Making Sense of What Happened in Charlottesville

Professors Sort the Cascade of Events From Legal, Historical Perspectives

John Mason of the UVA Corcoran Department of History speaks while (from left) UVA Law professors Kim Forde-Mazrui, Barbara Armacost and Vice Dean Leslie Kendrick look on.

September 14, 2017

University of Virginia professors convened a panel discussion at the Law School on Tuesday meant to help students make sense of what happened in Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12.

The panel, titled “Equality, White Supremacy and Confederate Symbols,” discussed legal and historical issues related to the violent Unite the Right rallies, which were ostensibly held to oppose the removal of the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at the recently renamed Emancipation Park — formerly Lee Park.

The protests served as a draw for white supremacists who sought to intimidate and stir conflict. Their actions directly resulted in the death of a city resident, counterprotester Heather Heyer, as well as injuries and emotional trauma to students and other locals.

Vice Dean Leslie Kendrick, an expert on First Amendment issues, called the protests “a public display of bigotry unprecedented in recent decades.” Kendrick served as moderator for the talks, which also included Professor John Mason of the UVA Corcoran Department of History, and UVA Law professors Kim Forde-Mazrui, who directs the Center for the Study of Race and Law at UVA, and Barbara Armacost, an expert on criminal law and civil rights.

Kendrick explained that the United States has a long history of tolerance for unpopular speech, but that speech can be regulated on content-neutral terms — think time, place and manner restrictions for the public good, such as noise ordinances — or in other narrow circumstances, such as when speech is intended to incite imminent harm and likely to do so.

She said the city of Charlottesville was no doubt aware of its precarious legal position regarding neutrality.

“Any right-thinking government will denounce the message of the white supremacist group or neo-Nazi group,” Kendrick said. However, she said, the city runs the risk of appearing content-biased.

After members of the public presented concerns that harm could occur related to the rally’s burgeoning numbers, which many anticipated would exceed the permitted 400 demonstrators, the city attempted a change of venue.

But on Aug. 11, the eve of the rally, a federal judge blocked the city’s attempt to move the event, stating the threat of danger was speculative and citing “communications on social media indicating that members of City Council oppose [the plaintiff’s] viewpoint,” according to court documents.

Equally as important as the law in how things played out was the historical backdrop, the panelists said.

Mason, who teaches African history at UVA, served last year on the city’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces. The city tasked the group to make recommendations about the Lee statue and other monuments, as well as how to be more “accurate and inclusive” in general with local historical displays. The public debate eventually grew heated.

“We know history can shape the future, and that’s why we fight over it so much,” Mason said.

He said he had no doubt that the city originally placed the Lee statue — a gift erected in 1924 as state and local governments rolled back the rights of African-Americans — to send a message. Lee, who commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War, is depicted in military uniform and on horseback atop a pedestal at East Market Street, near local courts.

Mason originally advocated re-contextualizing the statue to tackle the issues of white supremacy and the legacy of slavery. That solution, however, turned out to be impractical financially and unsatisfying to opposing sides.

He said, near the end, the weight of public opinion appeared to be tipping in the balance of preserving the statue, but a group called Standing Up for Racial Justice began to comment on the oppressive nature of the symbol.

“We didn’t hear those voices until SURJ started showing up,” Mason said. “SURJ changed the conversation.”

Forde-Mazrui, an expert on equal protection, spoke to the concept of discrimination through symbols, which he emphasized as different from First Amendment law. He said a statue intended to promote the superiority of a racial group is illegal. But he said one that unintentionally does so can also be objectionable if its harmful message outweighs the legitimate reasons for erecting it.

He gave, as an example, statues of comedian Bill Cosby and former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert. A statue of Cosby was removed from Disney World and plans for a statue of Hastert by the Illinois state government were scrapped because both men’s lives took on new context following allegations of sexual assaults against women and children.

“Those are examples where the [initial] purpose might be legitimate, but other aspects might outweigh,” Forde-Mazrui said.

Debate over the Lee statue became a national one, expanding the scope of the protests. A Ku Klux Klan rally earlier in the summer in Charlottesville was also contentious.

Armacost spoke about her role as a legal observer during the Aug. 12 Unite the Right demonstration. She said the constrained location of the downtown rally, the belief that the city could not curtail the protesters’ right to bear arms and the previous handling of the Klan set the stage for what went wrong that day.

In July, some local residents criticized city police for using chemicals to disperse a crowd of peaceful protestors, after having been perceived as catering to the safety of the Klansmen. Armacost praised police for not using the same hardball tactics a second time, but said that also may have been a reason police stood down while fights broke out.

Ultimately, though, she was short on answers.

“I kept seeing people getting knocked down and dragged out of the streets by their friends,” Armacost said. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why aren’t the police doing anything?’”

She said she believed “the police had good intentions,” but perhaps bad marching orders, which included leaving one side of Emancipation Park unguarded. That area was where much of the violence occurred.

She added that the police still have much to answer for — not being prepared for the vehicular attack on the Downtown Mall that killed Heather Heyer, for one.

“Ten years ago, I would have said nobody could have predicted the car attack,” Armacost said.

Former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy ’91 is leading an investigation into the city’s handling of the protests. UVA Law Dean Risa Goluboff is leading a working group studying the University’s handling of Unite the Right’s Aug. 11 impromptu march on Grounds. Goluboff’s group of deans released their first report, including a UVA police response timeline, on Monday.

Mason said any previous reasons that might have justified keeping the Lee statue are now outweighed by tragedy.

“That Lee statue is no longer separable from the blood of Heather Heyer,” he said.

In addition to the Law School, sponsors of the panel included the Center for the Study of Race and Law, the American Constitution Society, the Black Law Students Association, Common Law Grounds, the Jewish Law Students Association and the Minority Rights Coalition.

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