Police in Charlottesville arrested almost as many drunk people as violent white supremacists

After the confrontations turned violent, protesters and counter-protesters alike criticized the hands-off response by some law enforcement.

Virginia State Police cordon off an area around the site where a car ran into a group of protesters after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber
Virginia State Police cordon off an area around the site where a car ran into a group of protesters after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

As white nationalist protesters repeatedly clashed with counter-protesters over the weekend, law enforcement teams from the Charlottesville Police Department and the Virginia State Police watched closely. And as tensions between armed militias and their anti-fascist opposition turned violent, with fists, sticks, pepper spray, and projectiles, police continued to take a hands-off approach. While police did arrest a handful of white nationalists and counter-protesters—including James Alex Fields Jr., charged with second degree murder after he allegedly plowed his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others—a spokeswoman for the city of Charlottesville could confirm just eight total arrests related to the rally, as of Thursday afternoon.

ThinkProgress requested booking information for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, which serves the city of Charlottesville, and the nearby counties of Albemarle and Nelson. The listing, provided by the jail’s records supervisor, contained 34 names, including Fields’. It also included Jacob Leigh Smith, a counter-protester who allegedly punched a reporter, and Ian M. Hoffmann, who was accused of assault and battery during a Friday night clash on the University of Virginia campus, alongside numerous unrelated crimes. Six individuals are listed as having been arrested for “public swearing or intoxication.” (Given that the public swearing provisions are largely unenforceable for constitutional reasons, that most likely means public drunkenness).

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The Charlottesville Police Department referred questions to the city’s communications director, Miriam Dickler. On Wednesday, she told ThinkProgress there were just “four arrests on Saturday and one on Sunday” but that the department was still involved in some active investigations. Asked to clarify, she confirmed that these totals included both local and state police arrests.

Following news reports of a few additional arrests, Dickler told ThinkProgress on Wednesday that she could now confirm eight total arrests related to the rally. The initial number, she explained, was not comprehensive because Charlottesville and the surrounding county has city, county, university, and state police all patrolling a relatively small area. She did not know when a final number would be available.

Activists on both sides of last weekend’s conflicts in Charlottesville have been critical of the hands-off approach of Charlottesville City Police and Virginia State Police, who failed to police a torch-lit march by white nationalists through the University of Virginia campus on Friday night that ended with violence, and who watched passively as the rally at Emancipation Park turned into a street melee fought with clubs, shields, and pepper spray.

At the rally, white nationalists and antifa squared off with shields, flag poles fashioned into clubs, pepper spray, homemade shields, and improvised projectiles. ThinkProgress reporters on the scene witnessed repeated clashes between the two groups. Occasionally, heavily armed militia members or clergy would move to de-escalate these frays, as police stood behind barriers away from fighting protesters and did not intervene. On the edges of the rally, volunteer street medics tended to the wounded as those present shared spare face masks to protect one another from the pepper spray hanging in the humid Virginia air.

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Charlottesville’s University Hospital treated 35 people for injuries related to the rally, Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas Jr. told reporters during a press conference on Saturday. Fourteen of those injuries came from what Thomas called “individual engagements,” while 19 came from the car attack on a group of counter-protesters that also left one person dead.

“I think the hope was there would be some police intervention that would have us removed [in the event of violence],” the Rev. Carlton Smith, a Unitarian Universalist minister who was at Emancipation Park with other clergy counter-protesters, told ThinkProgress earlier this week. “But in terms of being a presence at the park, at the rally, they were not there. There wasn’t a possibility that the police were going to come to our defense if the white supremacists turned on the clergy.”

Indeed, when a group of white supremacist protesters broke through lines of clergy who had used their bodies to block off part of Emancipation Park in nonviolent protest, it was anti-fascist, or “antifa,” counter-protesters who came to their rescue, according to the Rev. Seth Wispelwey, a United Church of Christ minister in Charlottesville.

“Some of them were screaming and spitting slurs [as they] physically shoved clergy aside with their shields,” Wispelwey told ThinkProgress, later adding, “That’s when antifa saved our lives.”

White supremacists also blamed Charlottesville police for not protecting them from what they say were violent left-wing protesters determined to deny them their First Amendment rights.

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“The blame for today’s violence lies primarily with Charlottesville government officials and the police officers who failed to maintain law and order, protect the First Amendment rights of rally participants, and provide for their safety,” rally organizer Jason Kessler said in a statement released Wednesday. “We coordinated with law enforcement officials with whom we put in place carefully-planned safety arrangements months prior to the event. Despite this, the Charlottesville Police Department and Virginia State Police intentionally departed from the plan. Instead of separating demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, and intervening when violent counter-protesters attacked the participants of the rally, they executed a deliberate plan to wait until we were gathered in a small, barricaded area of the park, at which point they deployed riot police to drive us into the crowd of counter-protesters. Instead of maintaining law and order, the police purposefully created the catastrophe that led to a melee in the streets of Charlottesville and the death of a counter-protester.”

Asked why the Charlottesville police and other local police forces arrested so many drunk people relative to the number of violent protesters, Dickler responded that the police cannot stop patrolling other areas of the city during large events like Friday and Saturday’s protests.

“That would be a terrible idea,” she told ThinkProgress in an interview. “That would be bad police work.”

Jack Jenkins contributed reporting to this article.