Black Americans have always known the history of racism in the police force all too well. Black Lives Matter project founders Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi began the project in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman. Still, the fact remains that Black Lives Matter had not yet become mainstream in 2017, meaning white Americans often turned a blind eye to disproportionate police murders of Black Americans. This common paradox — Black Americans’ acute awareness of a problem that white Americans chose to sweep under the rug — was a crucial tension during August 2017 and applies to policing throughout that summer. With the added knowledge we now have since Black Lives Matter has become mainstream, it is necessary to take a more critical look into policing in the summer of 2017. Thankfully, a multitude of information is available about the behavior of the police and the City of Charlottesville leading up to and during the various white supremacist gatherings that summer due to the nearly 200-page report compiled by attorney and former University counsel Tim Heaphy. Analyzing the report’s content through the lens provided by Black Lives Matter reveals police were insufficiently prepared and ignored historical context — to the detriment of Charlottesville residents.
The “Unite the Right” rally was not the sole white supremacist event in Charlottesville during the summer of 2017. That May, University alumni and white supremacists Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler organized two white supremacist gatherings to protest the removal of Confederate statues. In July, a Ku Klux Klan group traveled all the way from North Carolina to Charlottesville with the same goal. Among a multitude of other events, these gatherings were part of an important cascade of events leading to the “Unite the Right” march on Aug. 11 and deadly rally the subsequent day.
Throughout it all, the University Police Department and the Virginia State Police failed our community over and over again. The Heaphy report reveals there were a multitude of clear-cut errors — primarily a lack of preparation and a lack of communication between CPD and the VSP, who jointly worked the “Unite the Right” rally. As officers prepared, these departments failed to realize the seriousness of the matter. Rather than expecting white supremacists to bring violence, Lieutenant Joe Hatter described that “CPD leadership was approaching August 12 like a ‘concert’ event, not like the potentially violent confrontation about which they had been warned.” Instead of seeing the obvious harm that could have — and ultimately did — occur, the police took a passive approach.
Leading up to Aug. 12, CPD failed to provide a department wide training and chose to not hold an all-hands briefing on either the day prior to or the morning of the event. Line officers did not receive briefings about substantial intelligence gathered before the event. Few officers had been trained in the skills they would need as part of a mobile field force and many had never even worn or tried on “riot gear.” These mistakes were among many others detailed in the report that contributed to a lack of sufficient preparedness in the police force going into the day of Aug. 12.
Lack of communication was also a significant issue, per Heaphy’s report. VSP had its own operational plan that CPD did not even know about until several copies were accidentally left behind in a staging area after Aug. 12. The VSP plan included no mention of CPD involvement, nor anything about how CPD fit into the command structure for the event. Moreover, VSP had minimal input into the CPD plan.
Additionally, there was no joint training between the two organizations. Although VSP held training sessions for officers and a mobile field force training — and invited CPD to both — CPD did not attend either. And, on the day of Aug. 12, due to not being on the same radio channel, CPD and VSP could not communicate by radio.
All of these errors cited above seem straightforward — they are easily identified, easily criticized and perhaps even easily fixed. Officers should have been trained beforehand. The police should have known to communicate with the other department jointly working the event. However, the reality may not be so clear cut. That’s where Black Lives Matter comes in.
Black Lives Matter envisions a future fully divested from police, positing that reform is not as straightforward as it may seem — in fact, it simply doesn’t work. After years of attempting police reform and considering new methods of training, nothing has changed within police departments. Thus, Black Lives Matter advocates for larger scale change. Repeated, consistent and historical failures in policing suggest that divesting from police and reinvesting in other programs — like mental health services — may be more effective. While Black Lives Matter focuses on the disproportionate violence actively enacted by police against Black lives, it is also worth recognizing that through passivity, police fail to protect Black lives against other harms. In the context of the “Unite the Right” rally, by ignoring the racist history of both Charlottesville and police — along with failing to recognize the very real danger that accompanies white supremacy — CPD and VSP failed to protect Black and other marginalized individuals when they had the chance. Black Lives Matter presents a way for us to look at the violence of Aug. 11 and 12 and push for larger-scale change.
White supremacy is nothing new to Charlottesville, nor the University. Charlottesville’s local Ku Klux Klan Chapter hosted its inauguration ceremony at Jefferson’s Monticello tomb in 1921, just a century ago. 100 years prior, the University’s founder Thomas Jefferson was still forcing enslaved individuals to dig out the terraces on the Lawn and craft bricks to build the Rotunda. White supremacy is nothing new to the police force as an American institution either. Policing was designed to maintain the existing social order while keeping “middle-class and especially upper-class white people safe.” This was done at the expense of abusing people of color and forcefully “silencing dissent.” The racist and classist history of police officers is inherently a part of the institution itself.
