Charlottesville residents criticized the review of the city’s handling of the white supremacist rally in August, saying that it focused on the technicalities of the response but failed to discuss underlying racism.
Residents and officials packed a council meeting Monday evening, where former U.S. attorney Timothy Heaphy presented the findings of the independent review, which sharply criticized the police department for lacking the proper training and preparation to respond to the violent rally. At the first meeting since the report was publicly released Friday, residents expressed their anger and frustration with city officials and police.
City Manager Maurice Jones announced an “action plan,” which included the creation of an emergency management team, additional training for the police department and support for an amendment to the state code that would allow local authorities to restrict the carrying of certain weapons and firearms during events.
The city also is seeking a change to the state code that would make it a criminal offense to use lit torches with the intent of intimidating people. On the night of Aug. 11, white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia campus with torchlights, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil.”
“There is a lot of distrust right now in our community,” Jones said after listening to hours of discussion. “We know that race is an issue in Charlottesville. . . . We are working to ensure that we can enhance the quality of life for people in our city.”
The 207-page report examined the city’s response to three white supremacist events, including the weekend of Aug. 11 and 12, when hundreds of white supremacists came to Charlottesville for the Unite the Right Rally to oppose the planned removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park.
Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy said Tuesday that the council heard “very clearly” from residents that racism was missing from the report. He said the meeting, which included yelling, crying and calls for “civility,” showed officials that they have “a lot of work to do in regards to improving race relations, in regards to our community.”
Bellamy, the council’s only African American member, asked Heaphy on Monday night why race was not part of the report. Heaphy responded that his review did not find evidence that race affected decisions from city officials about the rally and that examining race was “beyond the scope” of what the firm was asked to do.
This response angered residents in attendance, showing deep concerns in the city about fair treatment for minorities. One speaker called the report a “whitewash.”
Many said the report repeated what those who were at the rally have been telling officials about police officers failing to protect the safety of residents.
“It falls woefully short,” Don Gathers, a local activist, said during the public comment period. “You don’t address the specific issue that brought the Nazis here in the first place.”
Residents at the meeting blamed city officials and law enforcement for the violence that broke out when white supremacists and neo-Nazis clashed with counterprotesters. That same day, a Nazi sympathizer is alleged to have driven his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19.
Before the rally, police did not seek input from law enforcement personnel in other cities who had experience handling similar events, Heaphy told the council. A review of body-camera footage, Heaphy said, showed officers turning to each other during the white supremacist rally saying:
“Do you know what we’re supposed to do?”
“I don’t know what we’re supposed to do.”
When Mayor Mike Signer asked Heaphy what the largest problem was, Heaphy said that city government — and law enforcement specifically — “didn’t know what they didn’t know.”
Those in the crowd yelled: “We told you!”
People, including Bellamy, criticized the report’s cover photo, which showed an African American police officer looking down as white supremacists marched behind him, one in a red hood and another with his arm outstretched in a Nazi salute. Heaphy said that the photo wasn’t “intentionally disrespectful” but that he understands how it was “ignorantly disrespectful.”
Residents urged the council to take time for a thoughtful review of the report and hear community input before making comprehensive changes.
“I’m sorry,” Bellamy said. “We let you all down.”