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Police response to Unite the Right anniversary faces scrutiny at City Council listening session

City councilors spoke on their involvement with the law enforcement response during the weekend

<p>At the City Council listening session, University Assoc. History Prof. John Mason said the law enforcement response to anti-racist demonstrations during the Unite the Right anniversary weekend was antagonistic and aggressive.&nbsp;</p>

At the City Council listening session, University Assoc. History Prof. John Mason said the law enforcement response to anti-racist demonstrations during the Unite the Right anniversary weekend was antagonistic and aggressive. 

In the days following the Unite the Right anniversary weekend in Charlottesville, several community members have leveled sharp criticisms against the law enforcement response to a series of demonstrations which occurred in the City and at U.Va. throughout the weekend — despite local and state public safety officials declaring the response to be a success at a press conference Monday. 

At a Charlottesville City Council listening session Tuesday, speakers addressed the Council and shared their criticisms of the public safety response this past weekend. Councilor Mike Signer was not present at Tuesday’s session. 

“Imagine how different this weekend would have been if the police had understood that their primary responsibility is to protect the free speech rights of protesters and to keep them safe,”  University Assoc. History Prof. John Mason said. “The police did not understand that as their primary responsibility, [and] they came in here with a really antagonistic attitude towards protesters, they saw them as the enemy.” 

Mason also said the efforts of local individuals — which included Mayor Nikuyah Walker, Councilor Wes Bellamy, Vice Mayor Heather Hill, members of Congregate C’ville and Don Gathers, local Black Lives Matter co-founder — to de-escalate conflicts between demonstrators and law enforcement personnel were essential to maintaining safety throughout the weekend. 

“We avoided a disaster despite the overwhelming presence of a thousand riot cops, not because of,” Mason said. “I understand the the primary purpose of policing in American history has always been to protect the powerful and to punish the weak, to put down dissent and protect the status quo … but it was painful to see it play out on the streets of Charlottesville.”

City resident Kathryn Lawn said the strong law enforcement presence in the area over the weekend was an impediment to demonstrations held throughout the weekend. Lawn cited an event at the intersection of Fourth Street and Water Street on Sunday in which individuals attempted to gather at the site where Heather Heyer was killed in a car attack last August. However, they were initially denied entry by law enforcement from Water Street as they had not gone through a checkpoint on either Second Street or Third Street to enter the Downtown Mall area. 

“What I saw was that the extraordinarily overbearing and highly militarized presence of the police created problems at every turn,” Lawn said. “People who were peacefully gathering to remember, to mourn, sometimes to protest … it was the presence of the police that created tension and anger.” 

In response to questions from the audience, Hill said she called Interim City Manager Mike Murphy Sunday afternoon to ask if it would be possible to temporarily remove the barricades to mitigate the situation. After about an hour of tense confrontation between law enforcement personnel and demonstrators, the barricades were permanently removed as announced by Bellamy that evening. 

However, Bellamy also defended the use of the security checkpoints to the restricted access zone downtown on the grounds of public safety.

“There was no way for them [law enforcement] to know who was going back into that area,” Bellamy said. “But we don't know who was in that crowd, and god forbid that there was an individual … who I may not agree with [and] had went into that crowd because they didn't go back through that check point and did something very damaging, I would have been very upset.” 

Local civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel also continued to criticize the decision by the City to conduct “consensual” bag searches at the checkpoints throughout the weekend. 

At a press conference Aug. 8, Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney said in response to questions from media that there would not be bag searches conducted at the pedestrian access checkpoints. At a community briefing for the anniversary weekend last month, Brackney also said bags would be not searched. 

Fogel said the practice has established a dangerous legal precedent with regards to the right to privacy in Charlottesville and beyond.  

“This was a training a session, and this was a desire to perhaps make up for last year, but it's also making the notion that you can be stopped on the streets of your city without cause and be subject to a police search,” Fogel said. “And that is incredibly dangerous, that is the hallmark of an authoritarian society.”

In response to criticisms of the heightened security restrictions downtown and the bag searches during the weekend, Councilor Kathy Galvin said there were legitimate concerns regarding the potential for violence which prompted law enforcement personnel to implement such measures. Galvin specifically cited the Boston bombing terrorist attack in 2013, in which she said bags were not checked, as the type of attack which public safety officials feared could take place in Charlottesville this past weekend. 

“There was a big concern that something like that could happen in Charlottesville,” Galvin said. “We were on high alert because this was a high target weekend for a high target community.” 

However, Galvin conceded that there likely was an excessive law enforcement presence in the region and added that the details of any failings would be revealed in a comprehensive after action report currently being conducted by the various agencies in charge of the public safety response.  

In response to the concerns expressed by many of the speakers, Walker said she understood the complaints being raised but asked community members to contextualize the events of this past weekend with the type of law enforcement she said she had experienced in the City growing up. 

“I’m realizing that most of you don't have any idea what policing actually looks and feels like,” Walker said. “I want to make sure that you understand that the complaints you are talking about are very different from how black people, brown people and poor white people in this community have lived and have been policed … I did not see police officers as aggressive as I've seen them most of my life. But I will say that their mere presence makes it difficult for me to feel safe.”