Injured Community Members Expose Police Brutality at July 8 Anti-Klan Protest in Charlottesville

Charlottesville, VA – Community members injured by police at Saturday’s city-sanctioned KKK rally are speaking out about the brutality of area police forces against Charlottesville residents. Supporters of those injured by the police demand that the City of Charlottesville make amends for unwarranted escalation. Redress must include dropping all charges against those arrested Saturday, and dropping previous charges against local racial justice activist Veronica Fitzhugh. Included are documented instances of police brutality against community members.

Who: Community members injured by police in Charlottesville on July 8, 2017
What: Press conference to expose police brutality in Charlottesville on July 8, 2017
Where: General District Court, Market Street, Charlottesville, VA beside Charlottesville Police Department
When: 8:30 am, Friday, July 14, 2017

On Saturday, more than 1,000 people gathered in Charlottesville to confront the KKK rally and send a powerful message of community mobilization for racial justice. While community members assembled peacefully to resist white supremacist hate, the City of Charlottesville and area police forces provided material support for the Klan beyond merely permitting them to assemble. A few dozen Klan members, some armed, were escorted in and out of the rally and provided a secure parking garage in the sheriff’s building guarded by heavily armed riot police. They were allowed to overstay their permit, eventually leaving at 4:44 p.m.

At 4:58 p.m., less than 15 minutes after KKK members were carefully escorted out, police declared the assembly an unlawful gathering. This was insufficient time for people to disperse – especially given the size of the crowd, as many people were trying to gather belongings and find friends, not to mention that the group was still grieving what they had just witnessed. Without regard for these needs, police officers who arrived wearing riot gear and bearing military-grade equipment donned gas masks and deployed chemical weapons banned by the Geneva convention on their own citizens. The brutality police enacted on the Charlottesville community sits in stark contrast to the patience and protection provided to the KKK.

In the following Appendix, we document specific instances of police brutality on Saturday. We provide video links and photographs as evidence of the unwarranted violence perpetrated against the community by a militarized police force.

APPENDIX: Instances of police brutality against community members

Incident 1

“The crowd made its way to the alley in which a charter bus was supposedly waiting for Klan to get on. There were military grade humvees and state police in military gear carrying what looked like assault rifles. The police threatened to arrest us if we did not disperse, so the majority of us started to walk up the alley away from the bus. As we were walking out of the alley, one woman was randomly and swiftly grabbed and cuffed. A number of us had a visceral reaction to what seemed to be an unnecessary arrest, so we started telling the officers to let her go. The officers were starting to lead her down a ramp connected to the domestic and juvenile court, so some people decided to sit and attempt a blockade of the ramp so the officer could not take her away. I joined the blockade but was quickly picked off by an officer. I was pulled up by an officer and thrown on the ground back first. I was then accosted by an officer to get up and was helped up by someone. I was thrust back into the fray and watched as officers assaulted and tried to arrest the people around me. My friends stood their ground, but police were getting increasingly upset until the situation escalated and an officer pulled out a weapon – what looked like an M16 – and pointed it at us. The crowd reacted strongly, pushing towards our group in order to protect us, and that’s when I was shoved around by police again. They grabbed me in an attempt to remove me from the situation and threw me to the ground on my knees. I was luckily pulled up to my feet by a friend, but I was already suffering from a panic attack. I knew I had hit my head but was unaware of the severity of my injuries. Medics pulled me out and laid me on the ground; they took my BP and pulse. My BP was 175, pulse 100. I was hyperventilating while medics were attending to me. They were with me for only a couple of minutes before police warned them that they had to move. We could not move because the medics were concerned about my BP, but within seconds of the order to move police deployed what seemed to be tear gas canisters. The medics and myself were gassed and I started to violently choke. I was truly afraid I was going to die, knowing that my throat had closed up from the panic attack and also knowing I have asthma and respiratory allergies. I was gasping for breath and medics were leading me away from the situation. They finally found a place to put me and treated me for the tear gas inhalation and burns.”

Traumatized community member is attended to by medics and friends while recovering from a panic attack exacerbated by repeat attacks from police. The photograph was taken moments before police deployed tear gas right next to this group. Photo Credit: Dolly Joseph CC BY 2.0

Incident 2

“A group of us were in front of the 4th Street garage when the police started pushing us back. We retreated across the street from the garage and watched the KKK drive away. Then we followed the crowd up 4th street toward E. High Street, in front of the juvenile justice building. From the High Street side, I saw some people at the bottom of the ramp. Some of them were shoved and trampled on by the sheriff’s deputies as the officers moved up the ramp. I jumped over the railing behind the officers to help the folks trapped get out of the police’s way. But then officers in black started to hit one of the people who was already on the ground with a baton. I tried to shield them and said “stop stop!” but then the officer hit me. I was pushed by a policeman to the ground and began shaking. I had a panic attack and screamed for help, but the officer continued to hold me down and commanded that I put my hands behind my back. I did, just as the police launched the tear gas attack on the demonstrators.”

Incident 3

A community member, while already on the ground, was stepped on and kicked in the face three times by a local police officer. This person tried to sit back up but was again tackled by other officers. The actions of the police were captured on video by another person who was present.

