Moments after the Charlottesville City Council started its meeting Monday evening, about a dozen people remained seated or took a knee as others in the room recited the Pledge of Allegiance, echoing protests at national sporting events.
The silent protest preceded a public hearing during which speakers were given an opportunity to continue venting about the city’s handling of demonstrations by white nationalists this year. Several speakers continued the calls for the removal of the city’s Confederate monuments, a proposal opposed by ralliers.
Before the hearing started Monday, Councilor Kristin Szakos warned that disruption “will not be tolerated.”
With a larger police presence in the City Council Chambers after activists shut down a Planning Commission meeting last week, speakers Monday used explicit and charged language to deride the city officials for not doing more to prevent the Aug. 12 rally that resulted in one death and dozens of injuries.
Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal who was protesting on Aug. 12, died after a car rammed a crowd of pedestrians on Charlottesville's Downtown Mall.
University of Virginia student Natalie Romero, one of the speakers, was severely injured when a car rammed into a crowd of people at the Fourth Street crossing on the Downtown Mall. James A. Fields Jr. has been charged with second-degree murder and other charges in the attack.
“They did not come to express their freedom of speech,” Romero said about Fields and the other people who came to attend the rally. “They came to threaten and brutalize people. They wanted blood and got it.”
According to a GoFundMe account created Aug. 13, Romero suffered skull fractures in the attack. More than $150,000 was raised to help pay for her medical bills.
Romero told the council she still has stitches in her forehead and her face, and that she received harassing phone calls while she was still in the hospital. She said one person said she should have died in the hospital.
Romero said local authorities have said they can’t prevent her from being harassed because she did not have enough evidence.
“I hope that the scars on my face remind you,” she said. “I hope that when you look at yourself in the morning, you think about all the people that were hurt — there were over 30 of us. I hope you think of Heather [Heyer] every f------ night, just like I do, and have the same nightmares.”
Another speaker, Tracy Saxson, said he’s now considering organizing his neighbors to defend themselves if necessary. Both he and his teenage daughter addressed the recent threats made against city schools that were reported by the FBI.
“I’m very worried about the people in here,” Saxson said. “Some of them are my friends, some of them are my family. I’m not going to let anyone hurt my friends or family.”
Gesturing to the American flag behind the council dais, he said he thinks the city and other government actors are not doing enough to uphold the values that are associated with it.
“Nobody is making anybody live up to what that flag represents,” he said. “I will not say your anthem, I will not salute that flag until it’s being done for everybody.”
The commission will reconvene Oct. 24 so members can make a recommendation on the two other public hearings that were completed before the meeting was canceled.
Before the meeting started, Dave Ghamandi and other activists distributed flyers describing some of the recent events in the city, such as the arrests of DeAndre Harris and Corey Long, two Aug. 12 counter-protesters who were released on unsecured bonds last week.
The flyer also noted the white nationalist torch rally on Oct. 7, last week’s disrupted Planning Commission meeting and other recent events, such as the ongoing annual review for City Manager Maurice Jones.
Councilor Kathy Galvin and Jones said before Monday’s meeting that the review is ongoing, and that the manager and the council are working to establish an annual work plan based on the council’s policy objectives.
The flyers also said “Vote for Nikuyah Walker,” one of the independent council candidates in this year’s general election on Nov. 7. During a break in the meeting, Walker said she hadn’t seen the flyer and said it wasn’t made by her campaign.
Before the public hearing, Jones and city councilors repeated that several initiatives are currently underway in response to the recent events, such as the third-party investigation led by former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy, a community group organized in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service and a City Hall task force that will work on developing policies and strategies to prevent violence and intimidation at public protests.
City Attorney Craig Brown also briefed the council on an ongoing revision of the city’s permitting process for events and demonstrations. He said D.C. law firm K&L Gates has been working on a pro bono basis to help amend the standard operating procedure.
After the more than hourlong public hearing Monday, Mayor Mike Signer addressed some of the accusations against the city. He said the council had tried to relocate the the Aug. 12 rally from Emancipation Park to McIntire Park, per public safety concerns, but reminded the public that a federal court forced the event to be held in the downtown square.
Signer also said an police officer’s anonymous allegation, which has been sourced in some news stories online, that he ordered law enforcement officers to “stand down” on Aug. 12 is a “fake news quote.”