About four months ago, we witnessed violence in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia as members of the so-called alt-right and white nationalist groups battled with anti-protesters. In the aftermath of the ensuing melees, the city commissioned an independent study led by former US Attorney for the Western District of Virginia Paul Heaphy who was an Obama appointee. Heaphy released a scathing 200-page report that detailed many incidents based on over 150 eyewitness interviews, thousands of pages of documents and analysis of law enforcement messages, some of which were deleted by the Charlottesville police.
There is no other way to characterize the event other than the fact that this was a major failure of law enforcement. In typical fashion, the New York Times reported the Heaphy investigation with this headline: “White Supremacists Were Ready for Violence in Charlottesville. The Police Were Not.”
Before getting into some of the details of the report, it should be stated up front that the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who showed up for a rally allegedly to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in a park admittedly expressed an abhorrent sentiment. Many were shocked that they held a torchlight march and chanted slogans reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. On August 12- the day of the main rally- many wore swastikas and other Nazi symbols.
However, we live in the United States which happens to have a First Amendment which also just happens to protect speech, no matter how abhorrent or disgusting the message. It is only when that speech or expression crosses the line into advocating imminent violence that it becomes unprotected. Marching through the streets chanting Nazi slogans or displaying a Confederate flag does not cross that line. Just as the protester who burns an American flag in public is protected by the First Amendment even though their actions may so offend someone that it can lead to violence against them, so too were the white supremacists in Virginia that day afforded protection of the First Amendment.
The report detailed two earlier rallies held in the city- one in May and one in July- and compared the responses to the one in August. In May, white nationalists held a rally in the city that brought out anti-protesters. Then, although tensions were high, there was little if any violence during the rally. However, violence did break out between police and Leftist anti-protesters after the rally which involved tear gas being used.
In July, a North Carolina chapter of the KKK received a permit to hold a rally in the city. The city responded by organizing a series of alternative events so as to deny the KKK an audience. Police reports of that rally showed that the KKK rally was devoid of any violence as many of the groups on the Left involved in the May and August rallies were largely not present.
Perhaps the most damaging comment in the report is one attributed to Charlottesville police chief Al Thomas who allegedly said: “Let them fight for a little. It will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly.” Of course, he denies the comment although his actions and comments leading up to the rally on August 12th indicate this stealth stand down order was what was intended.
Contrary to popular belief, leading up to the rally, there were several meetings of city officials. They were well-aware of the potential for violence and tension. The city’s director of public works had even suggested the use of city dump trucks and other heavy machinery to block roadways including the pedestrian mall where Heather Heyer was killed. That suggestion went unheeded. He also suggested heavy, water-filled barriers and that too was not done. Instead, the city used wooden barricades to keep opposing marchers apart. After those barriers were in place, sensing that things were turning volatile, city workers withdrew to the public works building and barricaded the entrance with dump trucks.
There was credible evidence from a variety of intelligence sources of the Virginia State Police that members of antifa (not the neo-Nazis) would attack police officers if they attempted to break up fights. There was concern that antifa would use cement-filled water bottles against the police also. In fact, the violence at the May rally was directed at the police by antifa members after the neo-Nazi rally broke up.
Furthermore, when the city challenged the original Unite the Right rally permit trying to have the march moved to another park, Chief Thomas said to several officers that he hoped the city would lose the fight in court. Thomas had to submit an affidavit to the court citing security concerns, but allegedly instructed his inferiors to “not make it look too good.”
As concerns the previous night’s torchlight rally on the University of Virginia campus, it was not some impromptu decision by the neo-Nazis as it was originally portrayed. Both Charlottesville and University police had ample advance notice of the march which occurred without a permit and neither law enforcement agency did a damn thing to either stop it or separate opposing groups.
The facts are indisputable. Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Unite the Right rally, had a legal permit to hold a rally in Justice Park in the city. Opposing groups had permits to hold rallies in other parks- 2 or three blocks away from Justice Park. It was the opposing groups who ended up at Justice Park, not the neo-Nazis who marched to these other parks nearby. Also, when violence broke out, police failed to do anything and seemed more concerned about protecting the park than in preventing violence immediately outside the park.
Finally, when Heather Heyer was killed by a motorist, Governor McAuliffe had already signed an emergency order banning all rallies not only in the city, but in the county. This begs the question as to why a group of opposing protesters were still protesting or assembling hours after the emergency order went into effect and why the police did nothing to disband them.
Of course, because the report makes the city and law enforcement look bad and seems to place more of the blame for the violence on the opposing protesters, many activists within the community are disavowing its findings. One leader, a UVA professor and Black Lives Matter member Jalane Schmidt questioned the impartiality of the report and noted that many community leaders refused to talk to investigators out of fear of retaliation.
The facts are clear without getting into any discussion of the hateful messages of the neo-Nazi, white supremacist, KKK groups. We can all agree that their message is horrible and abhorrent. We can disavow and distance ourselves from those messages and rightfully should.
But, this writer rues the day when we advocate that they have no right to speech and peaceful assembly because we disagree, disavow or distance ourselves from their message. That makes any alleged self-proclaimed Constitutional conservative no better than your average run-of-the-mill Leftist. The First Amendment protects all speech. Full stop! Period!! End of discussion!!!
More importantly, when law enforcement refuses to defend the practice of a fundamental First Amendment right, then it is they who are acting like your average fascist. While some “may not go there,” this writer will! Chief Al Thomas, Jr. of the Charlottesville Police Department has the blood of Heather Heyer on his hands for (1) allowing a bad situation to turn deadly, (2) not taking necessary precautions to prevent- indeed, almost seemingly wanting- violence, and (3) failing to disburse anti-protesters long after neo-Nazis had exited the city (except one in a car).
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, the pompous-ass self-flagellation by many so-called conservatives was perhaps as disgusting as the actions (or non- actions) of Chief Thomas. Knee jerk reactions to events, this writer thought, was a hallmark of those on the Left. It seems when push comes to shove, some people allegedly on the Right are just as bad, or worse, than those on the Left.