Police in Charlottesville were issued a "stand down" order and told to let violence happen.
On 15 August 2017, the disreputable web site YourNewsWire posted a story purporting to quote an “anonymous” police officer saying that law enforcement in Charlottesville, Virginia had been instructed not only to “stand down” during a violent white supremacist rally, but to instigate violence by purposely bringing rival groups together in order to start a race war.
YourNewsWire dives deep into conspiracy territory, claiming the chaos at the weekend rally was instigated by the “deep state,” as well as former President Barack Obama and former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton:
The New World Order, led in the United States by elite operatives Obama, Podesta, Soros, Clinton and company, are pulling out all the stops to create division through chaos and destruction. Crowds of paid protestors and useful psychopaths are being sent into pitched battle against one another to sour the mood of the nation and further divide us all.
They are manipulating and controlling newsworthy events in order to maintain power and control over the public, and to swing public opinion.
The web site quotes a supposed anonymous police officer as saying:
We [Charlotesville police] were ordered to bring the rival groups together. As soon as they were in contact with each other, we were told to stand down. It was outrageous. We weren’t allowed to arrest anyone without asking the mayor first. We weren’t even allowed to stop the driver as he sped away. The event was being set up as far back as at least May and it went like clockwork. We wanted to do our job and keep the peace. But these mother******s in charge really want to destroy America.
We found no evidence the supposed quote being shared on the Internet and featured by YourNewsWire is authentic, and because it’s not only unattributed but vague, we have no way of tracing it. However it only appears on YourNewsWire and other junk sites that cite YourNewsWire, a web site that regularly posts unfounded conspiracy theories.
Violence did plague the city of Charlottesville through the weekend of 11 August 2017, as protests, general unrest, and street brawls broke out surrounding the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally. One woman was killed when a rally attendee reportedly purposely rammed his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, and two state police officers lost their lives when the helicopter they were flying to monitor the unrest crashed.
However we were able to confirm via a Freedom of Information Act request that no official “stand down” order was given.
The rumor seems to have its roots in a 12 August 2017 tweet posted by the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which cited an unnamed police officer saying law enforcement would wait for a “command” before intervening in street clashes:
— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLUVA) August 12, 2017
The same day, investigative news outlet ProPublica published a story reporting police inaction in the face of violence:
There was nothing haphazard about the violence that erupted today in this bucolic town in Virginia’s heartland. At about 10 a.m. today, at one of countless such confrontations, an angry mob of white supremacists formed a battle line across from a group of counter-protesters, many of them older and gray-haired, who had gathered near a church parking lot. On command from their leader, the young men charged and pummeled their ideological foes with abandon. One woman was hurled to the pavement, and the blood from her bruised head was instantly visible.
Standing nearby, an assortment of Virginia State Police troopers and Charlottesville police wearing protective gear watched silently from behind an array of metal barricades — and did nothing.
It was a scene that played out over and over in Charlottesville as law enforcement confronted the largest public gathering of white supremacists in decades. We walked the streets beginning in the early morning hours and repeatedly witnessed instances in which authorities took a largely laissez faire approach, allowing white supremacists and counter-protesters to physically battle.
On 14 August 2017, Fox News reporter Doug McKelway claimed to have a specific police source that told him officers were ordered not to engage. He said:
I know for a fact that we have heard from a senior law enforcement from another county nearby this one, nearby Albemarle County, who that says that some of his underlings who attended a briefing here conducted by the city of Charlottesville and the police department of Charlottesville and the mayor’s office of Charlottesville before Saturday morning’s riot happened, that they were not to make arrests without the explicit approval of the mayor of the city of Charlottesville.
Despite the critique by some that police didn’t do enough to quell violence, both police Chief Al Thomas and city spokeswoman Miriam Dickler said no such order was issued. We filed a FOIA seeking any records documenting such an order by either the city, or by any agency outside the city to Charlottesville police and received this response:
We have no records responsive to this request.
