The Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Rutherford Institute both released statements Monday responding to criticism suggesting they had roles to play in the violence in Charlottesville on Saturday.
Both organizations represented Jason Kessler, organizer of the Unite the Right rally, in a lawsuit against the city of Charlottesville over its decision to only approve a permit for the rally if organizers moved it to McIntire Park. The city cited safety concerns.
The civil rights groups argued that moving the rally from Emancipation Park, location of the city’s statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, was a First Amendment issue. The city argued the need to move the rally to the larger McIntire Park to accommodate the growing estimates of the crowd size.
A federal judge sided with Kessler on Friday.
The judge said testimony indicated that Jason Kessler could successfully prove that the city revoked his original permit based on his ideas.
The Unite the Right rally, met with large crowds of counter-protesters, turned violent before it was even slated to start at noon. Police declared an unlawful assembly, and afterward, groups of protesters and counter-protestors alike dispersed through the city.
It was in the mid-afternoon when a car plowed into a crowd on a Downtown Mall cross street, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Ohio, has been charged with second-degree murder in the crash.
Police face criticism from both sides on response
Both the ACLU of Virginia and the Rutherford Institute received blame from some for the turn of events Saturday because of their decision to represent Kessler.
The ACLU of Virginia’s executive director, Claire Gastanaga, said in a statement Monday that they were horrified by the events that took place and do not support violence and “do not support Nazis,” but do support the Constitution and laws of the land.
“But let’s be clear: Our lawsuit challenging the city to act constitutionally did not cause violence nor did it in any way address the question whether demonstrators could carry sticks or other weapons at the events,” the statement read.
“We asked the city to adhere to the U.S. Constitution and ensure people’s safety at the protest. It failed to do so,” Gastanaga said in the statement. “In our system, the city makes the rules and the courts enforce them. Our role is to ensure that the system works the same for everyone.”
The Rutherford Institute’s statement said it’s always tempting to point fingers and find blame in the aftermath of a tragedy.
“It is unfortunate that those leading the charge right now have chosen to cast the blame on civil liberties organizations that were compelled to stand up for the principles of the Constitution when the government failed to do so,” the statement read. “To suggest that the ACLU of Virginia or the Rutherford Institute or the federal district court were in any way complicit in this weekend’s violence is to do a grave disservice to every individual who has ever fought and died for the freedoms on which this nation was founded.”
A board member of the ACLU in Virginia, Albemarle County resident Waldo Jaquith, resigned from his position over the weekend in reaction to the organization’s decision to file the lawsuit against the city.