Virginia Declares a New Era for Protests

Nov 20, 2017

Virginia has entered a new era when it comes to protests.  That’s one of many conclusions drawn by a task force set up to study events in Charlottesville on August 12th.  The full report will be issued December First.

Virginia's Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, Brian Moran, says Charlottesville marked a new day for how police deal with protests
Credit Commonwealth of Virginia

When neo-Nazis and anti-fascists clashed on the streets of Charlottesville, the world took note.  Six hundred state police were on duty along with local and county police and – eventually – 125 members of the national guard, but that did not prevent violent fights, the use of chemical irritants like bleach, multiple injuries and one death caused by a driver who slammed into a crowd of counter protesters.

“Going forward this is a new day and something we’re going to have to wrestle with,” says Brian Moran, the state’s secretary of public safety and homeland security. 

“Best practices are changing, frankly, because what we learned August 12th – that crowd that came to Charlottesville was organized, communicating amongst themselves, and they were coming with violent intentions, and so that’s what we need to plan on for the future.”

Moran insists the state was not out to blame anyone for what happened, but the task force report faults Charlottesville for failing to impose limits when it issued a permit to rally organizer Jason Kessler. 

“Much of what occurred in Charlottesville might have been prevented if there had been a robust permitting process," Moran explains.  "Permits should limit the number of people who can demonstrate at a particular location, what can be brought to the demonstration, such as weapons, and the duration of the event.”

At the time, Charlottesville officials insisted the Second Amendment prevented them from barring firearms from the protest site, but Moran disagrees.

“Our task force was aided by a law school dean  who is a constitutional lawyer," he says, "Based on his study of constitutional law, we are able to prohibit firearms.”

And, he adds, even sticks used to uphold banners or signs can be banned. Moran says Charlottesville was warned that cars or trucks could also be used as weapons.

“That was the first time that had actually occurred, but the state police had shared information that it would be a possibility.”

In light of that risk, he says, communities must now block vehicle access to protest sites and surrounding areas.

“Streets should be blocked with heavy equipment such as dump trucks and school buses.  We can no longer rely on  saw horses or yellow tape, not when vehicle homicide is a potential.  You have to at least prepare for it.” 

In fact, the task force said too little had been done to prepare state and local police for a range of possibilities.

"For instance Saturday morning  I observed the entry of approximately 30 men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles.  What happens when that occurs?  We need to make sure that there’s appropriate training, tabletop exercises.”

Both the city and state have noted their police were in street uniforms – not initially prepared to fight violent protesters – this after a Klan rally in July when state police were criticized for wearing riot gear.

Before Unite the Right, the task force said, both state and city officials drafted plans, but they used different formats, making it hard to compare and collaborate.  In future, the report proposes a single plan that defines roles and responsibilities, spells out the chain of command and clearly explains to law enforcement when to step in. Many of those who were at the rally have complained that police did little to break up fights.  Were state or city officers ordered to stand down, allowing mayhem so the governor could declare a state of emergency and police could clear protesters from the park?  Morsan doesn’t think so.

“There was no such direction that I am aware of,” he says.

Another answer could come from former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy who has promised his report, commissioned by the city, in early December.