The ACLU of Virginia is involved in a spat with the state’s governor over the events that took place in Charlottesville Saturday and, specifically, over the behavior of the police. This all stems from a lawsuit the ACLU filed to prevent the city from moving the protest to a larger park further from the center of town.
Monday morning the Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition to discuss the violence in Charlottesville. McAuliffe specifically blamed the ACLU for filing a lawsuit against the city:
We asked – the city of Charlottesville asked for that to be moved out of downtown Charlottesville to a park about a mile and a half away – a lot of open fields. That was the place that it should’ve been. We were, unfortunately, sued by the ACLU. And the judge ruled against us.
That rally should not have been in the middle of downtown – to disperse all those people from the park where they dispersed all over the city streets. And it became a powder keg. And we got to look at these permits, and we got to look at where we put these rallies and protesters. I got to protect public safety. And our police did a magnificent job.
Claire G. Gastanaga, the Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia has responded with a statement defending the group. She says the city tried to revoke the protest permit claiming the number of people involved would be “unmanageable.” However, the city did not also seek to revoke a permit for the counter-protester group even though it was expected to be considerably larger. She says, “In light of those facts, the judge couldn’t get beyond the fact that the city hadn’t revoked all permits for demonstrations downtown on Saturday.”
Gastanaga’s statement says responsibility for the violence lies not with the ACLU but with the police who she says stood “passively” as if waiting for violence to happen:
“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…
“It is the responsibility of law enforcement to ensure safety of both protesters and counter-protesters. The policing on Saturday was not effective in preventing violence. I was there and brought concerns directly to the secretary of public safety and the head of the Virginia State Police about the way that the barricades in the park limiting access by the arriving demonstrators and the lack of any physical separation of the protesters and counter-protesters on the street were contributing to the potential of violence. They did not respond. In fact, law enforcement was standing passively by, seeming to be waiting for violence to take place, so that they would have grounds to declare an emergency, declare an ‘unlawful assembly’ and clear the area.”
Two points on this. One, given that two police officers died in a helicopter crash Saturday, this attack on police is probably going to backfire on the ACLU. Also, it’s worth pointing out that while more police involvement might have stopped some of the scuffles, there’s no telling if it would have stopped James Alex Fields from using his car as a weapon against counter-protesters. And to be fair, moving the protest out of the center of town might not have prevented it either.
Point two, I’ve seen witnesses who were at the protest Saturday saying police seemed to be standing by as fights broke out that morning. Here’s an account from Splinter News:
Then the tear gas and pepper spray started. Antifa groups had some, the white supremacists had more, and so the streets surrounding Emancipation Park slowly emptied as more and more people came into contact with the gas and spray. Volunteer medics down the block poured milk into dozens of protesters’ eyes. This continued for two hours—a few people were punched, a few others were badly beaten, and the cops stood by, down the block, for all of it.
I also came across a video Saturday (which I can’t locate again at the moment) in which one of the counter-protesters angrily criticized police for doing little while the violence escalated. So there may be some truth to the claim the ACLU is making here, i.e. police were not responsive to the violence. Under the circumstances, the ACLU is unlikely to win this argument with the Governor in public, but once tempers cool a bit there may be some cause for the city to review its response plan.