CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA – Some among Virginia’s highest levels of law enforcement have stepped down this year amid a small cloud of controversy. Col. W. Steven Flaherty, superintendent of the Virginia State Police, announced his retirement December 19 after 42 years with the agency. Charlottesville Police Chief of two years, Al Thomas, announced his retirement the previous day. And Charlottesville City Attorney Craig Brown has announced that he will be leaving office by the end of January 2018.
All three of these agencies are responsible for public safety and all three institutions have faced harsh criticisms for their response to the violence of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville earlier this summer.
In late November, a comprehensive, 219-page independent review led by a former U.S. Attorney concluded that law enforcement had “failed to ‘stand up’ to protect human life” during the August “Unite the Right” rally held at the University of Virginia.
Protesters actually first fought with white nationalists before the rally began, giving law enforcement fair warning of the dangers inherent in the situation and of its explosivity. Then, during a subsequent impromptu post-rally march by the protesters to reclaim Charlottesville’s streets from hate, a white nationalist who had attended the earlier event is alleged to have intentionally driven his car into the protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Hayer and injuring dozens of others.
Representatives of the agencies say the recent departures at the top are in no way related to the fallout from the white nationalist protest, and the growing perception that the passivity of law enforcement reflected a politicized lack of interest in protecting those protesting the white nationalist presence. While several media outlets took note of the inactions of police that day, including the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), talk of a police “conspiracy” has been dismissed.
While talk of conspiracies and collusion is reflexively dismissed, it should not be labeled “far fetched” considering the threat posed by white supremacists to law enforcement or their historical infiltration of such institutions.
Looking back at Greensboro
While Berkeley, California, this past April would be another recent example of police being surprisingly absent while white supremacists and counter-protesters clashed, a case from November of 1979 is the most glaring.
Anti-racist activists, including members of the Communist Workers Party, held an anti-Klan rally to protest the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Movement members in Greensboro, North Carolina. The rally was part of a union organizing drive at a local textile plant in which the white supremacists were intimidating workers from joining the union.
During the rally, a caravan of Klansmen and Nazis drove up, got out of their cars, and fired on the protesters. Five of the anti-racist activists died and several others were wounded. Owing to the presence of television crews during the event, the assailants were caught on film, which led to their eventual arrest. During the trial it was revealed that the Greensboro Police Department had an informant in the Klan group who had told the police of the planned violence.
Both state and federal juries refused to convict the white supremacists for the deaths that happened that day. A federal civil rights lawsuit, filed subsequent to those acquittals, revealed that two federal law-enforcement informants, in addition to the police informant, had been present and knew about the potential for violence. That lawsuit, filed by the Christic Institute, was successful not only in awarding $1 million to the plaintiffs but as the “first successful prosecution of Klan, Nazi, and police collusion in North Carolina history.”
In a chilling echo of the Greensboro incident — and of what seems to be a chronic, recurrent theme in American law enforcement — the reticence of police to intervene in white supremacist events in Charlottesville and Berkeley this year sends the message that “public safety” is only for certain members of the public. That’s a message that we the public must wholeheartedly reject.
Top photo: White nationalist demonstrators use shields as they guard the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12, 2017. (AP/Steve Helber)