The police failed Charlottesville

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; Edit by Diana Ofosu

White supremacists’ effort to portray themselves as the real victims in Charlottesville got a big boost Tuesday when President Donald Trump proclaimed that the day’s carnage must be blamed on left anti-racists who charged on his heavily armed, intensely bigoted supporters. There were, he said, “very fine people on both sides.”

But while the president may have muddied the waters for those who were not present on those Virginia streets last weekend, the protesters, reporters, and clergy present understand the true character of the chaos: violence on Friday night, with police asleep at the switch, led to an uneasy atmosphere Saturday morning. Police again played the bystander’s role the next morning, fanning a tense morning into a bloody afternoon of pitched battles in the public street.

Police did not cause the violence and death in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend. But they did fail to act to prevent it using the clear, stern, and proactive tactics common in departments that frequently handle protest activity and civil unrest.

The potential for chaos was clear from early Saturday morning. Outgunned by militiamen and repeatedly outmaneuvered by heavily armored blocs of white nationalist “Proud Boys,” state and local police in Charlottesville simply watched as violence filled the streets surrounding Emancipation Park.

The scene had been tense for more than an hour, before breaking into outright combat shortly after 11:00 a.m. when a column of more than 200 white supremacists arrived from a new direction. Anarchist Antifa demonstrators ran to meet the arriving group’s vanguard, who carried shields and heavy clubs. The counterprotesters sought to block the racists from joining the roughly 1,000 white-pride marchers already inside the park, each group exchanging blows as the corner of 2nd and Market streets became a battleground.

Yet still, police simply watched, standing in a loose line between two rows of metal barricades set up the night before at the park’s edge. The officers looked on as hundreds of people went at each other with fists, sticks, pepper spray, and improvised projectiles. The true power on the scene was not with law enforcement, but with civilian militia members carrying long rifles, shotguns, and pistols. Bizarrely, the police looking on had less protective equipment than most of the journalists there. About three dozen heavily armed men stood by, sometimes trying to break up the worst scuffles, as lines of shield-bearing “Proud Boys” rushed around the park’s edge following orders from their fellow racists.

CREDIT: Diana Ofosu / ThinkProgress

Local and state authorities have thus far argued that police had little choice but to take the hands-off approach which attended Saturday’s clashes. They were simply outgunned by the militiamen, the officials have said, noting too reports that white supremacists had stashed heavy weapons around town.

Civic leaders chose to partly secure the perimeter of the park with Virginia State Troopers, but declined to set up checkpoints to disarm protesters. They did not structure the space to maintain separation between groups who meant one another harm. They left riot police on the fringes of the scene for hours as people filed into the same crowded street.

Those choices could hardly lead to anything but blood — and when they inevitably did, it was not limited to the hour-long skirmish at the corner of the park where nonviolent clergy-led, anti-racism protesters had initially blocked the neoconfederates’ advance. For hours afterward, spontaneous confrontations all around the city’s downtown district brought more violence.

Indeed, the attack that killed Heather Heyer and injured 18 others later that afternoon can arguably be traced back to the passivity of police on the scene.

“The entire time we were marching, I never saw police escorting us,” an eyewitness to Heyer’s death who had been at the front of the afternoon march that was attacked told ThinkProgress. The witness, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from the neoconfederate activists in her community, said she blames law enforcement for failing to secure the downtown area.

“I think that their negligence is what cost Heather her life,” the witness said.

Uniformed bystanders

State police and national guardsmen in Charlottesville eventually ambled into action, though not until a running street battle had raged for more than an hour.

An officer gave a dispersal order several minutes after roughly half an hour of sustained brawling at the corner of 2nd and Market. Riot cops lined nearby blocks, apparently readying for a push through the crowd that never came. Clouds of pepper spray and gas chased people off of the corner, on a few instances by police, but also by civilians on both sides .

By 12:30 p.m., the corner had cleared — after several warnings that those who did not leave would be arrested. But even then the mayhem was far from over. The dispersal order had not channeled any of the armed groups out of downtown Charlottesville, but simply away from the park and intersection where the most high-profile violence was centered.

Roving bands of white supremacists wandered the area, criss-crossing the downtown mall in various directions. ThinkProgress reporters witnessed bystanders and counterdemonstrators alerting one another to different groups of stick-wielding Confederate flag-waving people. One heavyset white man approached a group of neoconfederates to proclaim his disgust with them, and was briefly surrounded by a cluster of men with iron poles and large flags who ultimately did not attack him.

Others were not so lucky in the chaos. Several white supremacist marchers had parked in a multi-level garage across from a city police department office. They scuffled with locals on their way back to their cars, one cluster beating 20-year-old Deandre Harris bloody in the mouth of the garage. Multiple witnesses reported seeing a similar garage scuffle resolved only when a white supremacist marcher drew his pistol and brandished it at a group.

