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Task force: Charlottesville officials failed to act on intelligence that rally would be violent

12/8/2017, 6:13 a.m.
Virginia Public Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Brian J. Moran said last week that state officials had intelligence indicating that ...
People fly into the air after being struck by a car that plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters at he Aug. 12 valley in Charlottesville. One person was killed and 19 others were injured. The driver, James A. Fields Jr., was charged with second degree murder. Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress/Associated Press

During last week’s panel, Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the Virginia ACLU that represented Mr. Kessler, the rally organizer, during a court hearing about the move, recounted the arguments in the hearing held the day before the rally that led U.S. District Court Judge Glen E. Conrad to allow it to take place in the city park where the statue of Confederate Robert E. Lee is located.

“The city came into that hearing … and they made no showing about safety,” said Ms. Gastanaga.

Instead of presenting information that violence was expected, attorneys for the city cited crowd size as a reason for suddenly wanting to move the rally, she said.

“There was actionable intelligence that someone could have put in front of a judge, but no one did,” she said.

“There’s no right to violent assembly,” she said. “There’s right to peaceful assembly.”

While her organization has come under fire for its role in helping the rally go forward, Ms. Gastanaga maintained the ACLU is committed to ensuring that government acts in accordance with the U.S. Constitution and does not infringe upon free speech unlawfully.

Multiple media accounts detailed the violent skirmishes in Charlottesville as neo-Nazis and white supremacists clashed with counterprotesters. Dozens of people were hurt and 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.

Recalling the day’s events, Mr. Moran said it was “surreal” seeing several dozen armored protesters equipping themselves with long guns as passersby walked a dog and pushed a baby stroller. 

The task force report contains dozens of recommendations, including the need for a “more robust” permitting process for future rallies and restrictions on weapons and on how many people are allowed and for how long.

Mr. Moran insisted the report was not meant to “second guess decision makers or assign blame,” but to look forward with the goal of preventing such violence in the future.

In the report, he went on to commend Richmond’s handling of a rally on Sept. 16 at the Lee statue on Monument Avenue that was organized without a permit by a neo-Confederate group from Tennessee.

In that instance, Richmond Police spent more than $500,000 for personnel and equipment and operating expenses to handle the rally called by CSA II: The New Confederate States of America to protest the possible removal of the state-owned Lee statue.

The event saw less than a dozen protesters outnumbered by hundreds of counterprotesters. Police kept the two groups separate throughout the day.  

Following the panel, Mr. Moran declined to say whether he believes the removal of Confederate statues would quell future rallies and their potential for violence. He said a bill likely will be submitted in the upcoming General Assembly session that would allow localities to ban firearms from certain permitted events in the interest of maintaining public safety.