Unlawful assembly: Cops call for one, change their mind at UVA

On August 11, community members protested police presence at UVA, where one university officer declared an unlawful assembly. It was quickly rescinded. Photo by Eze Amos On August 11, community members protested police presence at UVA, where one university officer declared an unlawful assembly. It was quickly rescinded. Photo by Eze Amos

Police called unlawful assemblies last summer after the KKK rally and before the Unite the Right event began. This summer, it appeared Charlottesville had gotten through the August 12 anniversary weekend without the declaring of any unlawful assemblies—but that wasn’t the case.

At the August 11 UVA rally—after students had moved their protest to Brooks Hall, away from police and the additional security measures they say were forced on them, and after riot cops started moving in—one officer, his voice blaring through a bullhorn, declared an unlawful assembly, which was rescinded within a minute.

“A University Police officer on Saturday evening initially communicated to the crowd gathered near Brooks Hall that the assembly was unlawful,” says UVA spokesperson Wes Hester. “After receiving instructions from the unified command center that an unlawful assembly would not be declared at that time, the officer communicated that to the crowd.”

According to Virginia Code, an unlawful assembly is a Class 1 misdemeanor, and police may call one whenever a group of three or more people act with force or violence that is likely to jeopardize “public safety, peace, or order.”

UVA did not respond to inquiries about which officer declared the unlawful assembly or what the university’s specific protocol is for declaring one.

Kibiriti Majuto, a member of UVA Students United, which organized the rally, says he never heard the unlawful assembly declared. “We moved because the riot police were coming toward us,” he says.

But Jalane Schmidt, a professor and organizer with Black Lives Matter, heard the order.

“That’s why the students kind of kept the rally on the move—so it would be harder to be kettled,” says Schmidt. “If they rescinded the order, I didn’t hear it.”

The Central Virginia chapter of the National Lawyers Guild has noted in a statement that “riot police inexplicably interrupted the event,” and that community members de-escalated near violence and re-established their peaceful gathering outside of a “militarized presence.”

“The kids were having their say from the steps of Brooks Hall, and that probably would have been the end of it,” says Schmidt, but echoing Majuto, she says it was the “moving in of this phalanx of police in riot gear,” that got the crowd riled up.

“They got their shields, they got their helmets, that’s the same force that tear gassed us at the KKK rally last July,” says Schmidt.

In July 2017, then-Charlottesville Police Captain Gary Pleasants made the call to tear gas anti-racist protesters who wouldn’t leave the High Street area surrounding Court Square Park—then known as Justice Park—after the Klan packed up and went home.

The now-retired police captain has since earned the nickname Gary “You’re Damn Right I Gassed Them” Pleasants for the response he gave then-Chief Al Thomas, who was stationed at a command center and became upset when he learned Pleasants had taken it upon himself to call for tear gas.

“They’re so trigger happy,” says Schmidt. “We’ve seen what one person can do.”

As for the one university officer who declared an unlawful assembly and then rescinded it, Schmidt says, “That is gaslighting the community and not taking responsibility for what appears to be a mistake.”

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