Dickler explained to us why the claim that the mayor issued a stand-down order which police were required to obey is not possible: The city operates under a council-manager form of municipal government, meaning the city manager functions as the executive. Under this system, the mayor is selected by the City Council, not voters. The role rotates and is mostly ceremonial in its duties. Thus, Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer would not have had the authority to issue a “stand-down” order to the police.
In a statement, Chief Al Thomas described the general chaos that ensued when protest leaders failed to follow a plan previously agreed upon by organizers and law enforcement — for instance, people left their area to go into those designated for counter-demonstrators and engage in confrontations. Thomas’s statement reads:
We worked with our partners in Virginia State Police, the Virginia Fusion center and Federal Bureau of Investigation to collect intelligence before and during this event, this included having analysts in the command post on August 12. In preparation for this event, we reached out to all the groups we believed would be attending with the permit holder and made contact with the security details of all the speakers. This contact included reviewing the security plan we had developed. All these groups agreed to cooperate with law enforcement and follow that plan. It is unfortunate that that did not happen.
In preparing the park, we established three areas, one for the demonstrators, one for counter demonstrators and an area between the two for police officers. The security plan called for the demonstrators to enter through the rear of the park, and we also staged law enforcement in that area to facilitate that entrance. Rather than doing so, the demonstrators entered from the front of the park. They also chose to leave the park on a number of occasions, entering the area designated for counter-demonstrators, walking along the street and confronting counter-protestors.
Because the demonstrators did not stay in their designated area, the police moved from the area between the two areas to better patrol the park and area. Once the demonstrators did not stay in their designated area, the police moved from the separated area to manage the crowd. There were a number of fights throughout the area that officers from all agencies responded to. Once people in the crowd released gas, the decision was made to put the officers in riot gear to better address the unfolding situation.
I was the commander for this incident, but our command center was a unified command, including Virginia State Police, Albemarle County Police, University Police, federal authorities and the National Guard. The command center also included personnel from our fire and EMS services and support staff. While a unified command works together to make critical decisions, I oversaw the operation and was the final say.
There were police throughout the park and area beginning in the early morning and throughout the day. There were no directives from me or any other commander to stand down or disengage. As I previously said, there were a number of altercations throughout the area in which officers intervened.
As with any major incident, CPD will be reviewing the events of the day over the next weeks and months. We remain committed to providing our residents with a strong, safe city to live in and to being a partner to our community.
It’s unclear how much a last-minute change in the demonstration’s location affected the outcome, as the city initially revoked a permit for the rally to be held in Emancipation Park in downtown Charlottesville and tried to move it about a mile away to McIntire Park, which is much larger in size and away from the city center. In response, organizer Jason Kessler and the Virginia ACLU sued the city, and at the last minute — at about 8 P.M. on Friday night — a judge issued an injunction which allowed the demonstration to remain at Emancipation Park. Since the weekend’s deadly events, all sides have pointed fingers, blaming each other for what followed. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe told NPR that the venue did make a difference:
That rally should not have been in the middle of downtown… where [people] dispersed all over the city streets, and it became a powder keg.
A report by Bay Area public radio station KQED quoted California State University San Bernardino professor Brian Levin, who said that intervening in street brawls may have had the effect of causing protesters to unify and attack police:
Sometimes intervention by police will result in everyone attacking the police. If there’s one thing that can unify rival protesters, it’s the presence of the police. They’re making a tactical judgment
In the aftermath of the violent and deadly rally, there has been both praise and criticism of how police handled the events. What seems clear is that statements by unnamed individual officers have been exaggerated and subsequently spun into full-blown conspiracy mongering.
We have been able to confirm, however, that the mayor of Charlottesville didn’t issue a “stand-down” order, nor did any city official, including Charlottesville police Chief Thomas, who was in command of the consortium of local and state agencies that made up law enforcement’s response.