CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA – Conflicts with mainstream media and politicians’, including Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe’s, characterization of events surrounding the white nationalist Unite the Right rally emerged quickly over the weekend.
“I have a message to all the white supremist [sic] and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today … You came here today to hurt people and you did hurt people,” McAuliffe told reporters at a press conference Saturday night.
The governor repeatedly emphasized the violence of “nazis” but made no reference to violence by any left-wing group, despite being asked repeatedly about what role such groups may have played in Saturday’s melee. The implication was clear that the violence was an unavoidable result of far-right white identity political groups being allowed to hold a rally.
But a report on police conduct during and after the rally by ProPublica, a left-leaning investigative journalism non-profit, as well as eyewitness accounts by those who participated in the rally itself, have called the simplicity of this characterization into question. Both suggest mismanagement of police resources by political leadership may have exacerbated, rather than controlled, the violence surrounding the rally and the counter-protests, which included mainstream liberals and local faith-based “anti-racism” groups as well as radical leftist “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) and “Anti-Fascist Action” (Antifa) outfits.
Saturday’s rally, ostensibly a demonstration against the potential removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s longstanding stature from the Charlottesville, Virginia, park that bore his name until renamed “Emancipation Park,” this year by the city council, turned into the biggest news event in the country Friday as torch-bearing members of disparate, explicitly white nationalist groups, including several “Alt-Right” organizations and a contingent of self-identified neo-Nazis, descended on the home of the University of Virginia. By Saturday afternoon, three people were dead, with several dozen serious injuries.
None of the deaths occurred at the Emancipation Park rally. One, that of 32-year old Virginia-native Heather Heyer, is being treated as an intentional homicide and resulted from one man, James Fields Jr., crashing into a counter protest march that took place in downtown Charlottesville after the Unite the Right rally had been dispersed by police. Fields, a 20-year old from Ohio, has been arrested and charged with murder. He is reported to have been in town for the rally and sources suggest he may have ties to one of the white nationalist groups in attendance, although the leadership of that group has claimed he was entirely unconnected to them. A federal investigation into the incident was also announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions Saturday.
The other two deaths were the result of a Virginia State Police helicopter suffering an accidental crash into a wooded area on the outskirts of Charlottesville. Lieutenant Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke Bates were killed in the crash.
The subsequent declaration of a local state of emergency turned the streets of central Charlottesville into a nearly deserted ghost town with the college town’s bars and restaurants, typically bustling with partygoers and vacationers on a summer weekend, mostly shut.
According to ProPublica reporter A.C. Thompson and his colleagues, “authorities took a largely laissez faire approach, allowing white supremacists and counter-protesters to physically battle.”
The report takes a similar stance to McAuliffe as to the moral culpability for the fracas around Emancipation Park. As ProPublica reports it:
At about 10 a.m. today, at one of countless such confrontations, an angry mob of white supremacists formed a battle line across from a group of counter-protesters, many of them older and gray-haired, who had gathered near a church parking lot. On command from their leader, the young men charged and pummeled their ideological foes with abandon. One woman was hurled to the pavement, and the blood from her bruised head was instantly visible.
ProPublica is a George Soros-funded investigative journalism non-profit. A.C. Thompson is, according to his bio, a reporter “covering the rise in hate crimes in America.”
The same report quotes Charlottesville Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy defending the police tactics, saying, “I’m not in the business of throwing our police department under the bus, because they’re doing the best job they can. I don’t think the police officers were just twiddling their thumbs.”
McAuliffe, in what the New York Times reports was an impromptu interview before addressing two church congregations Sunday, “strongly defended the police response to the violent demonstrations … saying that law enforcement authorities had done ‘great work’ in ‘a very delicate situation.'”
— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLUVA) August 12, 2017
Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor who, according to ProPublica, has worked on police reform efforts in Los Angeles, told the non-profit that, while it was too early to assess Charlottesville’s law enforcement response, in general, “a strategy of disengagement works to embolden unruly crowds.”
“If things start to escalate and there’s no response, it can very quickly get out of control,” she said. “Individuals can and will get hurt.”
But an overly forceful response, she said, can also make the situation worse. Krinsky said attempts to seize weapons might have led to more clashes between police and protesters. “Trying to take things away from people is unlikely to be a calming influence,” she told ProPublica.
A good strategy, she said, is to make clashes less likely by separating the two sides physically, with officers forming a barrier between them. “Create a human barrier so the flash points are reduced as quickly as possible,” she said.
While they undoubtedly dispute ProPublica’s characterization of who was responsible for most of the violence at the official rally, multiple Unite the Right participants who agreed to be interviewed by Breitbart News were themselves largely in agreement about the failings of the policing strategy.
