“They were trying to kill me out there,” Harris said. “The police didn’t budge, and I was getting beat to a pulp.”
The professor, theologian, and activist Cornel West said that only militant leftist gangs had avoided worse bloodshed. “The police didn’t do anything in terms of protecting the people of the community, the clergy,” he told The Washington Post. “If it hadn’t been for the anti-fascists protecting us from the neo-fascists, we would have been crushed like cockroaches.”
But the complaints didn’t just come from the counter-protesters. Jason Kessler, who organized the “Unite the Right” march, also complained about the policing. “Police stood down and refused to separate the counter-demonstrators, and now people are dead,” Kessler said in video Saturday. “They were not prepared. Their No. 1 priority was shutting down the alt-right.”
Richard Spencer, the notorious alt-right leader, also said police had failed to protect him and his cohort. “We came here as a demonstration of our movement,” he said. “And we were effectively thrown to the wolves.”
The failure to maintain order is particularly surprising because, although the violence this weekend took much of the nation by surprise, Charlottesville had a dress rehearsal of sorts on July 8. That day, a Ku Klux Klan chapter from North Carolina held a rally that, like Saturday’s march, was billed as a protest of Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a park in town. Around 30 Klan members marched, while about 1,000 counter-protesters showed up.
Such a situation creates a dilemma for police: Few cops, especially in a progressive bastion like Charlottesville, are eager to defend the Klan or neo-Nazis, but if they don’t place themselves between the groups, they run the risk of fights breaking out. And at the July rally, that meant holding back the counter-protesters, who far outnumbered the Klan. Some of the counter-protesters scuffled with police, officers used pepper spray and tear gas to disperse them, and 22 people were arrested.
After the rally, many anti-Klan protesters in Charlottesville harshly criticized the police approach. “The brutality enacted by the Charlottesville police on the Charlottesville community sits in stark contrast to the [patience] provided to the KKK,” activist Mimi Arbeit said.
Another protester said police had been far too quick to fire tear gas. “Charlottesville residents can't clear out of a Dave Matthews show in under an hour, yet the police declared a peaceful crowd to be an unlawful assembly within minutes of the KKK’s departure. This is an ineffective police strategy that only leads to escalation and the likelihood of violence,” said Emily Gorcenski.
Perhaps the Charlottesville police had the July experience in mind and opted to take a more hands-off approach this time around. Or perhaps they were just overwhelmed by the larger size of the rally—some 500 neo-Nazis and white supremacists, 10 times larger than the Klan march, plus hundreds of counter-demonstrators. That’s a large crowd anywhere, but it’s especially large for Charlottesville, which has fewer than 50,000 residents and a police department of fewer than 130 officers who don’t typically deal with events this size. (Police Chief Al Thomas has not been commenting.)