Lawyers' Committees Pen Open Letter to Charlottesville Police Department Concerning the Planned “Unite the Right” Rally

Al S. Thomas, Jr.
Chief of Police
Charlottesville Police Department

Dear Chief Thomas:

On August 12, 2017, hundreds of demonstrators from the Ku Klux Klan, the Nationalist Front, and other groups advancing racist and white supremacist messages are expected to descend on Charlottesville for a planned “Unite the Right” rally. Their presence on Saturday, like the presence of the Klan in Charlottesville on July 8, will be deeply traumatic and painful for many in the Charlottesville community. Thousands of demonstrators opposed to the messages of hate will be taking to the street in opposition to the Klan and others.

The law enforcement response to the rally on August 12 and future rallies must account for the real and significant harm the rally will inflict on Charlottesville residents, particularly communities of color. Your department must calibrate its actions to permit counter demonstrators to express their anger and emotion within the context of the Constitution.  At the most basic level, officers should be reminded about the harmful impact of hateful speech and the presence of hate groups in the community.

While we recognize that the City has committed to ensuring that the white supremacist demonstrators can protest, it must make as earnest a commitment to protecting the rights of the demonstrators who are gathered in opposition. Law enforcement in Charlottesville has the critical and important role of ensuring that the free expression rights under the United States Constitution are protected for the counter-demonstrators as well as for the Klan and others. We are concerned by reports which seemed to indicate that the rights of Klan members were placed above those of local counter-demonstrators during the last demonstration on July 8. We implore you to ensure that this does not happen on Saturday.

To aid this effort, the City should open a line of communication with the counter-demonstrators. We recommend that you identify a specific point of contact for counter-demonstrators within your department and take affirmative steps to facilitate dialogue.  Counter-demonstrators should be consulted on the planning for the day and there should be points of contact for ongoing dialogue throughout the day on Saturday and for any future protests and counter protests.

In your role as Chief, you should make clear to police leadership, to your department, and to any other collaborating law enforcement agencies that counter-demonstrators are exercising their First Amendment rights and that, absent a threat of violence or unlawful activity, police are not to act in opposition to that activity.  The police should be focused on creating a space for free exercise, not worried about how to contain it.  Practices like blocking egress, limiting the length of demonstrators’ access to public space, and the use of chemical weapons or force to disperse a non-violent crowd - all practices reportedly used during the July 8th counter protests - should be prohibited.  Not only is this required by the Constitution, but essential for the health of the community.

We do not envy the task ahead of you.  Demonstrators need not commit physical violence to inflict great harm, and we stand in solidarity with your City against racism and hate. We simply ask that counter-demonstrators be permitted the same freedom to express their anger, pain, and indignation as those whose messages we abhor.

Sincerely,

Jonathan M. Smith
Washington Lawyers’ Committee
for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs

Myesha Braden
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

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