Video link to incident:

A photo of the described incident

Incident 4

Cops carefully put on gas masks without any apparent provocation from community members; only after they were masked did they warn the crowd that they should disperse. A community member described the use of the tear gas as follows:

“There was no escalation of violence on the part of [the crowd]. The cops very calmly prepared to gas the crowd (including journalists and ACLU monitors) after having given inconsistent instructions, first asking people to move or they will be arrested, then arresting people even after they started to move.”

Video link to incident:

Incident 5

Community members linked arms and turned their backs to a line of cops in full riot gear to protest the way the police protected the KKK. The activists had their backs turned to the police, maintaining a wide distance from the police line, while police released three tear-gas canisters into the crowd in quick succession. The police line began to advance on the crowd after the second canister was fired.

Link to an ACLU legal observer’s video documenting the moment tear gas canisters were launched:

Community members have their backs turned to police in full riot gear and gas masks as police deploy tear gas.

Incident 6

“I saw a masked KKK member walking in and told the Virginia State Police in riot gear who were standing there facing me what was happening and they did not respond. Instead, I was pushed with open hands by two Virginia State Police, one of whom was not wearing any identification even though similarly uniformed officers had names. Another person was pushed with no warning or instruction while standing where the officers had told me to stand. Only after this did the cops give instructions to back up.”

A masked Klansman walks freely past police without incident. Three community members were arrested and charged with felony masking for using their shirts and scarfs to protect themselves from chemical agents deployed by police.

Last Saturday, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan traveled over a hundred miles to Charlottesville to sow seeds of racial discord in a town embroiled in a heated debate over what message its Confederate monuments send to the community and the nation. And while their contingent may have been relatively small, the Klan’s presence in Charlottesville in support of the monuments had an outsized impact on members of the community who roundly oppose the message of hate and division the Klan embraces. Guided by their conscience, those same members of the community came together en masse to show the KKK that they were not welcome.

Unfortunately, those counter demonstrators were met with a police presence that did nothing to deescalate the tensions between the community and the Klan. Rather, the militaristic show of force by the police–dressed in riot gear, driving armored vehicles and carrying weapons often taken into war zones–implied that the police were not there simply to protect civil liberties and keep things orderly. By outfitting and organizing themselves the way they did from the outset, law enforcement turned what was supposed to be a decisive referendum by the Charlottesville community rejecting the Klan and their dying message, into a situation where those objecting to the Klan were made to feel like enemies of the state.

Even if city officials were concerned that the combination of the Klan plus a large group of vocal counter-demonstrators presented a risk of violence, why have law enforcement come out in a show of force as if rioting & violence was absolutely guaranteed? Whatever wisdom there is in the adage that “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”, there is equal wisdom in the saying that “Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.”

We call on the City of Charlottesville to subscribe to the latter philosophy when it comes to how its police engage with all members of the community. A commitment to de-escalation and non-confrontation on the part of the police is not too much for citizens to demand in a country that claims to elevate the principle of rule by consent over rule by fear.

And it is surely not too much to ask of state and local law enforcement when another hateful contingent is preparing to descend on the City in less than a month. Let’s be clear, the neo-Nazis and white supremacists coming to town for the August 12 “Unite the Right” rally are all too pleased to have a platform allowing them to publicly deny the humanity of Charlottesville’s black, brown, immigrant, Muslim and other non-white populations. There is no better way for the City of Charlottesville to demonstrate that it respects the humanity of ALL members of the community, than by directing law enforcement to show understanding to those who gather in solidarity to drown out the racist and violent rants of a group of people who want nothing more than to see those who oppose them suffer harm.

Emily Gorcenski provides the following statement regarding police use of force:

Good morning. My name is Emily Gorcenski. I want to speak about the police violence that was witnessed on July 8. Much attention has already been given to the choice to deploy chemical weapons on Charlottesville’s streets, but I want to address the performance of the police throughout the day. I was present at the counter-demonstration and was affected by the chemical weapons deployed by police, but I bore witness to ineffective policing and questionable decision making throughout the afternoon.

First, I want to address the unnecessary and unreasonable decision to declare an unlawful assembly roughly ten minutes after the KKK departed. To be frank, it is ridiculous to expect a grieving community with a deep legacy of racial violence to simply pack up and go home after the KKK rallied in our city. People were still cleaning the park. People were searching for friends and loved ones. And many people were present to air their grievances and to try to heal the wounds of Charlottesville’s longstanding KKK legacy. Charlottesville residents can’t clear out of a Dave Matthews show in under an hour, yet the police declared a peaceful crowd to be an “unlawful assembly” within minutes of the KKK’s departure. This is an ineffective police strategy that only leads to escalation and the likelihood of violence. Safe and effective models for crowd dispersal exist; the police chose not to use them.

This poor decision making reflects on an overall theme of inexperience and poor training throughout the day. The police tactics were amateurish. In several circumstances, police broke formation while in riot lines. Police routinely gave demonstrators conflicting instructions, amplifying the confusion of the crowd. In a hostile crowd this would have posed a danger to law enforcement offices as well as community members. But fortunately, the July 8 rally was peaceful.