One man, who was vacationing in the United States from Finland, arrived with one of the last waves to get into Emancipation Park before the event was shut down. From his perspective, “these two groups of very polarly opposed political and social and moral views were forced into conflict” by policing tactics. He recounted his experience to Breitbart News:
I was expecting to enter a peaceful protest to protect this monument and part of United States history from utter and total rewriting. I entered with people from the United States who were aware there were going to be counter-protesters. They promised to keep me safe, which they did. But what happened was, the police force, which should have kept the protesting parties separate, in fact funneled the right-wing protesters, the people defending the monument, right into Antifa, [making them run] a gauntlet of Antifa to the monument … Then – I don’t know the details of it – on dubious legal grounds, [the police] declared the gathering of right-wing protesters unlawful. We were forced to leave the venue and run another gauntlet.
Similar accounts were given by two self-described Alt-Right activists in their mid-20s who came from the Midwest for the rally. Unlike the Finnish man above, the pair were with one of the first waves to get to Emancipation Park. They asked to be identified by the pseudonyms “George” and “Sean.”
“We’re seeing [projectiles] being thrown back and forth. The police seemed almost to misdirect people, sending them to the wrong side of the park so they would have to go through the crowd [of leftists],” George told Breitbart News, describing the progression into chaos.
The pair claimed that their pleas to police that Unite the Right participants, especially the featured speakers, were gravely endangered by running the “gauntlet” fell on deaf ears. “What was weird was that the police started forming a shield wall moving on to us, forcing us out onto this narrow staircase where we were right in front of Antifa,” George said of the scene as the rally was being dispersed.
Another Midwestern rally-goer, “Andrew,” in his early thirties, also came to the park with one of the early waves. His primary goal, he claims, was to stay out of the fray and capture video of the happenings. He spoke to Breitbart News about his own impressions of the policing:
We were told by police to walk around the perimeter, past one of the two parks where [the counter-protesters] had a permit to rally. Antifa came out and they started following us down a dead end where the police would not let us through to go to Lee Park, so we had to go back through the lines of [counter-protesters] … at that point a giant melee broke out. It’s hard to say who started it or how it started. It seemed to be some of the Black Lives Matter activists got in our faces and started assaulting us and the natural response was self-defense … What I didn’t expect was the inability or the refusal of the police department to respond to threats.
Andrew claimed the police made no attempt to apprehend the assailant and then related having projectiles including glass bottles thrown at his group by Antifa activists as they tried to make their way out of the what he insistently called “Lee Park.”
When asked whether orders were given on Saturday for police to stand down, Charlottesville Director of Communications Miriam Dickler told Breitbart News in an email that “no stand down orders were given on Saturday.”
When asked whether the tactic of physically separating the two opposing protests groups was employed, Dickler responded, “There were physical barricades to allow for separation and safety of those with opposing views, but ultimately the decision of where to collect is up to individuals.”
Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Unite the Right event, responded to Saturday’s violence, telling NBC 29 in Charlottesville in a statement that the blame was “primarily the result of the Charlottesville government officials and the law enforcement officers which failed to maintain law and order by protecting the First Amendment rights of the participants of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally.”
We networked with law enforcement officials and safety arrangements were made months ago, but despite this, the Charlottesville Police Department not only failed to act per the plan but exacerbated the violence: they did not separate the demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, they were poorly underequipped for the situation, they stood idly by when violent counter-protesters attacked the participants of the rally and then they forced our demonstrators out of Lee Park and into a melee with Antifa
The statement continues, saying that “despite the safety plan that was in place, the Charlottesville government backed out of it at the last minute.”
Kessler added, “Charlottesville violated the federal court’s order by shutting down the rally at Lee Park after left-wing agitators began throwing bricks at us. Our right to free speech was violated when the police officers acquiesced to the unconstitutional ‘heckler’s veto’ raised by our detractors.”
Due to the police not maintaining order, many people were hurt. The media is not showing who instigated the violence.
BREAKING: Statement from Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler. Will hold news conference at 2 pm. pic.twitter.com/7xE3w2vk3w
— Henry Graff (@HenryGraff) August 13, 2017
The same condemnation of violence was echoed by the rally-goers who spoke with Breitbart News in the aftermath of the day’s events. In particular, all the interviewed activists expressed their horror over what had happened in the car attack on the counter-protest.
“I have no idea where this happened, who did it, and for what reason. Whoever did behave in that way should be classified as a domestic terrorist,” the Finnish attendee said hours before Fields’s name had been released.
