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The many causes of the Charlottesville violence

By Laurence Maher - posted Wednesday, 24 January 2018


Law enforcement authorities are responsible for protecting the peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights and the safety of all participants in these events (protesters and counter-protesters alike) as well as ensuring public safety especially when the content of speech can provoke strong, sometimes violent, reactions.

Next, the reality of the three episodes in Charlottesville last year is that there is an organized element on the so-called "progressive"/"left wing" side determined to engage in armed resistance to silence those who dare to express their "unacceptable" opinions in public.

Thirdly, City officials, including law enforcement agencies, failed to discharge their legal obligations to protect public safety and facilitate free expression and thereby endangered public safety. In some measure, that failure was attributable to the fact that the Council had allowed its partisan desire to remove the statues and rename the two parks to affect its decision-making.

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The City was prevented by State law from banning attendees at the protests from openly carrying firearms, but was not impeded from enforcing restrictions on the possession or use of other weapons such as sticks, bats, shields, clubs, or poles to protect public safety. In the report's assessment:

Weapons carried by Alt-Right demonstrators and those there to oppose them increased both the quantum and seriousness of violence on August 12. If the individuals engaged in those acts of violence had been unarmed, there would have been fewer and less dangerous encounters. Accordingly, the City should have prohibited the possession of these items.(my underlining)

There were more failures than successes in the City's planning and execution of protective measures which contributed to a chaotic series of events that led to violence and death which, in turn, significantly undermined the Charlottesville community's confidence in its government's ability to protect public safety.

The only way to deal with the protesters and counter-protesters who were in or came to Charlottesville with the specific intent to commit acts of violence was to ensure they were completely separated. The law enforcement plan that was implemented was woefully inadequate in this area, resulting in dangerous proximity between opposing groups and, thus, numerous acts of violence.

Fourthly, Heaphy describes the resistance to his requests for co-operation, some of which were denied due to pending litigation. Others were rejected due to scepticism about the independence of the review and potential uses of the information it collected.

One example of lack of co-operation, notable for its oddity, was the response of various organizations and individuals engaged in counter-protest activities which mirrored their approach to the protest events themselves. For example, when the Charlottesville Police Department detectives attempted to obtain information from various groups who had openly promoted resistance to the 8 July event, their efforts were criticized as "an intimidation tactic intended to curtail leftist speech and expressive conduct".

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Finally, if a Google search is any guide, the Charlottesville report has been ignored by the Australian media. This is a pity because its comprehensive examination of the events of 2016/2017 is an instructive case study of the role of open (that is to say "divisive") debate (rather than unanimous polite "conversation") in democratic societies and the determination of forces on what were once called the "Left" and the "Right" to resort to armed resistance because they cannot tolerate differences of opinion.

The ABC-TV Foreign Correspondent programme on 15 January dealt in part with the events in Charlottesville on 12 August. If the ABC producers were aware of the Hunton & Williams report (and they should have been), they chose not to refer to it explicitly in the programme.

It is not for this outsider to suggest to anyone how to think about the messages (whatever they may be) conveyed by the two commemorative statues in Charlottesville. One assessment of their historic significance is embodied in their respective citations in the US National Register of Historic Places.

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About the Author

L W Maher is a Melbourne barrister with a special interest in defamation and other free speech-related disputes. He has written extensively on Australian Cold War legal history.

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