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Speakers at City Council meeting express continued frustration

Many criticized lack of police response and alleged inaction by the city in addressing white supremacist events

<p>Don Gathers addresses the Council during Monday night's public hearing.</p>

Don Gathers addresses the Council during Monday night's public hearing.

The Charlottesville City Council held a public hearing Monday as part of its regular meeting in which speakers addressed the Council on a number of issues relating to the city’s management of and response to the “Unite the Right” rally Aug. 12 and other white supremacist events, the most recent of which occurred Oct.7 at Emancipation Park. 

Before the hearing commenced, some of the councilors made statements on maintaining order and civility during the process, citing the need for speakers to freely express their views and be heard. City Council chambers were at capacity as participants lined-up to address the Council. 

“I think as a community it is important for us to hear from as many people as we can as well as empathize with those that are hurting,” Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy said. “Those who are passionate in the quest for change and equity and those who are emotionally scarred must be heard.”

Councilor Kristin Szakos referenced a City Planning Commission meeting that was halted by protesters last week in her statement. 

“Many of you are aware of what happened at last Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting,” Szakos said. “I want to make it very clear that that will not be tolerated tonight. The purpose of this public hearing is to allow everyone to speak and be heard. We will not allow any groups to use disruption or intimidation to prevent the furtherance of public business.”

Lasting nearly two hours, a total of 24 speakers addressed the Council during Monday’s hearing and spoke on a range of issues including the response of law enforcement personnel to white supremacist gatherings in the city and alleged Council inaction in preventing such events from occurring. 

Bailey Hampton, a former Charlottesville resident, said she was disappointed in City Council and said the statue of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park must be removed to prevent the return of white supremacists to the city. White nationalist groups that have come to Charlottesville have claimed that they are protesting City Council’s decision earlier this year to remove the statue. The city has been unable to remove the statue due to pending litigation. 

“I am extremely hurt and disappointed in the decisions that were made by the City Council to allow the permits for Jason Kessler’s terrorist attack,” Hampton said. “I still haven't read anything from City Council owning any sort of responsibility for the choices that you made.”

“You guys [Council] need to take that statue down because they’re [white supremacists] going to keep coming back and if y’all don't do it, other people are going to do it,” Hampton added. 

Albemarle County resident Dave Ghamandi criticized charges issued against DeAndre Harris — who was injured in an attack by alleged white supremacists near the Downtown Mall on Aug. 12 — and claimed police personnel allowed for counter-protesters to be attacked during the “Unite the Right” rally. Harris has been accused of felony unlawful wounding, which his lawyer claims is a charge based on misleading evidence. 

“Calling Charlottesville a world-class city is one of the biggest lies in this city,” Ghamandi said. “Neo-fascists are free to terrorize us, but Deandre Harris and Corey Long get arrested. Cops watch neo-Nazis and put their hands in their pockets and pretend like they don't know how to make arrests, but peaceful protesters are declared an unlawful assembly and threatened with arrest.”

Before the hearing, City Manager Maurice Jones made a statement regarding Harris.

“The decision for moving forward with the charges in that case will rest with the Commonwealth’s Attorney [Dave Chapman] as they investigate the alleged incident with Mr. Harris,” Jones said. “It’s now in the hands of  Mr.Chapman to move forward and then ultimately ... it will be in our judicial system for evaluation and determination by the Court system.” 

Don Gathers — who has served as chair of the city’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces — questioned why the Council has not taken more action in order to prevent the return of white supremacists to Charlottesville. 

“Our people are still hurt, our people are still pained,” Gathers said. “There has been no recovery, there has been no healing. Can we move to a proactive role though as opposed to being reactive to these clowns when they come into town? Can we plan for some things to prevent them from coming here so we are not constantly running around in circles, chasing our tails?”

Third-year College student Danyelle Honoré said the lasting effects of the events of Aug. 11 and 12 were affecting her ability to succeed academically at the University. 

“I shouldn't have my mother fear for me,” Honoré said. “I can’t go the library to study because she is afraid of a terrorist attack … How can I succeed academically at a university when the people in charge, the administration, allows things like this to go on?”

After the hearing adjourned, Mayor Mike Signer made a statement addressing the speakers’ concerns. 

“There is pain and the pain continues to get worse every time these maniacs [white supremacists] come back,” Signer said. “We are going to try harder here, we're going to work harder, you're going to see careful work on how do we deal with these events, the public here in this city that's being victimized repeatedly. These [events] are not free speech, this is now conduct that is meant to hurt, intimidate, frighten, threaten and make people feel unwelcome here.”

Bellamy said that the community deserves responses to their concerns.

“I think it's important for us to definitely acknowledge and empathize with those who have spoken tonight,” Bellamy said. “Undoubtedly we owe the community an apology ... I think there are a lot of different things we could have done better [and] I think everyone can agree on and attest to that.” 

Before the meeting concluded, Bellamy introduced a request from the Police Citizen’s Advisory Panel — an advisory group to the Charlottesville Police Department of which Bellamy is a member — to amend or dissolve the panel’s bylaws in order to “have more authority to be able to adhere to the needs and response of the community.” 

The Council unanimously voted to authorize the panel to explore either the amendment of its bylaws or the creation of a citizen review board in place of the panel in order to allow for greater community input relating to the operation of the Charlottesville Police Department. The Council would be required to approve any changes to the current structure of the panel before they could take effect.