What have we learned about what happened in Charlottesville August 11-12 that should guide our thinking about dealing with future threats to our community?
Here are three questions we should ponder:
Two factors seem paramount here. First, a Charlottesville resident and white supremacist agitator, Jason Kessler, supported a request by the Ku Klux Klan to make an issue of the city council's decision to remove the Robert E. Lee statue from a downtown Charlottesville park. The KKK organized a protest demonstration on July 8 and attracted members to the park area. Charlottesville's police were well-prepared for this relatively small, peaceful rally, and no serious violence resulted.
When Kessler and others asked for the city's permit to hold another demonstration against removal of the Lee statue on August 12, it quickly became a signal for white supremacists, neo-Nazi groups, and the Ku Klux Klan across the country to organize a major show of strength on an issue that finds support among many citizens opposed to tearing down historical monuments. A large counter-demonstration quickly emerged and attracted leftist groups from around the country, including militant Antifa (anti-fascist) elements. Both groups, with some members armed, descended on the Charlottesville community on August 11.
Some speculate that Charlottesville was chosen by white supremacists and far-right groups to take their stand because it represents a liberal community that wasn't prepared for a large demonstration against the city's decision to remove a symbol of conservative Virginia's history.
As the Washington Post stated in an August 25 editorial "Avoiding another Charlottesville," "In trying to strike an undeniably tricky balance between ensuring public safety and enabling protesters to exercise their constitutional rights, the authorities tilted too far away from public safety."
Following the July 8 KKK rally in Charlottesville, the city's police and Virginia state police prepared for a much larger demonstration on August 12. Their concerns for public safety persuaded the city manager and police chief to press for a change of location for the demonstration, away from the downtown streets to McIntire Park. That decision was appealed by Jason Kessler who won a federal court's ruling, a day before the demonstrations that said first amendment rights outweighed concerns about public safety. That decision was probably wrong, given the potential for violence that was clearly apparent on the eve of the event.
University of Virginia officials probably erred in not taking the impending demonstration on the Lawn August 11 more seriously. The nighttime scene of torch-carrying demonstrators, some wearing Nazi emblems, was a reminder to anyone who remembers Nazi demonstrations in Nurnberg in 1936. It has been suggested that the university should have declared the Lawn off-limits to demonstrators, instead of supporting their constitutional right of assembly.
Richard Spencer, leader of the conservative Alt-Right group that organized the August 12 rally, predicted that they "would be back." From Spencer's view, the publicity given by the media to Charlottesville's violence played into the hands of far-right groups and enhanced their recruiting efforts. Mad "Charlottesville," as it's now referred to nationally, should be a wake-up call to other communities around the country that may face similar violent demonstrations.
Clearly, our constitutional rights of free speech and assembly should be protected. But American communities are now on notice that they must ensure that these demonstrations don't get out of hand and result in the kind of hand-to-hand violence we witnessed in this city. Citizens and communities have a right to be protected against such threats to public safety.
File last modified on Friday, 27-JUL-2017 8:47 AM EST