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The many causes of the Charlottesville violence

By Laurence Maher - posted Wednesday, 24 January 2018


Last December, the 206-page "Final Report of the Independent Review of the 2017 Protest Events in Charlottesville, Virginia" was released.

On 13/14 May, 8 July and 12 August 2017, protesters and counter-protesters engaged in violent clashes prompted by the 3-2 vote of the Council of the City of Charlottesville on 6 February 2017 to remove the equestrian monument to the commander of the military forces of the secessionist Confederate States of America General Robert E Lee (1807-1870) in the City's Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), and a statue of Lee's most senior commander General Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson (1824-1863) in LibertyPark (formerly Jackson Park).

On the last occasion, a young woman pedestrian was killed and many other pedestrians were injured when struck by a motor vehicle intentionally driven into a crowd of counter protesters.

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In March 2016, the Vice-Mayor of Charlottesville had held a press conference to express his distaste for the Lee statue and urged the City to join the broader protest movement about Confederate monuments in the South by removing the Lee and Jackson statues. The Council assembled a Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces, with the objective of providing City Council with options for "telling the full story of Charlottesville's history of race" and "changing the City's narrative through [its] public spaces."

It reported in December 2016. It did not affirmatively recommend relocating the statues or keeping them and adding "context". Instead, it sent both options to the Council for deliberation and recommended renaming the two parks.

A group of citizens opposed to the Council's decision sued the City in the Charlottesville Circuit Court contending that removal of the statutes contravened Virginia state laws protecting Civil War monuments. On 2 May 2017, a judge granted the plaintiffs a preliminary order that the public interest required preservation of the Lee statue for a minimum of six months. However, he authorized the City to rename Lee Park as Emancipation Park and to continue planning for the ultimate relocation of the Lee statue. That proceeding remains pending.

Soon after the violence on 12 August, the City of Charlottesville engaged law firm Hunton & Williams to conductan inquiry into the 2017 disturbances. The inquiry was led by Timothy J Heaphya former United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia.

There is much to be said about the Report. Here are some passing observations:

First, by not dissimilar Australian standards, the reality and appearance of the independence of the inquiry was different than, for example, if the inquiry had been established externally, say, by the Virginia General Assembly or by the US Government. There are aspects of the report, including some of its nomenclature which might be taken by some readers to bespeak a sympathy on the part of the Report's authors for removal of the controversial statues.

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Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that, in the limited time available to them, Mr Heaphy and his team laboured long and hard and thoroughly to assemble as much of the truth as they could about the disturbances in Charlottesville on each of those four days. The firm's investigators are, not surprisingly, very critical of aspects of the action (and inaction) of some of the councillors and City officials.

Secondly, the report's starting point is an emphatic reminder that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to express their views in public places – peacefully – however objectionable those views may be.

For example, just as the National Socialist Party members were entitled to spruik their ideas peacefully in Skokie, Illinois in 1978, as were the Ku Klux Klan members in Charlottesville who had sought to do so on 8 July 2017. And a federal judge had upheld the First Amendment claims of the main organizer of the proposed 12 August rally when the City cancelled his protest permit.

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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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