The city is still dealing with the aftermath of a Ku Klux Klan rally that ended in a confrontation between anti-racism protesters and police on Saturday afternoon.
One person — Jordan Lee Romeo, 27 — is facing a felony charge of assault and battery on a law enforcement officer; 21 others face various misdemeanor charges in connection with the protests, which spilled onto East High Street following the KKK rally at Justice Park.
Members of the group Solidarity Charlottesville claim the police were excessive in their response but officials said the arrests allowed them to keep order at the event.
After the Klan had left, police declared a gathering of protesters on East High Street an “unlawful assembly.” Under Virginia State Law, an assembly of three or more people is unlawful when the group has intent “to advance some lawful or unlawful purpose by the commission of an act or acts of unlawful force or violence likely to jeopardize seriously public safety, peace or order.”
An online video posted by the German news agency Ruptly shows a crowd of demonstrators chanting slogans and heckling police; the front line of protesters stood with their backs turned toward a group of officers in riot gear. One officer yelled at the crowd to move out of the street, or the police would use “chemical agents.”
After a few minutes, police began firing tear gas canisters, with at least one hitting the front line of protesters, and marched up the street, dispersing the crowd.
Laura Goldblatt, a member of the activist group Solidarity Charlottesville, said the confrontation began when a gathering in Justice Park began to spill onto the street. Several people who were hurt and receiving medical treatment were unable to move out of the way as police fired tear gas canisters and began closing in on the crowd.
“Their aim was to clear the area and they were doing so without regard for people who were trying to get away,” Goldblatt said.
Despite the incident, Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas said the event went reasonably well and he was pleased with “the professionalism and commitment” shown by officers. Police were able to keep order while protecting demonstrators’ civil liberties, Thomas said in a statement sent late Saturday night.
The department will continue to review the Saturday’s events assess its “successes and shortcomings,” read the statement.
“We are committed to providing our residents with a strong, safe city to live in and to being a partner to our community,” Thomas wrote.
Virginia State Police provided riot officers for the event, and at least one officer can be heard on video declaring the assembly unlawful “in the name of the Commonwealth,” and demanding protesters move. State Police spokeswoman Corrine Geller said Charlottesville Police took the lead at the event; VSP officers were there for backup, she said.
Jeff Fogel, an attorney who was observing Saturday’s events for the National Lawyers Guild, said riot police should not have been there at that time.
The riot officers had no reason to be on High Street after the Klan had left, said Fogel, who is was defeated last month in the Democratic primary for Charlottesville commonwealth’s attorney.
The street was already closed to traffic and the presence of heavily armored police after the Klan demonstration only agitated the remaining protesters, provoking them into a confrontation, he said.
“When the police show up looking like automatons in ‘Mad Max,’ that’s provocative in an environment like the one we had yesterday,” Fogel said. “If the police had left, everybody would have gone. But they decided to stay there and demand that people get out of the way.”
Police did not respond to inquiries about the incident by press time, but said they would have a response ready on Monday.
Saturday’s KKK demonstration — the latest in a string of protests against the city’s legally contested decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — drew only about 50 Klan members but more than 1,000 anti-Klan protesters. Police arrested 22 people in connection with the rallies; (earlier reports of 23 people arrested, released by the Charlottesville Police on Saturday, were inaccurate; the department double-counted one arrestee, said city spokesman Miriam Dickler in an email on Sunday morning).
Most of the arrestees face misdemeanor charges, including disorderly conduct, obstructing free passage, assault, failure to disperse and wearing a mask in a public place, said Lt. Steve Upman, a spokesman for the police department. All but one of them was released with a summons; Romeo, who faces a felony charge of assault and battery on a law enforcement officer, remained in custody over the weekend, Upman said.
The members of the North Carolina-based Klan chapter were only downtown for about an hour, but drew journalists and observers from around the country to Justice Park, which has become a battleground in the intensifying culture war.
Emancipation Park, where the Lee statue sits, was the site of a torchlit protest by “alt-right” activists, including white nationalist leader Richard Spencer. The alt-right is planning another rally on August 12 at Emancipation Park, titled “Unite the Right,” and activists are demanding city leaders revoke their permit.
City officials, including Mayor Mike Signer and Police Chief Al Thomas, have discouraged residents from showing up to these events, hoping to prevent violence from breaking out. Fogel said it’s counter-productive to try to convince people not to exercise their right to free speech and public assembly.
“So many public officials thought it brought some credence to the Klan to have so many people show up to demonstrate against them,” Fogel said. “I feel it showed the opposite. And if that’s how they feel about it, they’ll have to rethink their attitude before this August 12 rally.”