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Charlottesville's white nationalist rally fueled by city's 'mistakes,' report finds

by Erik Ortiz /  / Updated 
White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" clash with counter-protesters as they enter Lee Park during the "Unite the Right" rally on Aug. 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

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The violent clashes that erupted during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August were only aided by multiple failures of city officials and police, an independent review released on Friday found.

The final report on the rampage during the "Unite the Right" rally formally laid out how police were woefully unprepared and pinpointed exactly what went wrong as the demonstrations culminated in the death of a counterprotester.

 A gathering of hundreds of white nationalists in Virginia on Aug. 12, 2017, took a deadly turn when a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters and killed one person. Mark Peterson / Redux Pictures

"While there were evident victories that protected public safety, we found a greater number of failures in both planning and execution," said the review, which was conducted by the law firm of former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy.

"These shortcomings contributed to a chaotic series of events that led to violence and death," the review added. "The mistakes made on August 12 have significantly undermined our community's confidence in government's ability to protect public safety."

Related: White Nationalists Warn They Will Return to Charlottesville

The rally began, in part, as a way for white nationalists and other extreme groups to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown Charlottesville park. On the night of Aug. 11, white nationalists marched through the University of Virginia campus holding tiki torches and scuffled with counterprotesters.

City leaders had been unsuccessful in relocating the Aug. 12 rally to a larger park in the city. Rally supporters and counterprotesters — preliminary estimates ranged from 2,000 to 6,000 people — descended on the Lee statue park. Violence flared with shoving and punching as some marchers carried Confederate and swastika-emblazoned flags and shouted racial and anti-Semitic epithets.

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According to the report, city officials and police failed to seek input beforehand from law enforcement who had dealt with large-scale rallies, and there was no effort to obtain other departments' operational plans for similar events.

At a news conference Friday about the report's findings, Heaphy said police were initially under the impression that they could handle the scope of the rally.

"The sense of 'we got this,' in our view, was mistaken," he said.

Other ways officials and authorites failed, according to the review:

  • The Charlottesville Police Department gave inadequate training or information to officers before the rally. They did not hold an "all-hands briefing" on the day before or even the morning of the protest and did not share "substantial intelligence" with line officers.
  • There was a lack of coordination with Virginia State Police.
  • On the city's end, it waited too long to request special assistance from the state Department of Emergency Management, although a state of emergency was declared amid the unrest. It also took 40 minutes for an unlawful assembly to be declared after it was first requested.
  • The city's attempt to get the protest moved to a larger park — while it seemed necessary because of the thousands expected — was done too late and exacerbated concerns and created "additional uncertainty."
  • The city sent conflicting messages about the event, with some leaders discouraging attendance altogether, and others saying it was important to visibly oppose the far-right extreme groups.
  • Citizens reported instances of "police inactivity" in response to acts of violence: "Despite clear evidence of violence, police consistently failed to intervene, de-escalate, or otherwise respond."
  • Zones where it was presumed violence could break out were not occupied by police.

The death of a 32-year-old counterprotester, Heather Heyer, occurred when a man driving a car rammed into a crowd. The report said that an officer was supposed to be stationed near that intersection, but was allowed to opt out and was not replaced.

Police and city officials did not immediately respond to the report.

But Heaphy said that in speaking with officers, including the chief of police, none of them "feels good about what happened [or] wanted there to be violence on the street."

After the event, President Donald Trump stoked outrage by asserting that the "alt-left" was just as much to blame as white nationalists — triggering outrage from Democrats and Republicans who said he failed to adequately denounce white supremacist ideology.

In the wake of the violence, the city agreed to hire Heaphy's law firm to help examine its response and any failures.

Among the report's suggestions is to better train police officers to handle mass unrest, create a more unified command structure and engage in a robust communication with the public.

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