Police are blocking off streets and mobilizing hundreds of officers for the anniversary of a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, alarming activists who plan to rally against the hatred and bloodshed that shocked the nation last summer.
State and local authorities framed this weekend’s heightened security as a necessary precaution, but some community activists are concerned the measures could be a counterproductive overreaction.
An independent investigation of last year’s rally violence, led by a former federal prosecutor, found the chaos stemmed from a passive response by law enforcement and poor preparation and coordination between state and city police.
Lisa Woolfork, a University of Virginia professor and Black Lives Matter Charlottesville organizer, said police are mounting a “huge, overwhelming show of force to compensate for last year’s inaction.”
“Last year, I was afraid of the Nazis. This year, I’m afraid of the police,” Woolfork said. “This is not making anyone that I know feel safe.”
Grace Aheron, an organizer for Showing Up for Racial Justice, said a “militarized police presence” doesn’t make the city safer.
“I’m not looking forward to what that’s going to look like this weekend,” she said.
On the eve of last year’s rally, torch-toting white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia’s campus, shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans. On Saturday, students and activists plan to hold a “Rally for Justice” on campus while the university is hosting a “morning of reflection and renewal,” with poetry readings and musical performances. Activists also announced plans for a gathering Sunday morning at a park in Charlottesville.
Sunday is the anniversary of the violence that erupted on the streets of Charlottesville, where hundreds of rally participants gathered to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park that was named after the Confederate general. Crowds of white supremacists and counterprotesters clashed before a car plowed into a crowd, killing 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer. James Fields Jr., 21, of Maumee, Ohio, is charged in state court with murder in Heyer’s killing and also faces separate hate crime charges in federal court.
Jason Kessler, the primary organizer of last summer’s rally, sued the city of Charlottesville after it refused to issue him a permit for another event this weekend. However, Kessler dropped his lawsuit last week and vowed to forge ahead with plans for a “white civil rights” rally Sunday in Washington, D.C.
On Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam and the city both declared states of emergency, citing the “potential impacts of events” in Charlottesville during the anniversary weekend. The state’s declaration allocates $2 million in state funds and authorizes the Virginia National Guard to assist in security efforts.
The city is closing downtown streets and public parks and restricting access to a downtown “security area,” where visitors are prohibited from wearing masks or carrying certain items, including skateboards, catapults, glass bottles, bats and knives. Virginia State Police Superintendent Gary Settle said more than 700 state police will be activated during the weekend.