White nationalist demonstrators clash with a counter demonstrator as he throws a newspaper box at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Another block west along Water Street, which forms the south edge of the pedestrian open-air shopping district, two militia members were on the ground being treated for injuries. A group of riot police surrounded a tense array of roughly 100 militia and civilian counterprotesters who were disagreeing loudly with one another. The 25 or 50 riot police present at that confrontation were representative of the police approach following the dispersal order. Officers became fragmented in units of 20 to 40 men and women, operating in different parts of the downtown area in response to this or that report of activity — but never forming a coherent block of force that could steer people any particular direction as they wandered and clashed.

The afternoon’s most frightening and deadly moments were still to come. By 1:00 p.m., word had begun to spread among local counterdemonstrators that an armed bloc of neoconfederates was marching toward the nearby Friendship Court housing development. Residents of the mostly black neighborhood were already outside when the counterprotesters arrived hoping to help defend the community. The locals asked the marchers to leave their neighborhood and assured them they could handle themselves, witnesses told ThinkProgress, and the mix of nonviolent Black Lives Matter marchers and radical Antifa members departed the court.

From there, hours into an already edgy and violent day, the group elected to march east along Water Street, filling the road and proclaiming their opposition to the white supremacists.

The impromptu march received no police escort, though large numbers of state police in riot gear and Virginia National Guardsmen were on hand throughout the downtown area.

As the unescorted marchers crossed over 4th Street, one of only two throughways where cars can pass through the downtown mall, downhill traffic stopped to let people walk through. A purple Honda minivan was first at the stop sign facing south, with a silver-and-black convertible sedan behind it. At approximately 1:40 p.m., a grey sports car rammed into the two stopped cars, driving the van into the middle of the intersection and hitting many marchers. As people with the march rushed to block the driver’s escape by filling in the space behind him, he threw his car into reverse and sped through them, sending bodies flying.

A counter demonstrator gets a splash of water after being hit by pepper spray at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

One woman died. Nineteen others were treated for serious injuries at a local hospital. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, which prosecutors say was perpetrated by 20-year-old James Fields, the police finally showed up. A bloc of riot police appeared walking downhill on 4th Street toward the intersection, backed by a large armored vehicle whose roof hatch was occupied by a cop holding a tear gas launcher. They stopped uphill of the carnage and watched as protest medics and official EMTs worked side by side to treat the wounded.

Emergency vehicles needed to navigate the chaotic intersection. Once again, it wasn’t the police who took the lead to make sure the vehicles could get through.

Instead, ThinkProgress reporters witnessed a pair of civilian leaders take charge of the scene, clearing people out of the roads and shaming reporters out of continuing to photograph the wounded. A city police officer who appeared to be in command of the units on hand deferred to a black woman in a FLINT LIVES MATTER t-shirt who had taken control of the intersection.

“They’ll listen to her, they won’t listen to me,” the officer said. Later, once the wounded had been shuttled away in a mix of emergency and civilian vehicles, the cop looked to the same woman for help clearing the block of onlookers.

“They need us to leave, so they can secure a crime scene,” she said, waving people away down the hill along 4th Street. Within minutes, the entire crowd of hundreds had fluttered uneasily away, and the riot cops who’d stood behind the yellow crime scene tape were given permission to sit down and take a water break.

What policing in other cities looks like

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has insisted there was nothing cops could have done to “stop some crazy guy who came here from Ohio and used his car as a weapon.” But that’s not true; police departments around the country are capable of using eyes in the sky and mobile units on the ground to provide an escort to impromptu street demonstrations before they run afoul of even normal traffic, let alone the kind of chaotic and edgy climate that prevailed Saturday in Charlottesville.

Police departments in cities that see large street demonstrations do this often. Law enforcement agencies in Washington, D.C., for example, frequently run escort duty to clear intersections, keep traffic at bay, and put a physical barrier between frustrated drivers and marchers. With helicopters above to track where people are going and mobile police on the street to clear paths and steer marches toward safety, experienced departments make vehicular assaults nearly impossible.

Saturday’s wait-and-see approach contrasts, too, with the pre-emptive heavy-handedness with which other police departments have handled large but peaceful street protests in cases where the crowd was predominantly black.

Police do not react to a white nationalists's aggression, though far less antagonism has often resulted in police violence and brutality. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The tactics that left people vulnerable in Charlottesville were absent the next day in Seattle. Police there were proactive in anticipation of  violence between groups who took to the streets in the hours after Charlottesville. Riot police physically separated the different blocs there — who were in solidarity with Charlottesville white supremacists, nonviolent marchers, or Antifa protesters — and were quick to deploy physical and chemical crowd control tools to maintain the division.

The violence in Charlottesville was initiated by civilians. But police allowed it to spike, sustain for hours, and spread across the entire downtown area — all while failing to adopt proactive crowd control or escort tactics even after the violence at the square had exhausted itself.

“They didn’t do their jobs,” the eyewitness to Heyer’s death said. “I think they felt the backlash from July 8,” she added, referencing an earlier conflict in another nearby park where police let Ku Klux Klan members leave the scene before later pepper-spraying left-leaning counterprotesters who had stayed behind.

“Everyone was angry about that. And it’s like they threw up their hands and said, ‘Well, fine, then we don’t do anything.’”


Joshua Eaton contributed reporting to this story.