“The moment the police told us [the assembly was unlawful], as law-abiding citizens or visitors to the United States, we immediately left,” he added. “We were there not to have a fight with the police, not to break the law, and we left … We got back in our cars and drove away. We did precisely what the police told us to do, which was disperse.”
In separate interviews, all four recounted that they and everyone else they had seen at the rally was nowhere near the Water Street site of the crash when it occurred, having dispersed as ordered. “At least the Alt-Right, we were told to leave the city limits. As soon as we were kicked out … by the time we had heard of the car crash, we were all already miles away,” Sean said.
All four also took issue with the idea they or anyone associated with them had been the prime movers in the violence that broke out around the Lee statue. Asked when the Antifa attacks began George told Breitbart News, “Immediately. The very first convoy was already being hit by Antifa. As we got into the entrance, you would have people pushing you.”
“We initiated, from what I saw, literally none of the violence. I would say, of the violence initated 98 percent Antifa, two percent ours, and that’s just out of margin of error,” George said.
“Reasonable and proportionate, at the very least,” Sean said of the Alt-Rightists’ responses to Antifa attacks.
The Finn, who was further away from the “front lines,” added his account:
Violence was at a level it should not be in a civilized society. People were using flag-poles, metal poles, mace, pepper spray, and, in fact, I did see, at a very close distance, someone using an aerosol can and a lighter as a flamethrower.
People attacked the people protecting me with hammers and pepper spray and batons. We got to the mound where the monument sits. I saw pretty normal people. In one instance it was probably a grandfather and his grandson who had probably come there to protect United States history and they were in a situation that was definitely not something that they deserved or were in any way prepared for. I think the behavior of Antifa and other leftist groups in this particular situation was dangerous, malicious, totally out-of-proportion, and directed at people who had no intention of being violent.
The media widely reported the rally as a “Ku Klux Klan” or “neo-Nazi” march. None of the Alt-Right activists or other attendees with whom Breitbart News spoke denied that self-identified “KKK members” and “Nazis” including a contingent of the decades-old National Socialist Movement (NSM) were present at the rally. All, however, downplayed their significance and claimed these groups mostly kept to themselves on one side of Emancipation Park. “I was on the side with mostly Alt-Right. The other end was the NSM,” George said.
Sean said it was difficult, while on the ground, to estimate the relative numbers of people from different right-wing groups, but that the Alt-Right contingent outnumbered the more colorful groups that have dominated media attention by “at least two to one.”
Like the other activists who spoke to Breitbart News, George and Sean categorically rejected “KKK” “neo-nazi” and “white supremacist” labels. “It makes for a good chant, but no, absolutely not,” Sean said, referencing the left-wing’s now ubiquitous “No Nazis, No KKK, No Fascist U-S-A!” rally chant.
“In terms of the KKK, that’s a common lie the media like to tell. This was not a KKK march,” Andrew said. “This is a Unite the Right Rally. They are on the right, so they were here, but we don’t necessarily support what they do and they were clearly not the majority of people who were there.”
None of them, however, deny that they came to protest the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue largely because they see it as part of a wider attack on white people. “We came to defend white people,” George said. “I am a northerner through and through, but this is absolutely an attack on the people of the South and its part of a much wider system of anti-white politics.”
As Sean put it:
We’re seeing whites largely blamed for enormous problems. Just about every problem we’re seeing is, we’re told, caused by white privilege or colonialism, or whatever terms they come up with to use white people as a scapegoat for everyone elses’ problems. And on top of that, sometime in the 2040s, we’re projected to be a minority in this country. History tells us exactly what happens to scapegoated minorities in the countries where they’re unpopular.
In Andrew’s words:
The message is global and also local … Whites in Europe, in North American, and in Australia are having multiculturalism forced on them. Dangerous multiculturalism, not the positive kind where you get the best of the best, but the worst of the worst … We get Islamic radicals being brought into our countries. I felt this was a turning point in world events and that I needed to be here at the very least. I’m not necessarily 100 percent Alt Right. I want to be here to observe it from as unbiased a perspective as I can, but even with that I can’t ignore facts … We see what’s happening in South Africa, we see what’s happening in Western Europe. Those are prime examples of ethnic European dispossession and violence against whites. Based on that, we can tell what’s going to be happening here.
Breitbart News has also reached out to the Albemarle County Police, Virginia State Police, and Governor McAuliffe’s communication director for comment. As of publication, none of these offices have replied.
Several individuals appearing to be coming from the opposing rallies and dressed in the trappings of left-wing activism refused to speak with Breitbart News about their own experiences on Saturday.
Ian Mason is Breitbart News’ DOJ Correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at @IP_Mason.
Amanda House is Breitbart News’ Deputy Political Editor. You can follow her on Twitter at @AmandaLeeHouse.