CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA—As the world sadly knows, three people died this past weekend when a bunch of racist assholes showed up in my town to rally around a statue of Robert E. Lee. The worst moment in the weekend's violence came when one of the white supremacists deliberately ran his car into a crowd of anti-racist counterprotesters, but even before then fights were breaking out around town.
Those fights erupted despite the fact that state, city, and police officials mobilized 1,000 first responders, including 300 state police and National Guard members, to control the protests. Many of the cops wore riot gear, carried shields, and were backed by armored vehicles.
Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, has said the plan was to keep the two sides separated. "There were physical barriers to separate those opposing sides and law enforcement as well, however individuals chose to assemble on the streets," she told The Wall Street Journal. "We are not in a position to tell people where to assemble."
So what happened?
"It is the responsibility of law enforcement to ensure safety of both protesters and counter-protesters. The policing on Saturday was not effective in preventing violence," said Virginia ACLU chief Claire G. Gastanaga in a statement. "I was there and brought concerns directly to the secretary of public safety and the head of the Virginia State Police about the way that the barricades in the park limiting access by the arriving demonstrators and the lack of any physical separation of the protesters and counter-protesters on the street were contributing to the potential of violence. They did not respond. In fact, law enforcement was standing passively by, seeming to be waiting for violence to take place, so that they would have grounds to declare an emergency, declare an 'unlawful assembly' and clear the area."
Here's what I saw as a reporter. First, a disclaimer: I am not a policeman, a lawyer, or a frequent participant in public protests. Second, nobody is ever justified in punching people for their political beliefs, no matter how much I detest their views.
That being said, I noticed a great difference in how the cops and barricades were deployed when a month earlier I covered a KKK rally at Charlottesville's Stonewall Jackson statue. At that rally, double-fenced metal barricades separated the Klansmen from the counterprotesters. This created a no-man's-land where a line of police stood, keeping each side from coming into physical contact with each other. Police evidently had no problem telling the Kluxers where to assemble. I stood within 20 feet of the KKK during their whole demonstration, and a not single rock, bottle, or any other missiles were thrown by either them or the hundreds of counterprotesters. And no one got punched or bashed with clubs either.
This past weekend, by contrast, police deployed a single line of metal barricades which could easily be reached across. They placed no police between the racists and the counterprotesters. When I got to the park, the police and National Guard all appeared to be standing on the sides and behind—not in-between, as they did at the KKK rally.
The state of emergency had apparently been called just as I approached the park, and riot police were marching in to clear out the area. A line of police behind shields basically pressed the neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates down Market Street between crowds of counterprotesters who had lined the street. Despite the dangerous decision to remove them by that route, I am happy to report that I saw only a few scuffles break out between the racists and the counterprotesters.
It is hard to believe that the police were less prepared at this event than at the Stonewall Jackson rally. Sadly, Gastanaga's assertions ring true.
Full disclosure: I have been a card-carrying member of the ACLU since 2003 and I just sent an additional small donation to the Virginia chapter to show my appreciation of their support for First Amendment rights. Also, I believe that the monuments celebrating Confederate leaders should be removed from public property, whereas memorials to the war dead should remain.