CPD should have actively confronted both of these histories. It should have proactively considered the historical power imbalances between the police and Black Charlottesville residents and ensured Black residents knew CPD was working to protect them. Police should have followed through and actually protected Black Charlottesville residents. Yet, in planning its organization for the “Unite the Right” rally, there is no evidence that CPD took this context into account. It is worth emphasizing again that CPD leadership approached the rally like a “‘concert.”
In fact, when given the opportunity to prove that they would stand up for and protect those citizens threatened by the white supremacist groups coming to Charlottesville, police were inactive at best. In the several months leading up to the rally, the police department demonstrated to Charlottesville that it would protect white supremacists — but not counter protestors.
On May 13, Spencer and Kessler’s daytime gathering did not have a permit and their nighttime event violated the City’s open flame ordinance. Per the Heaphy report, CPD was not aware of the first event and did not attend it. While CPD attended the second event, they made no arrests. In the face of gatherings that threatened marginalized groups, police took no action. The police failed our community.
On July 8, CPD and VSP managed to successfully protect the Klan group that traveled from North Carolina to Charlottesville. However, after the group left, the Heaphy report details that “crowds failed to disperse,” leading to “scuffles between officers and counter-protesters, multiple arrests and the declaration of the event as an unlawful assembly.” VSP ultimately used three canisters of CS dispersion powder to disperse the crowd. In other words, the police effectively protected white supremacists who traveled all the way to Charlottesville to espouse hate while still managing to cause harm to counter protesters seeking to protect their community from violence. The police failed our community.
On Aug. 11, white supremacists held a torch lit march across Grounds. Upon arriving at the Jefferson statue on the North side of the Rotunda, white supremacists were met with counter protestors encircling the statue. Shouts and chants escalated to punching and kicking. Despite knowledge of the event beforehand, UPD did not step in until after the violence escalated. CPD had to offer its support multiple times before UPD accepted. The police failed our community.
On Aug. 12, the police repeatedly failed to step in despite observing repeated violence from white supremacists toward counter protesters. Multiple officers confirmed that the VSP plan was to not step in should violence occur, as they were insufficiently prepared. One VSP officer stated that they were under orders “not to break up fights.” On this point at least, officers followed instructions perfectly — to the detriment of counter-protesters. For instance, when former mayor Frank Buck observed a white supremacist shoot a gun in the direction of a counter protester, he went to seek help. Buck identified the man to VSP troopers twice. Yet, both times the trooper declined to take any action. The police failed our community.
On another instance, one civilian employee of CPD reported seeing a fight between about thirty or forty people occur around 10 a.m. She described the white supremacists as focusing “their aggression on a middle-aged Black man.” When the VSP troopers began to walk toward the fight — after waiting for five minutes — the aggressors ran away, laughing and shouted “You want some more?” Two individuals were treated, while others refused treatment. VSP made no arrests. The police failed our community.
Shortly before 11 a.m., counter-protesters locked arms to block a crowd containing hundreds of white supremacists from entering into Emancipation Park. Once they reached the counter-protesters, the white supremacists “pushed forward with their shields and hit the counter-protesters with flagpoles.” Video footage shows “demonstrators violently jabbing the poles at counter-protesters' faces.” Counter protesters fought back, but were ultimately pushed away with “brute force and a cloud of pepper spray.” Body camera footage verifies that police officers witnessed the entire scene. None took action. The police failed our community.
This begs the question — who were the police there to protect? One counter-protester in the report identifies this tension, describing that police positioning — when the police chose to face the counter-protesters rather than the Klan — was “unsettling,” as it gave “the impression that the police were protecting the Klan while suspicious of the crowd.” This impression is not surprising.
Since the summer of 2020, Americans nationwide have rallied to demand increased police scrutiny. I encourage us to apply that same increased scrutiny to how police failed Charlottesville in the lead up to and events of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017. Evident during the “Unite the Right rally” is that the police have not protected equally or equitably. During the summer of 2017, the police should have understood and worked to ensure that it did not replicate or exacerbate its racist history.
While the Black Lives Matter platform largely focuses on active police violence, what often goes unmentioned is police passivity. Just as Black Lives Matter exposed the disproportionate police violence toward Black Americans, the events of Aug. 11 and 12 reveal disproportionate police protection. Police repeatedly managed to protect white supremacists, yet failed to protect those who opposed that white supremacy.
This gets at the root of policing as an institution. The American police force was created to protect white people at the expense of other marginalized groups. Hence, the police’s inability to protect counter-protesters in 2017 was the police force doing exactly what it was designed to do.
I find the fifth anniversary of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017 an opportune time to reopen the conversation on policing abolition. While policing violence has by no means ended, even the end of disproportionate police violence toward Black Americans is not a final solution — it is just the beginning.
Jessica Moore is the Executive Editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.