As the one-year anniversary of the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in downtown Charlottesville approaches, students and members of the local community have criticized the local officials’ plans as an excessive and burdensome response to the failures of last year.
Hundreds of law enforcement personnel, including more than 700 Virginia State Troopers, will be present in the downtown area and throughout the region during the weekend.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Interim City Manager Mike Murphy have declared state and local emergencies, respectively, and the City plans to close a number of roads in the downtown area and impose pedestrian restrictions around the Downtown Mall throughout the anniversary weekend.
At Monday’s meeting of City Council, speakers and councilors alike said the plans would hold City residents hostage rather than provide protection during the anniversary weekend. Many speakers asked why City Parks and Recreation facilities will be closed throughout the weekend and questioned if there was a credible threat to justify the massive law enforcement presence.
“We’re essentially shutting the City down, and now the individuals who brought the terror on us are winning — because last year it seemed as if we didn't do enough, and now it seems like there is this super heavy-handed approach,” Councilor Wes Bellamy said. “We want to find the balance between people feeling safe, but also people not feeling like they're in prison in their own neighborhoods.”
Murphy said that preventing a repeat of last year's flawed response — as documented in an independent review by former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy — justifies imposing restrictions.
“We do believe that the safety and security rather than access and convenience is more important for these three days and that the lasting impact of what happened last year … is greater than it will be if we have a successful weekend and keep people safe,” Murphy said.
In response to concerns from downtown business owners regarding the financial consequences of the security restrictions in the downtown area, Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney said she would prioritize safety and security over access and convenience.
“My planning is not geared around tax base, my planning is not geared around incomes and revenues,” Brackney said. “My planning is geared around the fact that Charlottesville was extremely vulnerable based on last year, and I cannot allow that to happen again this year.”
Mayor Nikuyah Walker said that she would rather err on the side of caution given her experience during Aug. 12 of last year and her lack of information concerning what threats there may be to the community this weekend.
“It’s even hard for me to advocate or push because I don’t know all of the information that you all know, and I wouldn't want to be wrong,” Walker said. “While I think that we don't want to be in our community and held hostage within it — I was on Fourth Street last year, and I don't want a group of people to be in our parks or anything like that and then be targeted.”
Walker added that she was personally willing to deal with the restrictions for one weekend for the overall safety of the community.
“With all the uncertainties that we are facing, it's not something you want to be wrong on,” Walker said.
In response to questions as to why staffed parks and recreation facilities would be closed this weekend, Andrew Baxter, Charlottesville Fire Department chief and the local emergency management coordinator, said that many of the employees who typically staff City pools and other facilities were teenagers, and do not plan to attend work during the weekend. Baxter added that the City lacked the sufficient resources to protect the facilities even if they were staffed.
“There is the matter of not just community safety, which is of the utmost importance, but also employee safety,” Murphy added.
Don Gathers, former Chair of the Charlottesville Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces and a local Black Lives Matter organizer, said at Monday’s Council meeting that the region’s plans for this weekend were excessive responses to the failures of last year. In particular, Gathers criticized the planned establishment of a law enforcement security perimeter in the downtown area from 6 p.m. Friday until 6 a.m. Monday.
“I understand the necessity and the importance of keeping the city safe, but right now we are in a hostage situation,” Gathers said. “It’s like a curfew is being implemented at high noon and no one is to be out on the streets past that time … We don't want to go from where we were last year and do a complete 180 where we’re over policing. That's the worst possible scenario.”
City resident Linda Goldstein said at Monday’s Council meeting that imposing the restrictions and limitations upon the community out of fear has allowed the white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville last year to succeed in intimidating the community.
“Closing the city pools and rec centers does not keep us safer,” Goldstein said. “Preventing businesses from thriving does not keep us safer … Please don't tear our community apart again. Please don't lock up the city and close down the things that help sustain us. Building a fortress this year to make up for no policing last year doesn't solve any problems — it allows the Unite the Right folks to win again.”
In response to concerns regarding the accessibility to downtown Charlottesville this weekend, Murphy said the City is not actively discouraging individuals to avoid the area. Murphy also emphasized that individuals will still be able to park at the Water Street Garage and nearby ground lots after many speakers asked where they coul park given the closure of the Market Street Garage and on-street parking in the area.
“We’re encouraging people to be wherever they choose to be,” Murphy said. “If you choose to be downtown, the perimeter was established to keep people safe to be downtown because we believe that's where the most people want to be. It’s not acceptable, particularly after last year, for us not [to] set up a secure perimeter so that cars will not interact with pedestrians.”
David Pettit, the spokesperson for the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville, said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily last week that a “significant majority” of downtown businesses are planning to remain open during the anniversary weekend, but added that the decision was ultimately at the discretion of individual business owners.
“I think they believe that by staying open, they are making a statement of not being willing to be shut down by people that would come into the city to cause trouble, they’re making a stand for themselves,” Pettit said.
Pettit also said many downtown business owners expected financial losses during the anniversary weekend, but added that community members still plan on patronizing the area to show support for the businesses.
“Most of the business owners anticipate that the closures will have an adverse effect on business,” Pettit said. “If it’s harder to get downtown and to park, that inconvenience will cause some potential patrons to go somewhere else as opposed to downtown.”
In a press release, the Rutherford Institute — a Charlottesville based nonprofit civil liberties organization — criticized the plans as heavily restrictive of the right to freedom of speech and their justification ambiguous.
“By declaring a ‘state of emergency’ and enacting heightened security measures for August 10 through 12, without providing any specific information as to credible threats that might warrant such extreme actions, the City has cast a shroud around the area that makes it akin to a community under martial law,” the release read. “The City has provided no credible justification to the public for the massive influx of police and national guard into the area for those days, reported to be more than 1,000 in number.”
The Institute, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, also filed a lawsuit against the City of Charlottesville last August after the City revoked Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler’s permit for the Aug. 12 rally in Emancipation Park — now Market Street Park — and ordered that the rally be moved to McIntire Park a mile a way on the grounds of public safety. A federal judge sided with Kessler the day before the rally was to take place, and it was allowed to continue in Emancipation Park as planned.