In Charlottesville, ‘Police Did Nothing’

"Their failure to protect the community that day left all of us at risk from violence that was unnecessary and preventable."

Unlike their approach to preventing violence at July's Ku Klux Klan Rally, the Charlottesville Police Department and State Police failed to establish safe corridors on August 12th for opposing sides to enter and exit the area. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“It was a solid punch and my nose was bleeding,” said Kendall, a young woman and long-time Charlottesville, Virginia, resident. While protesting in Charlottesville on August 12, Kendall, who asked we not use her last name for her protection, reeled, stumbling back from a blow by a white supremacist. A line of police officers stood 15 feet away. She ran to within six feet of them.

“I shouted out begging for their help,” Kendall said, “telling them, ‘The man who hit me, he’s walking away right now, I can see him, please help me. I need your help …. I would say two of the officers had the courage to meet my gaze. Most of them averted their eyes. All of them did nothing. None of them said a word.”

Kendall’s story is typical of victims and witnesses of violence at the so-called alt-right rally of white supremacists and neo-Nazis that turned into a fatal riot in Charlottesville. Volunteer medics treated scores of the walking wounded. Video cameras captured people fighting in the streets. Dozens of people were seen suffering from assaults that used pepper spray, mace, and tear gas, which was not used by police. A Black man was savagely beaten by white supremacists in front of police in a parking garage, on camera, and remains hospitalized. Yet only four arrests that day were reported by Charlottesville authorities.

Brenda “Bee” Lambert, 75, of Charlottesville, didn’t even consider staying at home while white supremacists marched in her city. 

“I read all the debates about, ‘Just ignore them.’ That’s ridiculous,” said Lambert. “You can’t just ignore this kind of invasion.”

While Lambert is not religious, she connected with a group of clergy called Congregate and joined them in protest in front of the rally.

“We stood in front of the steps, the main steps [into the park where the rally was held] near the front of the library,” Lambert said. “We assumed, and I still think that is what should have happened, that the police having granted the permit to these people, like they did with the [Ku Klux] Klan [during a July KKK rally] that they would escort them into the park, make sure they got in safely, and escort them out.”

That wasn’t what happened.

Unlike their approach to preventing violence at July’s KKK Rally, the Charlottesville Police Department (CPD) and Virginia State Police failed to establish safe corridors on August 12 for opposing sides to enter and exit the area. They failed to deploy police officers between the demonstrating white supremacists and the protesters. CPD Chief Al Thomas said close to 1,000 police officers were present in Charlottesville on the day of the rally. Hundreds formed in a line around the statue of Robert E. Lee in the center of the park, behind the white supremacists. None took action against violence.

“We got there and stood there and could not even see police unless we looked a half a block up the street at the Historical Society,” Lambert said. “We realized that they were not going to be the ones who were there taking care of this. That was a disappointment … so when the first group of Nazis approached us we stood linking arms and they just pushed through and they knocked down several people at the end of the line.”

Lambert and members of Congregate linked arms again and attempted to remain in place, but were knocked aside again.

“Ater the second time they disbanded the group because they were worried someone was going to get hurt,” Lambert said. She credited Antifa members, an anti-facist group, for protecting her and the clergy of Congregate, saying Antifa members “just sort of moved forward and tried to get in between until we parted ways …. I think Cornel West was one of the people in that group and he said afterward that Antifa were the people who saved us.” 

The violence and noise gradually escalated. White supremacists began straggling into the park through the crowd of protesters with their eyes streaming and faces swollen from pepper spray and mace. Police did not act to help them either. Objects including bottles filled with urine, sticks, and rocks were thrown in both directions with impunity.

“Later on when people were throwing things back and forth, I mean the police did nothing,” Lambert said. “They just stood there. It made me wonder what it would have taken for them to intercede. I felt like they were looking for an excuse to shut the thing down, having not been able to legally do it.”

Elsewhere around the city, other groups waited for help from the police that didn’t come.

A group of clergy that included West obtained a permit to march from a church to the Jefferson School (formerly a segregated black-only school and now a community center) and on to McGuffey Park, blocks away from the rally. With the town filling up with white supremacists, they expected a police escort. Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy placed a phone call asking for one.

Susan Kruse, director of philanthropy for a nonprofit group, recalled what resulted.

“At the Jefferson School … there was no police presence. Wes Bellamy stood before the crowd and informed them that there would be no police escort, and that we needed to look out for each other. I was stunned.”

Lambert’s husband, Jim, was attending a protest at Justice Park (formerly known as Jackson Park, which was named for Confederate General Stonewall Jackson), intended to create a destination for people who wanted to protest while staying away from potential violence at the main rally. Like Kruse, he assumed that because organizers had obtained a permit, the police would have assigned a detail to protect them.

“There were just no police presence, no intervention,” said Jim Lambert. “They just weren’t involved. My own feeling is they should have been involved as protectors of the city and the city’s people, and they just weren’t. I did see them all around but they were out of the action.”

Trouble headed toward Justice Park after police declared the rally “an unlawful assembly” and ordered everyone to leave the area without having established protected corridors for white supremacists and protesters to exit through.

“The people at [Justice Park] were support people,” Brenda Lambert said. “There were medics there, there was food and water. It was a gathering place for people who didn’t want to be in the middle of things at Lee Park …. [The white supremacists] did in fact go to [Justice Park]. And a group called Redneck Revolt, who I had never heard of before, ran them off!”

Redneck Revolt is an anti-capitalist, anti-racist organization of primarily rural gun owners. According to Dave Strano, one of the group’s founding members, it was created in part as a response to the growth of the Tea Party in rural areas. Redneck Revolt members often appear—armed—to counter white supremacist events in the rural South.

“My husband, Michael Kruse, witnessed rocks being thrown, people being beaten with bats and doused with pepper spray all while police looked on from the safety of their pen,” Susan Kruse said.

“The police surrounded and guarded an empty park while chaos erupted around the city,” Michael Kruse added.

At a press conference on August 13th, Police Chief Thomas was asked by a reporter, “Did you give any orders to police officers not to help people who were being assaulted?”

“No,” Thomas said.

As of press time, CPD did not respond to a request for a copy of the safety plan used on August 12. The Virginia State Police refused to provide a copy of their plan, writing that “to the extent that such records contain specific tactical plans, the disclosure of which would jeopardize the safety or security of law-enforcement personnel or the general public,” they decline to cooperate with Rewire’s FOIA request for records pertaining to the events August 12.

“I know many officers feel deeply their duty to protect and serve the community,” Kendall said. “I would say that the Charlottesville Police Department has always been challenged in doing that equitably and we have numbers that prove that. Their failure to protect the community that day left all of us at risk from violence that was unnecessary and preventable …. They need to be accountable for their failure to act in defense of the citizenry, which is their most basic duty.”