CHARLOTTESVILLE — Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas on Tuesday pushed back against criticism that the use of tear gas at a KKK rally over the weekend was excessive, saying that protesters had become agitated and aggressive toward police.
When the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan decided to hold a rally in Charlottesville’s Justice Park, city police wanted to get the event over as soon as possible.
Following the Klan’s departure from the city, however, Virginia State Police used three canisters of tear gas to disperse a crowd of several hundred people — causing a storm of criticism from various activist groups, including Showing Up for Racial Justice.
Laura Goldblatt, one of the group’s organizers, said police did not need to use tear gas against protesters and should not have protected the Klan members.
“The tear gas was totally excessive,” Goldblatt said. “It shows us that police were there to protect the KKK and viewed the anti-racist protesters as the real threat.”
Echoing Goldblatt, SURJ member Mimi Arbeit said the gas was unjustified and unprovoked.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Arbeit said. “The purpose of police is to protect white supremacy.”
For police, the tear gas was a last-resort response after some of the protesters appeared to turn their frustration toward police, according to Thomas. When the Klan attempted to leave the city, protesters became agitated and formed a wall around the parking garage where the Klan members were parked.
“We gave a number of commands for them to clear the streets to no avail,” Thomas said on Tuesday. “Ultimately, as the crowd began to grow in size, we went ahead and gave the order to declare an unlawful assembly so that we could begin moving the crowd and opening the streets to get the Klan out of the parking garage.”
Once the Klan left the garage, the crowd of protesters continued to resist police orders to leave the immediate area. As officers tried to clear the crowds, Thomas said some officers were assaulted, while other officers were struck by items thrown from the crowd.
“At one point, we had an individual spray pepper gel on the officers,” Thomas said.
That’s not what happened, activists say.
“It’s false that pepper spray was used,” Arbeit said.
It was then that state police, in full riot gear, donned gas masks and set off three canisters of tear gas in an effort to disperse the crowd. By using the gas, Thomas said, police hoped to avoid making physical contact with the protesters and risking injuries to both citizens and officers.
Emily Gorcenski, a local activist, who was in the midst of the crowd, said there was no need to use it.
"The crowd I was in was moving down High Street," Gorcenski said. "A couple people may have been blocking the way, but no violence was happening. There was no reason to escalate to that."
No injuries were reported and no one was transported to the hospital for medical attention due to the gas, Thomas said. Among those affected were Daily Progress reporters and two ACLU legal observers.
“Our goal was to get the Klan out of our city as quickly as possible,” said Thomas. “We had several hundred people try to block that and keep them here. That’s where we were at odds.”
“That’s what the Klan does,” he said. “They incite fear, they incite hate, they incite anger, they incite violence, and that’s why we wanted them out of our city.”
After the tear gas was deployed, the crowd began thinning fairly quickly. Over the next few weeks, Charlottesville police will look at all of the events that occurred during the rally and evaluate what police did well and what could be improved, Thomas said.
“We wanted to maintain safety,” said Thomas. “We really focused on everyone in the crowd — even the folks that appeared to be protesting, at times, against us. We were still protecting them.”
Both Arbeit and Goldblatt would like the police to make a public apology for the use of tear gas. They also want the permit for the Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12 to be revoked. Organized by pro-white blogger Jason Kessler, the event is expected to attract “hundreds and hundreds” of people, Kessler said Tuesday.
“They need to revoke the permit,” Goldblatt said. “This is a public safety issue.”
Before the Klan’s arrival and before the crowds turned their frustrations on police, Thomas said he was happy to see his community come together to protest the hate group in a peaceful and nonviolent demonstration.
“That was a very proud moment to see so many folks out in the community being very peaceful,” Thomas said. “The atmosphere changed when the Klan arrived, but prior to that, it was impressive to see so many good people come out and see that strong show of support and unity in our community.”