In the days following a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend of 11 August 2017, a number of news publications and web sites posted stories reporting that Virginia state police had contradicted Governor Terry McAuliffe's comments about the violence.
Although the reports have picked apart McAuliffe's comments in a podcast and a New York Times article by citing state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller's quotes in the libertarian blog Reason.com which seemed to contradict him, Virginia's secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security told us the the governor's comments are being manipulated but were in essence accurate.
In the Times story, McAuliffe mentioned heavily-armed militias "had better equipment than our State Police had," and in a podcast with Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson, the governor said authorities had found stashes of weapons hidden around the city. According to the Reason.com blog, Geller said:
The governor was referring to the briefing provided him in advance of Saturday's rally and the extra security measures being taken by local and state police. As a safety precaution in advance of August 12, such searches were conducted in and around Emancipation and McIntire Parks. No weapons were located as a result of those searches.
Geller also seemed to contradict McAuliffe when asked about whether police were "outgunned" by members of armed militias that attended the rally, quoted by Reason.com as saying:
The governor was referencing the weapons and tactical gear the members of various groups attending the rally had on their persons. I can assure you that the Virginia State Police personnel were equipped with more-than-adequate specialized tactical and protective gear for the purpose of fulfilling their duties to serve and protect those in attendance of the August 12 event in Charlottesville.
Numerous web sites then elbowed their way into the discussion, now claiming that the governor was anything from purposely lying to being "at odds" with state police. (Two Virginia State Police officers and one Charlottesville resident were killed on 12 August 2017 during the rally's resulting unrest and violence.)
But Brian Moran, secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, told us the articles are quibbling over details and don't accurately represent what happened over the chaotic weekend, which officials are still reviewing. Moran told us that the governor's statements were accurate:
I'm a little frustrated with some members of the press focusing on these statements. I was present and saw it all, and was in communication with the governor. I can’t verify what was found, but you can just look at the videos — there were weapons in the city. They were stashed somewhere but I’m not going to get into where, or when they were found, or who found them.
During the course of the day many of the protesters had weapons — some of them had firearms, batons, water bottles filled with urine, other chemical substances, helmets, shields, There was a battering ram, which never made it to the park. These were obviously stashed. Some reporters are splitting hairs, but there were obviously weapons in the city.
In regards to McAuliffe's statements that militia members had "better equipment", Moran said that was in regards to what police on the ground near the park were carrying — they were not carrying semi-automatic rifles like the militias were, because the close-quarters setting (Emancipation Park only encompasses one city block in downtown Charlottesville) and crowd density would have made it unsafe to do so:
On the ground the state police did not use semi-automatic weapons of that kind, and neither did the National Guard — at no time on the ground did the state police or National Guard deploy those weapons. We can’t tell you the kinds of things that were deployed but in terms of [Emancipation Park] and Market Street, because of the protesters and the congestion in that tightly confined, congested space, that was not best practices.
Authorities initially wanted to move the protest from Emancipation Park to McIntire Park, which is away from the city center and much larger. However, a judge granted a last-minute injunction to organizers which allowed them to remain in Emancipation Park, where a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee has been the focal point for racial tensions.
Moran said he personally saw a line of heavily-armed militia members walking on Market Street, which runs south of Emancipation Park, in the morning hours of 12 August 2017 and was relaying what he saw to the governor:
The superintendent of police was standing next to me and we have an open carry law in Virginia — but they were introducing that type of high-powered rifle into that situation and it was clearly a public safety risk — a serious public safety risk.
Moran said the rally prompted the "largest mobilization of state police and National Guard for civil unrest as far back as anyone can go" in the state of Virginia. The preparation involved a consortium of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Three people were killed in the chaos that followed — Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old Charlottesville resident who died when an apparent rally attendee drove his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, and two Virginia State Police officers who died when the helicopter they were piloting while monitoring the unrest crashed.