Gov. Ralph Northam declares state of emergency ahead of Unite the Right anniversary weekend

Officials discuss public safety plans at press conference Wednesday

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Interim City Manager Mike Murphy (left) speaking at Wednesday's press conference. 

Geremia Di Maro | Cavalier Daily

In the final days before the one-year anniversary of the deadly Unite the Right rally in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Interim City Manager Mike Murphy have declared states of emergency. Hundreds of state troopers and other law enforcement personnel have already begun to descend upon the City as the region and state prepare for any demonstrations or other incidents of civil unrest this weekend. 

According to officials, the regional and state preparations for the weekend will be one of the largest deployments of public safety resources in the history of the Commonwealth of Virginia. 

At a multi-agency press conference Wednesday, Charlottesville Director of Communications Brian Wheeler said well over a thousand public safety and law enforcement personnel will be active in the Charlottesville-Albemarle region this weekend — including over 700 Virginia State troopers, 300 National Guard troops who will be on stand-by and the combined forces of the Charlottesville, Albemarle and U.Va. police departments. 

Law enforcement will be staying in University housing throughout the weekend, including the Lambeth Field Residence area, so they can respond quickly to an emergency.

Geremia Di Maro

According to a release from Northam’s office, the state of emergency declaration “allows state agencies to perform actions outside the scope of normal operations” to help ensure “all necessary resources and assistance are provided as quickly as possible to local governments, and Virginia’s residents.”

Jeff Stern, State Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said at the press conference that the governor’s declaration would allow for the sufficient distribution and utilization of resources across the state — particularly around Charlottesville and in Fairfax County. Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler is planning to hold an anniversary rally in Washington D.C. this Sunday.

Kessler is awaiting a permit from the National Park Service to host the rally in D.C.’s Lafayette Park.

Stern also said that $2 million in funding has been activated under the declaration to pay for the statewide response this weekend.

Charlottesville Police Department Chief RaShall Brackney has said at previous community briefings that Kessler’s decision to withdraw his request from federal court for an injunction to allow an anniversary rally in Market Street Park Aug. 12 would not affect the region’s plans for the weekend. Since that meeting, Kessler withdrew the lawsuit altogether. 

In response to questions regarding what intelligence has been gathered about any demonstrators or groups planning to show up this weekend, public officials have said that such information cannot be publicly revealed. However, Brackney said that such knowledge would not dramatically change plans. 

“We are closely monitoring the intelligence that is available to us about who is coming and who is going elsewhere,” Brackney said Wednesday. “I think we would be irresponsible if we didn't have a plan like the one you are seeing. The focus of this single, unified and flexible plan is that it's not dependent or contingent upon any group that we know is or is not coming, any permit being granted or not granted.” 

Brackney said that public safety officials planning for the anniversary weekend are also trying to balance the safety and security of Downtown Charlottesville — without overmilitarzing the area. 

“My philosophy is that we will police your behaviors, not ideologies,” Brackney said at a briefing last month. “So wherever you are on any side of any issue is not how we will engage you, but based on those behaviors that rise to a criminal level and violence particularly.” 

Downtown business owners and speakers at Monday’s City Council meeting have expressed dissatisfaction regarding the City’s preparations for the anniversary weekend. In particular, the negative effect the road closures and parking restrictions will have on downtown business and the ability of the community as a whole to honor the anniversary without limitation have been identified as concerns. 

Currently, the City is planning to establish a secure, restricted-access perimeter around the Downtown Mall within the confines of High Street, Ninth Street, Ridge-McIntire Street and Water Street during the anniversary weekend, which will be implemented Friday evening at 6 p.m. and is expected to be lifted by the morning of Aug. 13 — but could be extended if deemed necessary by public safety officials. 

Within this area, vehicular access will be prohibited almost entirely, with only a few exceptions for downtown residents. However, traffic will still be able to flow on the boundary streets themselves. On-street parking within the area will also be prohibited for any vehicle. Brackney said any vehicles left parked on the streets within the area after Friday evening will be towed by the City. 

In a press release last week, the City announced that downtown residents who would be displaced by the restrictions could obtain special permits for the Market Street Garage during the anniversary weekend. However, the Market Street Garage will be closed to all other vehicular traffic, while the Water Street Garage will operate as usual. 

At the press conference, Wheeler also announced that pedestrian restrictions will be established downtown, requiring individuals to enter the area through one of two law enforcement operated access points — at the intersections of First Street South and Water Street and at Second Street Southeast and Water Street. 

However, Brackney said law enforcement personnel will not be conducting searches of individuals entering the perimeter unless they have reasonable cause to do so. Brackney also said that a list of prohibited items will be enforced within the restricted access zone including a wide variety of objects that could potentially be used as weapons and other “implements of riot.” 

Due to Virginia state law, the City is unable to prohibit the possession of firearms within the perimeter despite a failed attempt by City Councilors and other officials to add Charlottesville to a list of localities in Virginia which have the legal authority to do so. 

According to Brackney at the community briefing, these restrictions serve to minimize the risk of pedestrian contact with any vehicles and would allow for emergency vehicles to easily access the area if necessary. She added that the parking restrictions aim to prevent individuals from potentially placing certain prohibited items in vehicles before the restrictions are implemented Aug. 10. 

Murphy also decided to close the City Market Aug. 11 due to public safety concerns in the downtown area. However, Murphy said at Monday’s Council meeting that the IX Art Park will host up to 50 vendors independent of the City, roughly half of the regular capacity of the City Market, this Saturday. 

Murphy also said at Monday’s meeting that he chose to deny the remaining pending permits the previous Friday for a recreational fair-style ‘Festival of the Schmestival’ event in Market Street Park on Saturday due to safety concerns. Permit applicant Justin Beights has since appealed Murphy’s denial, but a reconsideration for the permit has yet to be announced by the City. Accordingly, there are currently no approved permits for any event in the downtown area this weekend. 

All Parks and Recreation facilities in the City, or those operated by staff such as swimming pools, will also be closed throughout the weekend. However, public parks and other unstaffed recreational facilities will remain accessible throughout the weekend. 

Additionally, many Charlottesville Area Transit buses will be rerouted — including the free trolley, which will not serve bus stops along McCormick Road between Emmet Street and University Avenue, but will use Emmet Street to reach University Avenue. The route will also not serve bus stops on West Main Street east of 10th Street NW, 2nd Street SW, East Market Street and Water Street. 

“We recognize that this is an inconvenience and not a step that we take lightly,” Murphy said Monday. “It is completely based on safety and our ability to protect the public in these spaces and have them also be responded to appropriately by law enforcement.” 

Nik Popli contributed reporting. 

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