Documenting Cville’s Left-Wing Radicalism

Counter protesters tussle with Charlottesville police in July 2017 Klan rally, a run-up to the tragic August United-the-Right protest. Photo credit: CNN

The primary purpose of the Heaphy report on the Aug. 11-12 United the Right rally was to evaluate the actions of Charlottesville city officials and whether the violence could have been prevented. But the document provides a treasure trove of raw material to help pundits and commentators understand the larger context of the confrontation between far-right and far-left forces and the events that led up to it. While those offended by the report have subjected it to nitpicking criticisms and minor errors of fact, the findings have held up remarkably well since its release.

Material in the report lends itself to at least two useful lines of inquiry that have gone largely unexplored: (1) to illuminate the size and scope of the left-wing radical community in Charlottesville, and (2) to show how the anti-Trump narrative of the national media, which gave the incident inordinate attention, skewed perceptions of what happened.

Before I delve into the data, let me make a disclaimer so my intentions are not misconstrued, as they inevitably will be. I am not defending the statements of President Trump regarding the rally, such as the proposition that there were “good people” on both sides, nor am I drawing a “moral equivalence” between Nazis, Klansmen and white supremacists on the one side and radical leftist anarchists on the other. My purpose is to correct a misperception perpetuated by the national media in its zeal to condemn Trump by downplaying the contribution of left-wing anarchists to the violence of that day. While there has been a growing recognition by some left-of-center observers (mostly moderate liberals) that Antifa and other radical leftists are prone to violence, the mainstream broadcast media continues to soft-peddle that reality.

Conservatives don’t refer to Charlottesville as the People’s Republic of Charlottesville without reason. The city has emerged as Virginia’s center of radical left-wing activity. Other parts of Virginia are just as “blue,” as in Democratic leaning. The vote totals in Arlington and Alexandria, for example are just as lopsided as they are in Charlottsville, but voters there are more “establishment” liberals dedicated to maintaining the power and authority of the federal government, not overthrowing it. Many Charlottesville radicals are dedicated to the proposition that all government is illegitimate.

Back in April, I observed that Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Tom Perriello was Virginia’s “radical chic” candidate. Perriello’s campaign was funded by liberal billionaire George Soros, global activist organization Avaaz, and a coterie of wealthy Albemarle County gentry such as author John Grisham, musician Dave Mathews, yoga instructor Lilly Bechtel, and reproductive-rights advocate Sonjia Smith.

“Never in all my years as an observer of Virginia politics have I seen such large contributions bubble forth from the People’s Republic,” I observed at the time. “Whether this gusher of campaign contributions portends an inflection point in Virginia politics, I don’t know. But it is remarkable.”

While the Albemarle gentry funds left-wing candidates and causes, Charlottesville provides numerous foot soldiers of the Left. The Heaphy report provides a window into activist groups that burbled up from the grassroots during the controversy over the removal of Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue in a series of confrontations with local white-rights provocateur Jason Kessler. A faith-based organization called Congregate Charlottesville organized training sessions on nonviolent civil disobedience. Other anti-racist groups, writes Heaphy, “prepared to disrupt [a May 14 event] and hinder law enforcement response to specific threats.” Among the radical anti-racist groups active at the time were Antifa, Solidarity Charlottesville, Black Lives Matter, and SURJ (Showing up for Racial Justice) .

As Kessler organized a series of rallies highlighting his white-rights issues, Leftist groups mobilized to push back against his white-nationalist agenda. May rallies and counter rallies elevated the Lee statue controversy from a local issue to part of an ongoing national debate over Confederate statues. Against this backdrop, a KKK group from North Carolina organized a rally in defense of the Lee statue on July 8.

Charlottesville police intelligence indicated that numerous radical groups were organizing a counter-protest and engaged in extensive planning to handle the event. On the day of the July 8 rally, it was clear that the counter-protesters were well organized.

Lieutenant O’Donnell characterized Antifa as “very organized” and “totally coordinated.” He spoke with a “street medic” who revealed that she had protested at Standing Rock, South Dakota for eight months before arriving in Charlottesville. At 2:15 p.m., Antifa was spotted wearing gas masks, padded clothing, and body armor. Captain Shifflett recalled being surprised at the planning by some counter-protesters who brought organized medics, used walkie-talkies to share information, and wore helmets, full body pads, gas masks, and shields. CPD Lieutenant Dwayne Jones observed counter-protesters actively monitoring scanners and other devices to track the movements and communications of the police.

