A board member of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union resigned from his position over the weekend in protest of the group’s decision to file a lawsuit that kept Charlottesville authorities from relocating a white nationalist rally from a park that police said they wouldn’t be able to keep safe.
“What’s legal and what’s right are sometimes different,” said Albermarle County resident Waldo Jaquith in a tweet. He said he still believes the organization does essential work, but “can’t facilitate Nazis murdering people.”
Saturday’s protest, anticipated for months, turned into a hectic melee of brawls, beatings and chemical weapon attacks well before its scheduled start time of noon. Police said 15 people were injured and, at about 11:30 a.m., declared the assembly unlawful, clearing the square.
A few hours later, a man who had protested with the white nationalists drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist counterprotesters who were snaking through city streets near the popular pedestrian shopping district, killing a 32-year-old woman and injuring at least 19 people, according to Charlottesville police.
In the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s unrest, police faced criticism from both white nationalists and counterprotesters for not doing more to intervene.
For hours, police watched but generally did not attempt to break up the groups as they beat each other with sticks, sprayed each other with chemical weapons like pepper spray, and hurled projectiles at one another, including cans filled with cement, and bottles — some filled with water, others urine.
Many on both sides protested peacefully away from the skirmishes, but it was clear that a not insignificant faction of the attendees, armed and decked out in makeshift body armor and home-made shields, came with the intention of fighting .
Gov. Terry McAuliffe defended the police response to the situation in remarks Sunday morning. Likewise, a state police spokeswoman insisted Saturday that police had done their best to keep the situation safe.
“We stepped in when, obviously, it got to a certain level to try to break it up,” said Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller. “But there’s also an officer safety concern.”
Police warned early last week that they didn’t believe they could keep the large gathering secure in the small square at Emancipation Park and said they would only grant the permit if it was moved a little more than a mile north to the much larger McIntire Park.
Organizers called the request absurd, noting that the reason for the event was to protest the city’s plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park.
The Virginia ACLU and the Rutherford Institute took up the case, arguing that officials were attempting to move the event not because of concerns about a large and violent crowd, but because they disagreed with organizers’ views.
“The ACLU of Virginia stands for the right to free expression for all, not just those whose opinions are in the mainstream or with whom the government agrees,” said Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga in a statement.
Meanwhile, Charlottesville City Attorney Craig S. Brown had argued “We firmly believe there is a threat of violence if it takes place in Emancipation Park. We firmly believe the same threat of violence exists if it’s moved to McIntire Park. The key to preventing violence is to keep the sides apart and it is easier to keep the sides separate at McIntire because it is bigger.”
The case was heard Friday evening in federal court, and U.S. District Court Judge Glen E. Conrad granted an injunction forcing city officials to allow the rally in the square. He said he granted the injunction because testimony indicated that rally organizer Jason Kessler could successfully prove that the city revoked his original permit based on his ideas.
After the court victory, the ACLU called on police to handle “the expected crowds using de-escalation tactics and flexibility, and avoid (an) over-militarized response."
Late Saturday night the ACLU released a statement vowing to "continue to fight for free speech for everyone" and stand up for "respect, decency, equality and humanity for all."
“What happened today had nothing to do with free speech. It devolved into conduct against individuals motivated by hate that was initially thuggish, and ultimately, deliberately murderous.”
Jaquith posted a string of tweets Saturday evening after the violence unfolded explaining his decision to resign from the 32-member board, which he said he has sat on for 2 1/2 years.
“The city was well aware of many dozens of violent threats, which is why they wanted to move it. The ACLU should have known,” he wrote. “Enabling speech is great. Enabling violence is not.
“When a free speech claim is the only thing standing in the way of Nazis killing people, maybe don’t take up that case.”
Gastañaga did not respond to an email seeking comment Sunday morning. Jaquith declined to comment on his decision beyond his tweets, saying he felt others in the city who led opposition to the rally deserved to be spotlighted.
Jaquith urged people not to vilify the organization, which he said remains important.
“I hope that other board members who think this was a mistake will stay, and push for change,” he said. “Quitting is the easy way out.”