Gloria Graham preparing for possible Unite the Right anniversary events, finalizing search for new police chief

New associate vice president of safety and security working alongside student leaders, community members during first few weeks of term

Graham, Gloria

Prior to her arrival at the University, Graham worked as the assistant vice president and deputy chief of police at Northwestern University.

Courtesy of University of Virginia

Gloria Graham — the University’s new associate vice president for safety and security — is in her position largely to prevent the University’s widely-criticized response to the torch-lit white nationalist march down the Lawn last summer from happening again. On May 7, Graham assumed the position, which was created at the recommendation of Margolis Healy & Associates, an outside contracting firm the University hired to assess the state of safety and security following the deadly events of the Unite the Right rally last August. 

Led by white nationalist Jason Kessler, the planned Unite the Right devolved into a riot on Aug. 12, 2017 in Emancipation Park in downtown Charlottesville. White nationalists came purportedly to protest the removal of Confederate monuments — many chanted racial slurs while several carried Nazi swastikas, guns and Confederate battle flags. The rally resulted in dozens of injuries and the death of Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer when a car plowed through a crowd of counter-protesters on 4th Street. 

The rally was preceded by a march on the Lawn Aug. 11, when white nationalists wielded tiki torches and chanted racist and anti-Semitic slurs. The protest ended with a confrontation between counter-protesters — surrounded at the base of a statue on the Lawn — and white nationalists.

The University announced Graham’s appointment in April. Prior to her arrival at the University, Graham worked as the assistant vice president and deputy chief of police at Northwestern University. Her experience in higher education spans 23 years at five other institutions, including the University of Chicago and Duke University.

Graham summarized her position during an interview with The Cavalier Daily as one that oversees all areas of safety and security within the University and the University Health System. She also manages emergency management systems — including tools used to notify the University population of emergencies.

Since her arrival in May, Graham has been working to prepare for potential events during the one-year anniversary of last year’s white nationalist march on the Lawn and Unite the Right rally. Graham said individuals from a number of backgrounds have declared plans to return to Charlottesville for the anniversary.

“Regardless of what their position is and regardless of what the values that they are coming to be expressive about, we know that they will be here,” Graham said.

Months after the rally last August, white nationalist organizer Jason Kessler filed for two demonstration permits for anniversary rallies — one in Charlottesville and one in Washington, D.C. The D.C. rally permit was approved in June, but City staff denied Kessler’s application for a rally on the Downtown Mall. Kessler subsequently sued the City in federal court.

Graham said regional planning meetings have been occurring since April with the University, City of Charlottesville, Albemarle County and Virginia state law enforcement. The University has also received support from the federal level. 

Graham is also working with student leaders — including student member to the Board of Visitors Brendan Nigro and Senior Resident of the Lawn Joan Lee, both fourth-year College students — to coordinate a response to the rally. 

In an email to The Cavalier Daily, Nigro described Graham as being both willing and available to meet with student leaders. Nigro said that, while many conversations have not yet led to concrete decisions, they have covered a wide range of topics. 

“Conversations with student leaders have spanned from fair and equitable community policing to her approach surrounding alcohol use on a college campus,” Nigro said. “Mostly what we've been focused on is clarifying channels of communication for students to have a voice in the realm of their own safety and security on Grounds.”

To Graham, keeping members of the University community properly informed of the current state of safety and security is a top priority for the weekend. 

“I want to make sure that we do is give people all of the information that we can give them and then let them make personal decisions regarding their safety and security on those days,” Graham said.

Another of Graham’s immediate responsibilities is finding a replacement for University Police Chief Michael Gibson, who plans to retire over the summer. Gibson faced criticism in December for poor coordination with state and local law enforcement and failure to separate white nationalists and counter-protesters during the march on the Lawn in August.

Graham is working in a search committee Gibson’s replacement which is composed of several members of the University and Charlottesville communities and chaired by Dean of Students Allen Groves. 

Graham said her experience at the University of Chicago and its surrounding neighborhood of Hyde Park will inform her work at the University. Graham described the students and Hyde Park community members as “very passionate” about numerous social justice issues, including police reform. 

“They were very committed to social justice issues, so there were a lot of demonstrations,” Graham said. 

One such demonstration occurred in April when dozens of students held a rally advocating for the disarmament of university police and increased funding for mental health resources after the school’s police shot a student damaging property in the street a few days prior.

Graham said she has a desire to help the University and Charlottesville communities understand the roles of law enforcement in both protecting and interacting with citizens. 

“Sometimes it can come off that [police officers] are providing more protections to one group or another, when in fact, they are really being given instructions and given directions on what it is they have to do,” Graham said. 

Graham’s tenure at the University of Chicago was marked by controversy when Milton Owens, a former campus law enforcement official, sued the university, its president Robert Zimmer and several other law enforcement officials, including Graham. Owens was tasked with directing law enforcement during a 2013 student protest, and came under fire for his decision to order a plainclothes detective to join protesters. Owens was fired three months later and filed the lawsuit shortly thereafter.

A jury found Graham was not guilty.

Ultimately, Graham says she hopes to repair strained relationships with U.Va. and Charlottesville community members since the painful events of last August. 

“What I want to do is help us heal, is help us pull back together … and to move forward in a safe space where we collectively together let people know that this is not a place where we’re going to allow hate and where we’re [not] going to allow behaviors that support hate,” Graham said.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the results of Owens’ lawsuit.

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