to leave the park and inciting with a bullhorn, say police.
“Police said I wouldn’t leave the park,” says Kessler. Protesters “wouldn’t let me leave. They were blocking me. They encircled me so that I was trapped.”
“Jason Kessler barged into a peaceful space that had been created by people of color with every intention of inciting a confrontation,” says Pam Starsia. “He was the aggressor.”
In video and photographs from the May 14 event, a young man filming is encircled by people who are asking why he was filming, blocking his camera and, he says on the video, knocking his cell phone out of his hand.
Blocking people filming is a tactic that comes from a practice called “doxxing,” says Starsia, in which leftist activists are filmed and their images are put online to “encourage harassment.”
“It’s a mob tactic used online by the left and the right,” says Kessler.
Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead compares current protests to ’60s sit-ins, where demonstrators “didn’t stop someone from free speech,” he says.
“The more I read about it, these people don’t want free speech,” he says. “You can’t block other people’s right to move on public property. These people need to grow up and respect other people’s rights.”
Is it free speech or assault?
What’s legal and what’s not in the resistance? We checked with Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman.
Slapping away a person’s cell phone: “Unwanted touching in an angry, rude or vengeful manner can constitute assault in Virginia,” says Chapman.
Invading one’s personal space: While there’s no law against trespassing in personal space, close contact and yelling in someone’s face could be disorderly conduct, says Chapman, escalating into allegations of being jostled. See unwanted touching above.
Using a bullhorn in someone’s face: Could violate the noise ordinance, and doing it aggressively in someone’s face in a way that interferes with her free speech potentially could be disorderly conduct.
Linking arms to prevent passage: If it’s restricting someone’s freedom and not letting them go, it could be abduction, says Chapman.