The Charlottesville police created a corridor for the estimated 40 to 60 Klansmen to walk to the protest zone at Justice Park and managed to keep the them separated from the counter-protesters. The Klansmen gave a few speeches as an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 counter protesters tried to drown them out with noise and pelted them with apples, tomatoes, oranges, and water bottles. Around 4:30, the Klansmen left the park and headed back to their cars parked in the JDR Court garage.

At this point the counter-protesters grew more threatening. As the Klan entered the parking garage, the CPD Command Center issued an order to hold the Klan inside because counter-protesters were blocking the door. Police instructed the Klan to stay in their vehicles. Amanda Barker, a participant in the Klan rally, described the situation as “terrifying” because the Klan were “trapped inside the garage” and could hear the counter-protesters outside.

Police instructed the Klan to line up their cars and prepare to quickly exit the garage. With an increasing number of counter-protesters gathering outside of the garage door and blocking the Klan’s exit, Lieutenant Joe Hatter told the Command Center “this is serious” and requested permission to declare an unlawful assembly. Police Chief Al Thomas acceded to the request. Hatter organized Charlottesville, Albemarle and Virginia State police into a line in front of the parking garage and used a bullhorn to announce that the gathering had been declared an unlawful assembly.

With police clearing a path and a police car leading the caravan, the Klan exited the parking garage. Counter-protesters confronted the cars and hit them with weapons. When the Klansmen reached the U.S. 250 Bypass, they immediately left the city. States the Heaphy report:

The crowd turned hostile to law enforcement. The counter-protesters taunted the police for helping the Klan. As one participant said, the “police became the enemy” to many in the crowd.” Some crowd members chanted “Cops and Klan go hand in hand!”

A large group of counter-protesters moved toward an alley next to the JDR Court where the CPD SWAT team and its armored Bearcat vehicle were staged. Counter-protesters approached the Bearcat, prompting Lieutenant Upman to call for assistance from VSP. CPD SWAT officers established a perimeter around the Bearcat and Lieutenant Upman commanded the crowd to disperse from the area. VSP SWAT responded to Lieutenant Upman’s call for help, moving into the alley and keeping the crowd away from the Bearcat.

Major Pleasants then ordered CPD SWAT to move to the Levy Opera House parking lot. CPD officers and counter-protesters were also gathered on an outdoor ramp near the JDR Court. A female counter-protester kicked CPD Officer Eric Thomas in the groin, provoking Officer Thomas to arrest her for assaulting an officer. In an attempt to disrupt the arrest, two counter-protesters linked arms with the arrestee and fell to the ground. Officer Thomas
ordered the group to separate and warned them several times that he planned to deploy OC spray. After the three individuals repeatedly refused to cooperate, Officer Thomas sprayed the arrestee and the two linked counter-protesters with OC spray. Officer Thomas then arrested the female counter-protester and one of the people who had interfered with his arrest. …

The intermingling and clashes of CPD, VSP, and counter-protesters along High Street and near the JDR Court prompted Major Pleasants to declare a second unlawful assembly. He used a bullhorn to announce the unlawful assembly and order the crowd to disperse. The crowd failed to disperse, despite repeated commands. Major Pleasants told us that counterprotesters continued to engage law enforcement personnel, who struggled to maintain control.

Amidst confusing circumstances, police released tear gas to disperse the crowd. In all, law enforcement authorities arrested 22 counter-protesters. While physical violence in this confrontation was minimal, the threat of violence emanated entirely from leftist activists — highly relevant background for anyone assessing responsibility for the subsequent clashes between Left and Right in the larger United the Right rally.

Which brings us to a question: How did the national media cover the May rally? How did they frame the issue? Of the four articles of national news outlets I reviewed — NPR, the New York Times, CNN, and Time magazine — three were reasonably balanced and accurate, reporting the threatening behavior of the counter protesters and the necessity for the police to declare an unlawful assembly. Only Time neglected to mention the low-grade violence. However, little was made of the disorderly conduct of the counter-protesters, and the coverage made little impact upon popular opinion. Speaking for myself, I was barely aware that the protests had occurred at all.

Nevertheless, the evidence was readily available to anyone seeking to understand the much bigger, much more violent United the Right rally of Aug. 11 and 12. The coverage of that event by national media emphasized the Alt-Right origins of the violence — understandably so in the case of the car that plowed into a group of counter-protesters and killed a young woman — and downplayed the Left’s contribution. Many people were outraged by the suggestion in my blog post, “It Takes Two to Tango,” that both the Left and the Right came spoiling for a fight. In light of the Heaphy report, I feel totally vindicated.

Bottom line: Charlottesville is a hotbed of left-wing radicalism without parallel anywhere else Virginia. That reality has not fully penetrated the popular consciousness.