This evident lack of training and experience was compensated for by gross over-equipment. Not only did the police bring full riot gear to a peaceful demonstration, they also brought assault rifles, grenade launchers, drones, a helicopter, and two Lenco Bearcats. The Bearcat was originally designed to combat insurgents in Iraq and to survive IED explosions. Military hardware was roving needlessly through the streets of Charlottesville in an needless and compensatory display of force.

One of two Lenco Bearcats deployed during the event. Photo Credit: Emily Gorcenski CC BY 2.0

Ultimately, this led to the unnecessary deployment of CS gas–a chemical agent banned from the use in war by the Chemical Weapons Convention. We reject the allegation that the deployment of chemical weapons was in reaction to a personal defense spray: video evidence shows that the police went through a lengthy process of preparing gas masks and equipment prior to deploying CS. This was a deliberate and planned decision to use force, not a reaction to violence from the crowd.

A spent CS canister recovered from High Street on July 8. Photo Credit: Jalane Schmidt

The deployment of these weapons evidently didn’t consider the direction of the prevailing breeze; as a result, the agent mainly affected legal observers and media members who were legally observing from the sidewalk. It was here that I was affected by the agent while documenting the event. I would now like to play for you an audio recording from shortly after the first CS canister was deployed. In this audio, you will hear the screams of pain of someone who was hit by and affected by the canister.

We reject Chief Thomas’s claims that appropriate force was used on July 8. Military equipment and chemical weapons were deployed needlessly on Charlottesville’s streets. This does not form a pattern of community growth, but rather a clear pattern of escalation of militarization and police violence that has started in communities of color and is now generally present on our streets.

Emery Myer provides the following personal experience from attending the event and witnessing police violence:

I am speaking today to share what I personally experienced on Saturday, July 8th. And what I experienced was undeniably horrible.

I got off work right at the time the KKK were scheduled to have their rally, so I rushed over to the park. It was obvious how big the crowd was from even two blocks away, and I felt hopeful and glad that so many people showed up to oppose them. I was initially trying to find my girlfriend who was already at the rally, and failing that I went to High St to join the band for the Blockkk Party. The first arrest I saw was of Veronica Fitzhugh, who was being carried out with one officer holding each of her limbs, followed by a few more people.

And then the KKK showed up. I was angry, as were most people in the crowd. At this point I had found my girlfriend, though I got separated from her when the KKK were leaving the park.

The most terrifying moment of that day wasn’t the gas. I was on the opposite side of the street from the parking garage that the KKK came out of. I was on the sidewalk, braced against a riot shield behind me and a crowd of protestors in front of me, holding the arm of a stranger. The officer that was behind him started shoving him with his shield, hard, unprovoked and randomly. It was all I could do to beg the officer to stop. Yell over the crowd that we were already on the sidewalk. I held him up the best I could, but he went down on the ground nearly sobbing. I can’t even begin to describe how much pain it looked like he was in. I just kept repeating that he was OK, trying to encourage him to stand up. He did after a little bit, and he filmed the KKK leaving the parking garage.

After the police line backed away, he just hugged me for a long time. Thanked me for standing there with him.

After that, I followed the police back up to High St. There I witnessed the police taking the muzzles off two attack dogs. I saw my friend a little way away, so I went to join her and see if she was ok. There I got caught in the pepper spray police claim a protestor sprayed. I didn’t see who sprayed it, I didn’t even know it was sprayed. I saw people around me coughing, and when I opened my mouth to ask what was happening I started coughing as well.

Not long after, I saw police putting on gas masks. I had heard the announcement that it was an unlawful assembly, but only because I was so close. I knew a lot of people wouldn’t have heard it between the volume of the crowd and the helicopter overhead. I went around and told as many people as I could that they were putting on gas masks before covering my own face. A few minutes later, they released the first canister. And then the second. I was scared, but fortunately not panicking as my face started burning. I had shut my eyes tight after the second one went off, so I just stood still and hoped for the best. I opened my eyes just in time to see the third one be thrown into a crowd of people filming everything. I cloud of dust coming towards me and I closed my eyes again.

Afterward, I went to a med station that was close by. Neutralizer was put into my eyes, and I had to keep blinking for it to work right. Someone else took me farther down the sidewalk. We talked for a few minutes, and I hear someone scream and the person I’m talking to is telling me to run. I can barely see at this point so I just do what she tells me to, without really knowing what was happening. I was panicking at this point. I was separated from anyone I knew, and I was running almost blindly. I heard later that they were beginning to advance on the medical station in full riot gear, and that’s why we were running.

Without a doubt, the police’s actions did not protect this community. All they did was escalate a situation that was deescalating after the KKK left. There is no excuse, there is no justification that the police could give that would explain the things I and so many other people that day experienced. But we as a community stood up, and we stood together. Even though I wasn’t around anyone I knew for a majority of the protest, I never felt alone. And that is because the people of this city protected and cared for me in a way the police didn’t.

[This press release has been updated at 14-July-2017 2:27 PM to correct errors in LAJC’s statement.]