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Chaos in Charlottesville: No One Gave Peace a Chance, Including the Police

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Photo by Mark Dixon | CC BY 2.0

“What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? …No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders … an uncontrolled or uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of the people … Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily—whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence—whenever we tear at the fabric of life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.”

— Robert Kennedy

Let’s be clear about one thing: no one—not the armed, violent, militant protesters nor the police—gave peace a chance during the August 12 demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va.

What should have been an exercise in free speech quickly became a brawl.

It’s not about who threw the first punch or the first smoke bomb.

It’s not about which faction outshouted the other, or which side perpetrated more violence, or even which group can claim to be the greater victim.

One young woman is dead because of the hate, violence, intolerance, racism and partisanship that is tearing this country apart, and it has to stop.

Lawful, peaceful, nonviolent First Amendment activity did not kill Heather Heyer.

She was killed by a 20-year-old Neo-Nazi who drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians in Charlottesville, Va.

Words, no matter how distasteful or disagreeable, did not turn what should have been an exercise in free speech into a brawl.

That was accomplished by militant protesters on both sides of the debate who arrived at what should have been a nonviolent protest armed with sticks and guns, bleach bottles, balloons filled with feces and urine and improvised flamethrowers, and by the law enforcement agencies who stood by and allowed it.

As the New York Times reported, “Protesters began to mace one another, throwing water bottles and urine-filled balloons— some of which hit reporters — and beating each other with flagpoles, clubs and makeshift weapons. Before long, the downtown area was a melee. People were ducking and covering with a constant stream of projectiles whizzing by our faces, and the air was filled with the sounds of fists and sticks against flesh.”

The madness is spreading.

People I know—good, decent people who value equality, reject racism, and believe strongly in tolerance—in their grief and dismay and disgust, threatened violence, acted like a mob, and adopted similarly violent, intolerant, disorderly tactics as those they claim to oppose.

Those who defend free speech were castigated by those who believe that only certain views should be allowed to be heard.

Those who cling to nonviolence were outnumbered by angry mobs intent on inciting violence.

Those who normally advocate a message of tolerance gave into the temptation to spew hate and intolerance.

The Rutherford Institute and the ACLU, two organizations who repeatedly stand up for the Constitution and the rights of all people—no matter how disagreeable their views may be—have been cursed at, denounced and threatened with violence for daring to remind government officials (and members of the community) that the First Amendment applies to all people equally.

The threats of violence have come from people who, while rightfully disgusted by the racist rhetoric and actions of the Neo-Nazis, wrongly decided that the answer to bigotry, intolerance and violence is mob justice, intolerance and more violence.

Glenn Greenwald gets it.

In a resounding rebuke of those who would opt to employ the tactics of fascists in order to silence fascists, Greenwald writes for The Intercept:

Demonizing lawyers and civil liberties advocates by depicting them as “complicit” in the heinous acts of their clients is a long-standing scam that is not confined to the U.S… Needless to say, none of these legal organizations or individual lawyers condone violence. They all vehemently oppose the ideology and worldview in the name of which this violence is committed. Yet they are all blamed for the violence and accused of complicity in it because they defend the free speech rights and civil liberties of people who express views in the name of which violence is committed.

The flaws and dangers in this anti-free-speech mindset are manifest, but nonetheless always worth highlighting, especially when horrific violence causes people to want to abridge civil liberties in the name of stopping it. In sum, purporting to oppose fascism by allowing the state to ban views it opposes is like purporting to oppose human rights abuses by mandating the torture of all prisoners. One of the defining attributes of fascism is forcible suppression of views… You can’t fight that ideology by employing and championing one of its defining traits: viewpoint-based state censorship…

The need to fight neo-Nazism and white supremacy wherever it appears is compelling. The least effective tactic is to try to empower the state to suppress the expression of their views. That will backfire in all sorts of ways: strengthening that movement and ensuring that those who advocate state censorship today are its defenseless targets tomorrow. And whatever else is true, the impulse to react to terrorist attacks by demanding the curtailment of core civil liberties is always irrational, dangerous, and self-destructive, no matter how tempting that impulse might be.

In other words, silencing unpopular viewpoints with which the majority might disagree—whether it’s by shouting them down, censoring them, muzzling them, or criminalizing them—only empowers those in the minority.

We are walking a dangerous road.

And then there’s the role police are supposed to play in upholding the law and preventing violence.

It’s a thankless job most of the time, and police must walk a fine line between respecting peaceful First Amendment activity and maintaining the peace, while not overstepping the limits of the Fourth Amendment.

For whatever reason—which only the police and government officials are privy to—the police failed to do their job at the Charlottesville demonstration, a charge levied by both the Alt Right and the counterdemonstrators.

