The lackluster police response to extreme violence at a white nationalist event in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 was universally criticized — and thus easy to exploit for right-wing disinformation.
Local officials were roundly criticized following the “Unite the Right” event, which escalated into physical clashes and the murder of 32-year-old Heather Heyer by one of the rally attendees, James Alex Fields, Jr.
But in the days after Heyer’s death, right-wing broadcaster Alex Jones seized on one of the accusations against police for his own purposes. In a YouTube video (since deleted), Jones claimed that it had been “confirmed” that police were ordered to “stand down,” so that white nationalists could be portrayed as violent in media accounts. He said:
People playing in this whole white nationalist thing are morons. In my view, marching out there in the middle of this, you know you’re going to give George Soros and the media the target they need. Especially in a Democratic-controlled city where police are going to stand down. And then you’re going to be attacked, and then the media is going to say that you attacked.
Jones claimed that a camera crew “heard” an officer say they received an order to stand down from then-Mayor Michael Signer. Under the city’s “council-manager” structure, neither Singer nor then-Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy would have that ability, because they were selected for their posts by the City Council and not elected by voters.
Secondly, both the city of Charlottesville and then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency in the city during the August 12 2017 rally, giving the Charlottesville Police Department (CPD) and Virginia State Police (VSP) the ability to coordinate their response and further limiting any ability by Bellamy to give orders of any kind.
What was uncovered in a review of their response, however, was damning in its own right. According to investigators commissioned by the city:
We did not find evidence of a direct order to officers to “stand down” and not respond to fights and other disorders. Even if there was no explicit “stand down” order in place, CPD and VSP both failed to “stand up” to protect human life. Supervisors devised a poorly conceived plan that under-equipped and misaligned hundreds of officers. Execution of that plan elevated officer safety over public safety. The consequence was that many in the crowd felt physically vulnerable despite intense law enforcement presence, a perfect recipe for undermining the community’s faith in law enforcement.
The review confirmed that even without an explicit order to “stand down,” officers failed to intervene in several violent encounters including what was described as a brawl that erupted when when white supremacist demonstrators carrying shields hit counter-protesters with flagpoles:
Open source video footage shows demonstrators violently jabbing the poles at counter-protesters’ faces. The counter-protesters fought back and tried to grab the flagpoles away. Eventually, the demonstrators pushed the counter-protesters away with brute force and a cloud of pepper spray.
Body camera footage shows that police officers in Zone 1 witnessed all of this. They called
out the fight and observed that pepper spray had been deployed. Body camera footage shows people attacking each other in plain view of the officers. The officers stood behind the barricades and watched.
The report also cited a witness identified as Tim Messer, who said he asked a state police trooper why police were not getting involved:
The trooper replied, “Our policy today is that we cannot get involved in every skirmish, and we are here to protect the public’s safety.” The witness was incredulous that police would allow the fights to go on, but the trooper reiterated, “That is our policy.”
In July 2019, Field was sentenced to life plus 419 years on federal hate crime charges for driving his car into a crowd of counter-protesters and hitting Heyer. At least 24 other people were also injured in the attack.
Activists told NPR in December 2021 that “Unite the Right” was a turning point in the aggressiveness of white nationalist attacks on U.S. soil.
“I think Charlottesville really was a catalyst for much of the white supremacist chaos that has ensued since,” said April Muniz, who was part of the crowd attacked by Fields, as well as a group of plantiffs collectively awarded $25 million in a civil lawsuit filed against the rally’s organizers. “What I witnessed is something that just broke me, basically.”
The Department of Justice is attempting to seize some of Fields’ funds as part of his court-mandated restitution. Meanwhile, another recognizable face from Charlottesville “Unite the Right” photographs, Teddy Joseph Von Nukem, died by suicide on January 30 2023, the same day that he was due in court on federal drug charges.
Update 2/21/2023, 4:19 p.m. PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. — ag