Timothy Heaphy

When Charlottesville hired former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy to conduct an independent review of the violence that erupted at the Aug. 12 white supremacist rally, there were some who worried that it was simply an elaborate cover-up. Would Heaphy, a Democrat, provide cover for a Democrat-dominated City Council and/or a Democratic administration in Richmond?

The 207-page report he produced provides a clear answer to the contrary: This is an unvarnished account that criticizes almost every branch of government involved — the main exception being fire and rescue. The word “failure” is invoked 44 times.

The main failurea “stunning failure” in the words of the reportis that the Charlottesville Police Department and the Virginia State Police never coordinated their plans. The two agencies couldn’t even communicate on the same radio frequencies. The report says Charlottesville police prepared for the march the same way they would for a concert and never sought advice from other localities that had dealt with white nationalist rallies. Charlottesville never responded to Albemarle County’s offer to send its SWAT team.

Police were intimidated by both white supremacists and the violent sub-group of counter-protestors known as the Antifa. The former came armed with guns, sticks, and swords. The latter was rumored to be armed with fentanyl and soda cans filled with cement. There’s no evidence they were but the rumors were enough to cause police to stand back and allow violence to break out.

Police even ignored reports of gunfire. “Former Charlottesville Mayor Frank Buck observed an Alt-Right protestor fire a gun in the direction of a counter-protestor on Market Street,” the report says. Buck followed the man and twice identified him to state police. “Each time the trooper refrained from pursuing the man or taking other action.” When police ignore reports of gunshots, how can anybody feel safe?

There is certainly more to be learned about what happened beyond this report. Notably, the state didn’t not fully cooperate because it had its own review in progress. When Heaphy filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Virginia National Guard, he was told documents might not be available until April 2019. Really?

Nevertheless, Heaphy’s report seems quite thorough. His team — which included former Roanoke police chief Chris Perkins — reviewed more than 545,000 pages of documents, more than 2,000 photographs and more than 300 hours of video footage. Here are some takeaways:

Lack of trust put people at risk. The report says that anti-racist activists had “penetrated” the white supremacists’ online communications and knew that the racists intended to hold a torchlight march to the University of Virginia. But the counter-protestors didn’t inform police because many of them didn’t trust law enforcement. As a result, police and students were caught unaware. When some students found out about the march, they rushed to surround the statue of Thomas Jefferson. When Charlottesville police asked the University of Virginia police if they needed assistance, UVA said no. However, when state police superintendent Steven Flaherty arrived, he was so alarmed that he instructed a subordinate to hand him a sidearm.

At least one of the marchers threw a torch toward a UVA dean. UVA police were so unprepared they didn’t have a bullhorn to address the crowd. Police video shows a woman in an evening gown crossing the Lawn just after Nazis had been there. Because no warning had been given, many students narrowly missed being caught up in the melee.

Charlottesville police turned down a request to protect a synagogue. Congregation Beth Israel, located near the demonstration site, asked police to station an officer there. Charlottesville said an unarmed officer would be “at a nearby street corner.” The synagogue deemed that insufficient and hired an armed private security firm. “Rabbis also removed the synagogue’s sacred scrolls for safekeeping.” All this falls under the category of Charlottesville not taking the event seriously enough.

By contrast . . .

State police wanted to put snipers on a church roof. Christ Episcopal Church offered to let police stage in the parish hall. Then troopers showed up unannounced and “roamed throughout the church buildings to evaluate possible uses.” Troopers “specifically discussed a plan to stage snipers on top of a church building.” When church officials learned that, they withdrew permission.

Some counter-protestors profiled white men. The level of fear was so high that at an interfaith service at St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church “white males entering the service were subject to enhanced vetting and asked multiple questions about their purpose in attending.” At First United Methodist Church the church “installed metal detectors and required white males to have a ‘sponsor’ to enter the building.”

It wasn’t just the Antifa that wanted to confront the white supremacists. When the Ku Klux Klan organized marches in Virginia in the 1980s, the standard response was to ignore them. People stayed off the streets to deny the Klan the audience it sought. In that same spirit, city officials urged people to stay away from this event. Others, though, insisted that hate speech must be confronted, which set the stage for clashes.

It’s wrong to speak of “two sides” on Aug. 12; this report makes clear there were a dizzying array of groups present, each with different agendas. Some counter-protestors were quite peaceful and attended “alternative events.” Others wanted to peacefully confront white supremacists. Still others came prepared to get physical.

Even the faith community was split on how to respond. The report describes how one group of clergy “intended to block entry” for the white supremacists, with one minister saying he hoped that might “create a scene.” The notion that a group of clergy — protected by the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause — would try to physically prevent others from exercising their First Amendment right of free speech, however odious that speech may be, seems worthy of discussion. What is the proper way to deal with hate speech?

You can find the full report at http://tinyurl.com/yb5tmpya.

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