The same police who in the past have responded to any acts of disorder or disobedience with the full power of their uniform and weapons were curiously lax in the face of outright violence.

As a Rolling Stone reporter recounted, “Unlike other events I’ve covered where anti-fascist protesters face off with white supremacists, the police make no effort to cordon the two groups off from each other to prevent violent clashes before they happen.”

Despite the fact that 1,000 first responders (including 300 state police troopers and members of the National Guard)—many of whom had been preparing for the downtown rally for months—had been called on to work the event, despite the fact that police in riot gear surrounded Emancipation Park on three sides, and despite the fact that Charlottesville had had what reporter David Graham referred to as “a dress rehearsal of sorts” a month earlier when 30 members of the Ku Klux Klan were confronted by 1000 counterprotesters, police failed to do their jobs.

In fact, as the Washington Post reports, police “seemed to watch as groups beat each other with sticks and bludgeoned one another with shields… At one point, police appeared to retreat and then watch the beatings before eventually moving in to end the free-for-all, make arrests and tend to the injured.”

Police Stood By As Mayhem Mounted in Charlottesville,” reported ProPublica.

Could Police Have Prevented Bloodshed in Charlottesville?” asked The Atlantic.

Police Response Inadequate at Charlottesville Rally,” concluded U.S. News.

There was no police presence,” a peaceful activist explained. “We were watching people punch each other; people were bleeding all the while police were inside of barricades at the park, watching. It was essentially just brawling on the street and community members trying to protect each other.”

Cornel West echoed this sentiment. “The police didn’t do anything in terms of protecting the people of the community, the clergy,” he told The Washington Post.

So what should the police have done differently?

For starters, the police should have established clear boundaries—buffer zones—between the warring groups of protesters and safeguarded the permit zones.

Instead, as eyewitness accounts indicate, police established two entrances into the permit areas of the park and created barriers “guiding rallygoers single-file into the park” past lines of white nationalists and antifa counterprotesters.

This is where the worst of the violence between protesters took place.

By 8:40 am protesters had already started gathering in the downtown area. Police failed to separate them.

By 10 am, a “mob of white supremacists formed a battle line across from a group of counter-protesters.” Police looked on and did nothing.

By 11 am, the general unrest had dissolved into all-out disorder. Police did not step in.

All the while protesters were throwing urine-filled water bottles, pepper spray and smoke bombs, and clobbering one another with flag poles and shields, Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, watchedfrom a command post overlooking the downtown area and did nothing.

Moran watched while fights broke out and police stood by and failed to intervene.

Only at 11:22 am, after hours of brawling and confrontations between the protesters, did Moran take action by calling on Governor Terry McAuliffe to declare a state of emergency. Only then did police mobilize to declare the gathering an unlawful assembly, “cutting off the rally before it officially began,” and begin clearing demonstrators out of the park.

There were other models that could have been followed.

As investigative reporter Sarah Posner notes, “At a neo-Nazi rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, just days before the November election, police employed this tactic with success – while the rally attendees and anti-fascist protesters taunted each other over a barrier of police, they were blocked from coming into physical contact. But in Charlottesville, the police inaction creates a sense of pandemonium.”

A good strategy, advises former federal prosecutor Miriam Krinsky, 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.

In Cleveland, the site of the GOP presidential convention, “Trump diehards, Revolutionary Communists, Wobblies, and Alex Jones disciples” faced off in a downtown plaza. Yet as The Atlantic reports, “Just as confrontations between the groups seemed near to getting out of hand, police swooped into the square in huge numbers, using bicycles to create cordons between rival factions. The threat of violence soon passed, and no pepper spray or tear gas was needed.”

For that matter, consider that Charlottesville police established clear boundaries just a month earlier in which they maintained clear lines of demarcation at all times between KKK protesters and counterprotesters. Indeed, the primary violence at the July 8 Klan rally came when police used tear gas and pepper spray to force protesters to disperse.

The question, as always, is where do we go from here?

It’s a question that Martin Luther King Jr. wrestled with and addressed in the last book he wrote before his assassination, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

As King pointed out repeatedly, hate begets hate. Violence begets violence.

And as I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, tyranny begets tyranny.

The day after King was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy delivered these remarks:

This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity to speak briefly to you about this mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives. It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one – no matter where he lives or what he does – can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on…

Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach nonviolence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them. Some looks for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear; violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.

For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered. We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear – only a common desire to retreat from each other – only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force.

The lesson for all of us is this: remember, when you strip away the politics and the class warfare and the skin color and the religious ideology and the gender differences and the sexual orientation and anything else that can be used as a source of division, remember that underneath it all, we are all the same.

As Nelson Mandela recognized, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

More articles by:

John W. Whitehead is the president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People.

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