Opinion: Charlottesville, One Year Later
By Thomas T. Cullen
United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia
The one-year anniversary of the odious “Unite the Right” (UTR) rally in Charlottesville thankfully passed without incident. Marked by mainly peaceful marches and rallies on the grounds of the University of Virginia and the Downtown Mall, this weekend’s events stood in stark contrast to the ugly and violent episodes of last year.
Law enforcement—particularly the Virginia State Police (VSP)—deserves enormous credit for planning, organizing, and implementing a security apparatus that provided a safe environment for protected First-Amendment activities and deterred those individuals intent on further violence from appearing and carrying out their nefarious plans.
As the U.S. Attorney for Western Virginia, I had the opportunity to observe this planning up close. Under the leadership of Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran, VSP Superintendent Gary Settle, and newly appointed Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney, law-enforcement officials marshalled myriad state and local government agencies under one unified command structure.
This group of law enforcement had been preparing for the anniversary weekend since last fall. Drawing on the painful but important lessons of 2017, the unified command recognized the importance of cooperation and coordination in every aspect of this huge undertaking.
The results speak for themselves. Operating out of a make-shift command center at a local park, state and local officials executed the security plan nearly to perfection. By Friday afternoon, over 700 state troopers and police officers from across the Commonwealth arrived in Charlottesville to augment local police forces. These officers and troopers, including some from the Roanoke Valley, monitored the security perimeter around Court Square Park and the Downtown Mall, redirected vehicular traffic away from protected areas, conducted continuous bike patrols, and generally provided a reassuring presence for protesters, citizens, and business owners alike. Although focused on maintaining order and safety, these officers, who were working long shifts, away from home, in 90-degree heat, were cheerful, courteous, and professional.
The weekend was not without its challenges or controversy. On Saturday evening, some participants at a planned “Rally for Justice” event near UVA’s Rotunda, agitated by the security measures and strong police presence, loudly—and, in some cases, vulgarly—protested officers posted along the Lawn. Cooler heads quickly prevailed, and rally participants eventually made their way, under police protection, downtown. On Sunday, approximately 150 people gathered for a peaceful community event in Washington Park and, later, for a memorial service for Heather Heyer near the intersection of Fourth and Water Streets, where, last August 12, she was murdered by an avowed white supremacist. Police, ever vigilant, made sure both events occurred without incident.
In the wake of last weekend’s events, some Charlottesville residents and organizers have criticized what they perceived as the unwarranted and heavy-handed role of law enforcement. These voices, many of whom, it must be said, are hostile to law enforcement generally, questioned why these security measures were necessary given the absence of white supremacists from this year’s anniversary. This criticism is, in my view, both ironic and unjustified.
Indeed some of these critics are among the same people who loudly criticized Charlottesville officials and the VSP for a perceived passive response to the events of last summer. And even though UTR organizer Jason Kessler had withdrawn his application to hold an official event this year, law enforcement had no choice but to carry out the security plan based on the well-reasoned assumption, informed by intelligence received in the days and weeks leading up to the anniversary weekend, that potentially violent individuals and groups could still descend on Charlottesville. Simply put, in light of what had occurred last year and the real potential for violence to reoccur, it would have been a gross dereliction of duty for law enforcement to do anything else.
As Charlottesville continues to heal from the events of last summer, it is my hope that members of the community recognize the vital role and contributions of law enforcement. Thanks in no small part to their efforts, Charlottesville was able to mark this solemn occasion with the peace and reflection it deserved.