Why did the city of Charlottesville, and the state of Virginia, suspend the First Amendment for Saturday’s calamitous “Unite the Right” rally? And would the outcome have been different—one protester dead in a deliberate car-ramming, two state troopers killed in a demonstration-related helicopter accident, and a nation’s confidence in its institutions severely shaken once again—had the authorities vigorously defended all parties’ constitutional right to free expression?
True enough, there scarcely is a more shocking image in America than a swastika being lifted high at a white-power political rally. That’s more appalling than a “kill the pigs” sign at a Black Lives Matter demonstration, if only for its relative singularity, though the symbols have this in common: they are meant to inflame and provoke, and they invariably succeed. In the process, they severely stress a fundamental principle of American democracy: the individual’s right to free expression and the concurrent obligation of government to protect that right.
Well, there was plenty of expressing going on at Charlottesville over the weekend, but precious little protecting. Details remain thin. It is not clear, for example, how many alt-right demonstrators were there, though many reports indicate that they were substantially outnumbered by counter-demonstrators, largely drawn from the same crowd that has been rioting at the drop of Donald Trump’s name since November 9.
So, obviously, this was a fraught moment. But what would have been the outcome had the police and the Virginia National Guard—both on hand in strong numbers—done their duty, enforced properly obtained demonstration permits, and preserved the right of the warring parties to make their respective points without being physically attacked, one by the other and vice versa? It’s worth remembering that Charlottesville did everything it could to prevent the demonstrations, issuing permits only after being sued by the ACLU. And when push came to shove—literally—on Saturday, police and National Guardsmen were to be found only on the periphery of the brawling. Indeed, the Virginia ACLU reported that police were refusing to intervene unless specifically ordered to do so.
“There was no police presence,” Brittany Caine-Conley, a minister-in-training at Charlottesville’s Sojourners United Church of Christ, told the New York Times. “We were watching people punch each other; people were bleeding all the while police were inside of barricades at the park, watching. It was essentially just brawling on the street and community members trying to protect each other.”
Almost at first contact, Charlottesville mayor Michael Signer and Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency and cancelled the demonstrators’ permits, whereupon police began funneling the alt-right protestors away from the designated demonstration site—and, some reports have it, toward the counter-protestors. The carnage followed in short order. Whether the breakdown in police protection was purposeful—that is, intended to quash a constitutionally protected demonstration and provoke a violent confrontation—is a question unlikely to be pursued in Virginia’s present political environment. As partisan eye-gougers go, Governor McAuliffe, a Democrat, is near the top of the list; Mayor Signer, also a Democrat, seems to be cut from the same cloth.
But deliberate or not, the effect was the same: when the sun went down over Charlottesville Saturday, the First Amendment was lying in the dust, and the civic ties meant to bind all Americans were just that much weaker.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images