Anti-racist, anti-fascist activists in Charlottesville saw the events of August 12, as well as the Charlottesville Police Department’s questionable response to them, coming from a mile away. They shared these concerns with City Council during a July 17 meeting, according to reports. Council members say their hands were tied, but many activists who attended that meeting aren’t satisfied.
“The activist community in Charlottesville knew the rally would be an unprecedented storm of violence long before August 12,” says Kimberly Rolla, an attorney with local Legal Aid Justice Center’s Civil Rights and Racial Justice Program who was present on August 12 and at an earlier KKK rally on July 8 as a National Lawyers Guild legal observer. “Activists were receiving death threats. It was like watching a slow-motion train wreck that no one else was watching.”
Charlottesville was the site of two prior white supremacist rallies this summer—one on May 13 and the second on July 8. At the May 13 event, about 60 white nationalists, organized by University of Virginia alum Richard Spencer, held burning tiki torches while chanting “White Lives Matter” and “You will not replace us.” At a vigil the next night, there were violent scuffles and the police got involved, eventually arresting several counter-protestors as well as Jason Kessler, one of the organizers of the August 12 rally, for refusing to obey CPD commands to “leave the area and to stop using a bullhorn to incite others.”
Later that month, the grassroots group Solidarity Cville released a statement saying that they were “worried about the lives of people threatened by Nazis” who “came in droves to hold a recruiting rally and then a torch burning.”
The July 8 rally was an event of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, headquartered in North Carolina, who were protesting the “ongoing cultural genocide ... of white Americans,” according to James Moore, a Klan member. About 1,000 counter-protesters came out for a “Block the KKK Party,” peacefully chanting, “Racists go home!”
Virginia State Police officers “in full riot gear, with multiple armored vehicles, pepper-spray projectile weapons, tear gas canisters, and visible semi-automatic weapons (AR-15)” were present that day, according to videos and a letter prepared by the Legal Aid Justice Center, the ACLU of Virginia, the National Lawyers Guild, and the Rutherford Institute. “The militarized, aggressive law enforcement presence of July 8th escalated tensions of an already volatile situation.”
Twenty-two counter-protesters were arrested during the July protest, some for obstructing sidewalks and other for wearing masks; many remain tied up in court battles today over these charges.
“We also strongly encourage the City to work with the public to articulate a plan for the August 12th ‘Unite the Right’ rally that will seek to de-escalate tensions and respects the free speech rights of protesters and counter-protestors alike,” concludes the letter.
In the weeks leading up to August 12, local activists and people of color could see clearly that the rally would build on the violence already on display at the other two.
“Solidarity Cville reiterates its demand that the City revoke the August 12 permit for the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Emancipation Park,” a statement from the group reads. “The events of July 8 show that peaceful counter-demonstration is met with violence instigated from the right. The presence of hundreds of alt-right personalities is an evident threat to public safety, and our community can no longer allow them to continue to bring violence into our streets.”
Two of the earliest confirmed headliners for the event—Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman and Nathan Damigo—had become well-known among the alt-right solely for acts of violence perpetrated against leftists. These choices were intentional threats, say Pam Starsia, an attorney and activist who has been working with organizers in Charlottesville. “From the very beginning, the flyers and announcements of this rally were intended to convey a threat of violence,” she said.
On July 17, hundreds of Charlottesville activists and citizens attended a City Council meeting to call for the revocation of the permit on August 12. Solidarity Cville activists took the podium and presented text messages and screenshots of posts in white supremacist Facebook groups containing specific threats of violence against black Charlottesville citizens, antifa, and city councilmembers by name, activists by name, and others.
“The City recognized the potential for danger,” says councilperson Kristin Szakos when Splinter asked for comment from City Council, “and, although a municipality cannot legally prohibit people from expressing their constitutional right to free assembly and speech, the City did attempt to require the demonstration to move to McIntire Park, outside of downtown, where the danger could have been more easily prevented and contained.”
Though the ACLU, who represented Jason Kessler and other white supremacist organizers, succeeded in allowing the rally to continue at Emancipation Park as scheduled, the ACLU says it’s not a First Amendment issue that prevented the city from revoking the permit, but rather that the City of Charlottesville presented a weak case despite having ample time to prepare.
And so plans for the Unite the Right rally marched forward. A community activist who wishes to remain anonymous told Splinter that the outcry after July 8 may have contributed to the unusually passive police presence on August 12, where police stood by as white supremacists poured lighter fluid on UVa student counter-protesters and beat black Charlottesville citizens.
The week prior, activists in central Virginia were more on edge than ever, watching the threats of violence collect on Facebook and Twitter and hearing even more threats directed at them and black Charlottesville citizens through the intelligence channels of hate watch groups.
“[White supremacists] threatened to kill, harm and hurt black people before they came here, and we told City Council we did not want them here,” says Timothy Porter, a black citizen of Charlottesville who had to jump out of the way of the speeding car that ultimately killed Heather Heyer. “But the city didn’t listen to us.”
Activists’ calls for city officials to condemn the groups and take more substantive precautions fell on deaf ears—and the event reached its logical conclusion. In one statement back in May, Solidarity Cville asked: “Are we going to wait for [someone] to be murdered here by White Supremacists before we get serious?”