Charlottesville residents shut down City Council meeting, voice frustrations over local response to ‘Unite the Right’ rally

Council unanimously passes resolution to conceal Lee and Jackson statues

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Two audience members climbed atop the dais in front of City Council members holding a banner reading “Blood on your hands,” resulting in the departure of the councilors under police protection.  

Geremia Di Maro | Cavalier Daily

It was a chaotic scene Monday night as community members took over City Council chambers and criticized how local officials handled the “Unite the Right” rally, a white nationalist march at the University and various acts of violence. 

The City Council meeting did not adjourn until early Tuesday morning — lasting over six hours — with the unanimous passage of a resolution to conceal the statues of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in Justice Park using a black fabric. 

Police arrested three people at the meeting, who are now facing misdemeanor charges. 

The meeting began with a resolution from Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer to honor those who were killed in connection with the Aug. 12 rally, including 32-year-old Heather Heyer and two members of the Virginia State Police, Trooper Berk M.M. Bates and Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen. 

Heyer was killed when a car plowed through a group of counter-protesters near the Downtown Mall, which also injured 30 other people. Bates and Cullen died in a helicopter crash in Albemarle County. The helicopter had been working with law enforcement in the city on Aug. 12. 

Signer was interrupted multiple times by audience remarks criticizing him for the city’s management of the “Unite the Right” rally as he attempted to read the resolution and then threatened to suspend the meeting if the disruptions did not stop. 

Each council member was set to make a statement concerning recent events, beginning with councilor Bob Fenwick. 

“I’m having a great deal of difficulty getting through the anger and bewilderment of how an outside group can come into our town with such a message of hate,” Fenwick said. 

In response, many members of the audience shouted “because you let them” and “we tried to tell you” in relation to the occurrence of the “Unite the Right” rally.

Many audience members continued to argue with the council until police intervened at the request of Signer and removed three attendees from the chamber as the crowd chanted “Let her go” and “Let her speak.” Police charged 43-year-old Donna Gasapo Gray with disorderly conduct, and 30-year-old Mark Heisey and 29-year-old Sara Michel with obstruction of justice. 

In response, two audience members climbed atop the dais in front of the council members holding a banner reading “Blood on your hands” resulting in the departure of the councilors under police protection.  

The live feed of the meeting to local television was disconnected for about half an hour.

During this time, there was a police presence in the council chambers, but officers did not intervene as the crowd repeatedly chanted “What do we want? To shut it down! When do want it? Now!” and “Shame!” in reference to the City Council.

After several minutes of uncontrolled chanting and shouting, Signer and Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy re-entered the chambers to notify the crowd that the regular meeting had been cancelled and everyone would be allowed to speak for one minute. 

“Everyone here has something to say,” Bellamy said. “The police are leaving, it’s our meeting, let’s talk.” 

The council listened to the frustrations of audience members for nearly two hours on the management of the “Unite the Right” rally, the council’s vote earlier this year to remove of the Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park and the Aug. 11 white nationalist torchlit march at the University Lawn.

Many audience members called for the immediate release of three individuals arrested at the meeting, repeatedly chanting “Let them go!” and “Arrest Kessler!” referring to Jason Kessler, a pro-white activist and organizer of the “Unite the Right” rally. 

One attendee called out University President Teresa Sullivan for alleged inaction in preventing the white nationalist march that went through the Lawn. The Aug. 11 march came to a violent end at the Thomas Jefferson statue north of the Rotunda, where white nationalists clashed with counter protesters, resulting in numerous injuries.

“I don’t want to hear that bull that she didn’t know,” he said. “Why weren’t there any barriers between the protesters and the Nazis?”

Another speaker also referenced the white nationalist march at the University in addressing the council.

“Figure out what the hell happened at U.Va.,” he said. “That was the catalyst for everything that happened the following day.”

At one point, many people in the council chambers chanted “Signer must go!” and “You’re not important any more!” as a speaker criticized him for his management of the “Unite the Right” rally, holding him accountable for issuing a permit to the organizers of the rally. 

“You brought murderers into our town,” he said. 

The city had said before the rally that it would only issue a permit for the event to occur if it was held at McIntire Park, which is a larger public park located about a mile from the Downtown Mall. A federal judge, however, granted an injunction on Aug. 11, allowing the rally to take place the next day at Emancipation Park.

Later, another speaker demanded that the council remove the Lee statue and ignore a Virginia state law preventing the disturbance of war monuments. The question of whether the city can legally remove the statue of the Confederate general is currently the subject of an ongoing lawsuit.

“We are not just asking for words and empty gestures,” the man said. “We want you to do real stuff, even if it means breaking the law.”

In addition to City Council’s decision to shroud the Lee and Jackson statues, City Manager Maurice Jones said a “third-party investigation” would review the city’s the management of and response to the “Unite the Right" rally. 

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