CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The Rutherford Institute, American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Legal Aid Justice Center, and National Lawyers Guild are calling on Virginia police to de-escalate their use of force and adopt less confrontational tactics in dealing with those who choose to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights to assemble in public and engage in nonviolent protests. The coalition letter comes in response to a recent July 8 rally by the KKK and counter-protesters which ended with militarized police, dressed in riot gear and carrying military-grade weapons, deploying tear gas to disperse the protesters. The coalition is urging city and state officials to renounce the use of warzone tactics in response to protest activity and to develop plans to use de-escalation tactics in advance of another controversial rally planned for August.
“There can be no free speech for the citizenry when the government speaks in a language of force. Unfortunately, this is how the government at all levels—federal, state and local—now responds to those who choose to exercise their First Amendment right to peacefully assemble in public and challenge the status quo,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “A militarized police response to protesters poses a danger to all those involved, protesters and police alike, and flies in the face of every tenet of good community policing. In fact, militarization makes police more likely to turn to violence to solve problems.”
On July 8, 2017, 50 members of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan staged a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of two Confederate statues from public parks. An estimated 1,000 people gathered in the public park to engage in peaceful, nonviolent protests. Police officers from the City of Charlottesville, the County of Albemarle, and Virginia State Police were deployed at the scene, many in riot gear, driving armored vehicles, and visibly armed with military-style weapons. Although there were few physical confrontations between the KKK and protesters during the rally and after the KKK was escorted from the park by police, the large police presence remained to confront the demonstrators and disperse the crowd. Once the KKK had safely departed the area, police announced that those protesters who remained behind constituted an unlawful assembly and began arresting those who didn’t immediately leave the area. Eventually, several canisters of tear gas were deployed to force the crowd to disperse. In its letter to city and state officials, The Rutherford Institute, American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Legal Aid Justice Center, and National Lawyers Guild warned that the militarized and aggressive show of force toward protesters served only to heighten tensions and resulted in a climate of intimidation that threatened to chill the First Amendment rights of those gathered in protest. The coalition is calling on the city to renounce the use of warzone tactics in response to demonstrations, to adopt tactics that result in de-escalation of tensions, and to establish a civilian review board to investigate complaints against law enforcement. Specifically, the coalition letter asks local and state officials to direct any law enforcement agency invited to assist with another controversial rally slated for August 12th to commit to de-escalating tense situations, employing non-confrontational tactics, and refraining from actions that intimidate people participating in First Amendment activities in a public forum.