The Continuing Police Controversy in Charlottesville: Inside View

New Orleans   Charlottesville and its horror are not going away. Trump’s economic adviser, former Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn, upbraided him publicly. Trump twitter raged about Republican Senator Corker’s criticism of his comments. Four groups of rabbis refused to join Trump in a holiday conference call tradition. Historic black colleges are split over whether to go to a meeting in the White House in protest. This issue has to be resolved. It won’t be forgotten easily.

Neither will questions about the Charlottesville police and state troopers actions – or lack of action – in stopping the violence.

We talked to long-time Charlottesville city council member and progressive voice on that body, Kristin Szakos, on Wade’s World about her perspective at the eye of the storm on a number of these issues. Szakos doesn’t come to these issues lightly. Having been on the council almost 8 years, she could be simply saying, “I told you so,” having raised the issue of the Lee and other statutes at the council level and to city management virtually since she first took office.

She handled many of my questions deftly, showing the experience that two terms in the public forum and this recent cauldron had forged. She had been forced to wait until an African-American was elected so that she had support on the issue, even if it was 2 of 5 seats. They had won the creation of a commission, typical for a college town she seemed to indicate, and she lauded its work, part of which had led to the renaming of the central park from Lee to Emancipation and another to Justice Park, even if it wasn’t the full loaf she and her allies had demanded. The actual removal is still caught in court action and political maneuvering, but I thought covering the statue in the interim in a black shroud might even be more powerful than removing it. She mentioned that temporarily it was in black plastic more appropriate for garbage, and that seemed even better.

I asked her to comment on a report in the New York Times last week where the police chief seemed to be rationalizing the police’s lack of crowd control saying they had been duped by the right-wing hater organizers when they entered the park area from several entrances rather than the one they had indicated and agreed to use. She said she had not seen that report, but made the case that it hardly mattered since the marchers had started coming into the park at 830 am, four hours before scheduled, and had also tactically dispersed, hitting another park where there were other activities from religious to quilting and going after a local synagogue as well. Essentially, her argument was that, all things considered, the police had done a good job throughout the hater protests and counter protests until a car deliberately drove into a group of counter protesters leaving the rally and thereby creating the tragedy that now marks any mention of Charlottesville.

One New York Times story Kristin Szakos will be reading in full was on the front page on Saturday. Several protesters have corroborated a report that one of the haters fired a pistol at an African-American in the crowd. They claimed it was impossible that the police did not hear the shot, since everyone did, but that the police did nothing. Other protesters reported being physically assaulted, telling the police, and getting no action and seeing no arrests. An implicit criticism in the story compares the amount of violence and fighting with the meager number of arrests on the scene to underscore the police passivity.

There was no comment on the story from the police or the mayor, but the city manager is quoted and referenced in the article.

He [City Manager Jones] stressed that the city had tried to prevent the rally, but that a federal judge had ordered the city to grant the permit. But even a member of the City Council asked the city manager and the police chief why there was an ‘apparent unwillingness of officers to directly intervene during overt assaults.’”

Given the robust defense of the police in our interview, upon reading the story this morning early, I emailed Kristin Szakos and asked her if the unnamed council person was her colleague, since I assumed it was not her. In fact when she replied, she indicated that she had in fact been the council member who sent a “private email” to these officials trying to get to the heart of the response – or lack of it – by the police. Szakos went on to say:

It was from a private e-mail I sent to the chief and city manager, saying that although I believed there was a plan, the fact that we aren’t telling the public what it was leaves us unable to answer their questions – like this one.  In our closed session, we discussed the need for coordinated communications from the police chief and communications office to help people understand how the police operation was intended.  Of course we can’t know about every action of every officer until the review is complete, but I am satisfied that police felt that intervening in every scuffle would inevitably have led to accelerated violence and probably gun deaths. 

Of course, she is correct that no final conclusion can be made, though the questions are concerning and have been left hanging, sadly as she also points out. The council has arranged an independent review of police action over the next 90-days to assess and determine future actions and past responsibilities.

Still, police tactics are critical issues, as I have pointed out earlier, and it is hard to escape a feeling that not intervening and stopping direct assaults seems to issue a de facto pass that encourages the fighters, similar to a free get-out-of-jail card. That is particularly true if public security does not physically separate two sides in a conflict. Not doing so guarantees that if one – or both – sides come looking for a fight, then they will be guaranteed to get one.

On one thing we completely agreed: armed protests cannot be allowed or permitted. There is no need to wait for a review to act at every level on that issue.

Stay tuned.

Dislosure: Kristin Szakos is also co-editor with Joe Szakos of Lessons from the Field, published by Social Policy Press. Joe Szakos is a longtime colleague, friend, and the founder of Virginia Organizing. Social Policy Press also published a history of Virginia Organizing in 2016, both available at www.socialpolicypress.org

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