Facing a wave of criticism, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian J. Moran defended how police handled Saturday’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, which was marked by vicious street fights and a car plowing into a group of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring 19 people.
Two state troopers also died when a Virginia State Police helicopter monitoring the scene crashed, the denouement of a dark day that thrust the college town into the national spotlight.
Moran and McAuliffe pointed instead at a judge’s decision that prevented city officials from moving the rally from Emancipation Park in downtown Charlottesville — the site of the statute of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that the city wants to remove — to McIntire Park about a mile and a half away.
“We did not want to engage the rally attendees or others in an urban environment,” Moran said, adding that the park was too small for the number of expected attendees at the “Unite the Right” rally of white nationalists and others associated with the so-called alt-right. “Locating this type of demonstration in the center of town posed significant public safety risks.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia joined a request for an injunction filed by Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler, whose permit to conduct the demonstration was revoked by the city government. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Glen E. Conrad granted the injunction allowing the rally to go forward at the Emancipation Park location.
“We were unfortunately sued by the ACLU, and the judge ruled against us. That rally should not have been in the middle of downtown: to disperse all those people from the park where they dispersed all over the city streets and it became a powder keg,” McAuliffe said in an interview Monday with National Public Radio.
He said police did a “magnificent job.”
“We have to do a better job working with the judiciary. They need to listen to local city officials,” McAuliffe said. “The judiciary needs to do better job working with us. ... I am angry that this was not moved to McIntire Park where the city of Charlottesville requested.”
Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, fired back Monday.
“The situation that occurred was preventable and our lawsuit challenging the city to act constitutionally did not cause it,” she said in a statement, adding that the city failed to present evidence justifying its “imposition of prior restraint on free speech.”
The ACLU added that is was “horrified by the violence” in Charlottesville.
“We do not support Nazis. We support the Constitution and laws of the United States,” the group said. “We would be eager to work with the governor and the attorney general on efforts to ensure that public officials understand their rights and obligations under the law.”
Gastañaga, who was in Charlottesville on Saturday, said the policing “was not designed to be or effective in preventing violence” and expressed those concerns to Moran and the head of the Virginia State Police at the scene.
“The lack of any physical separation of the protesters and counterprotesters on the street was contributing to the potential of violence,” she wrote. “They did not respond. In fact, law enforcement was standing passively by, waiting for violence to take place, so that they would have grounds to declare an emergency, declare an ‘unlawful assembly’ and clear the area.”
Moran pushed back against the contention, as observed by journalists, rally organizers and counterprotesters, that police stood by while people, many of whom were carrying homemade shields and makeshift clubs, beat each other bloody in the streets.
“Whatever decisions law enforcement made were based on public safety concerns of the demonstrators as well as law enforcement officers,” said Moran, who also got a glimpse of the ugly scene firsthand. “I’ve never seen anything like that and I hope to never see it again.”
The white nationalist rally was supposed to start at noon, but police on the scene declared an unlawful assembly before it began.
“We provided demonstrators time to disperse,” Moran said. “Then we moved in with a tactical unit sufficiently protected with riot gear to clear the park.”
Moran said Charlottesville police were in charge of the event, but noted that the state response involved hundreds of police and National Guard members, though he would not provide specific numbers because of security concerns.
He noted “some irony” in the fact that activists, including the ACLU, criticized police for heavy-handedness during a July Ku Klux Klan rally in Charlottesville, but he added that the plan for last weekend was developed based on its own unique circumstances, not past criticism.
“The fact is we proceeded in the best interest of the citizens of the commonwealth and law enforcement. That’s what we did on both occasions,” Moran said. “We did everything we could. The plan was executed very well. You would hope that the death of a young woman and two state troopers will lead to nonviolent expression of opinion in the future.”
Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas told reporters at a Monday news conference that his officers went out to police the rally in their usual uniforms but had to put on protective gear after the violence erupted.
“We were hoping for a peaceful event,” Thomas said, denying the police were intimidated by rifle-toting militia members who attended. “We urged leaders from both sides to engage in a nonviolent demonstration.”
Thomas said officers endeavored to keep the battling sides separate but were unable to do so, partly because the Unite the Right attendees did not follow the proscribed police plan for entering the park. Police broke up fights throughout the weekend, he said.
“Absolutely I have regrets,” Thomas said, though he did not elaborate on what police might have done differently. “We lost three lives this weekend.”
He was asked by a reporter whether, at a planning meeting for the rally, officers were instructed not to make arrests without the permission of Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer.
“That is simply not true,” Thomas said.
Moran said he could not comment on that allegation.
Signer called that contention “ridiculous.”
“It represents the same conspiracy thinking and fact-free zone that we see in the alt-right everywhere,” he said. “The mayor in Charlottesville has no operational authority over the police department, has no operational authority at all over the police department. This is a city manager form of government.”
Richmond could be bracing for a similar spectacle, with a Confederate heritage group petitioning to hold a rally here next month in response to Mayor Levar Stoney’s move to empanel a commission tasked with adding context to Monument Avenue’s string of rebel leaders.
“Rather than seeking to scapegoat the ACLU of Virginia and the Rutherford Institute for the devastating events on Saturday, it is my firm hope and desire that the governor and other state and local officials will learn from this past weekend how constitutionally to prevent events like the horror we saw in Charlottesville from ever happening again,” Gastañaga said.
Moran said Charlottesville will “inform” how the state prepares for the rally in Richmond if it happens.
“We will be in communication with the city,” Moran said. “It should be a very collaborative process.”
McAuliffe said he convened an emergency cabinet meeting Monday to discuss the “next steps we, as a commonwealth, must take in order to begin the arduous process of healing our community and confronting the racism that stubbornly remains in our nation.”
The governor says he has called for a commission with members from community organizations, law enforcement and religious groups to “make actionable recommendations for executive and legislative solutions to advance our mission of reconciliation, unity and public safety.”
He also directed his staff to conduct an extensive review on how rally permits are issued, law enforcement preparation and response and coordination between local, state and federal authorities.
“Finally, I commend our Virginia State Police and National Guard personnel, who worked in support of the city of Charlottesville, for their tireless work this weekend under very challenging and volatile circumstances. Without their extensive preparations and measured actions, we would be facing a far more grave situation today,” McAuliffe said.