Police Targeted Anti-Racists In Charlottesville Ahead of ‘Unite The Right’ Rally, Documents Show
Leading up to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, numerous foot soldiers of the “alt-right” openly broadcast their intention to create bloodshed in the genteel southern town.
A white supremacist group in California posted online videos glorifying physical assaults they had perpetrated on their ideological opponents. A post by the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer called for “military guys” to “crack skulls” of black people.
Many of the white supremacists traveling to Charlottesville had violent criminal histories and were well-known to law enforcement. They included: a former Green Beret and Ku Klux Klansman who went to prison for stealing weapons and explosives, a former Marine who went to prison for assaulting a cab driver he thought was Iraqi and participated in violence at the Berkeley protests before coming to Charlottesville, and a Baltimore Klansman who was charged with three separate assaults and a rape (but not convicted).
But an August 9 assessment by federal and local law enforcement officers of the potential for “domestic terrorist violence” at the August 12 rally mainly focused on the possibility that violence would emanate from anti-racists, who were described as “anarchist extremists.”
“We assess that anarchist extremists’ use of violence as a means to oppose racism and white supremacist extremists’ preparations to counterattack anarchist extremists are the principal drivers of violence at recent white supremacist rallies,” the bulletin from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis declares.
The intelligence bulletin—first reported by POLITICO but published here for the first time—alludes to six instances where “anarchist extremists” allegedly attacked white supremacists at previous “lawful white supremacist rallies.” In one case, the memo claims white supremacists “made plans to defend themselves” only after becoming aware “of the threatened violent opposition” by anarchists.
The fear of lethal violence became a reality on August 12 but not because of “anarchist extremists.” A car, allegedly driven by white nationalist James Alex Fields, plowed through a crowd of anti-racist counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old civil rights activist Heather Heyer. Nineteen other people were injured.
The DHS and Virginia Fusion Center bulletin is among numerous fusion center documents obtained by Shadowproof, which show law enforcement agencies kept close tabs on anti-racists while largely ignoring or downplaying the activities of white supremacist groups. They also provide new details on intelligence agencies’ focus on “anarchist extremists” and “black identity extremists,” an investigative category developed by the FBI last year.
Always Known Police Treat Leftists Different Than White Supremacists
As anti-fascists respond to President Donald Trump’s administration and the United States’ resurgent white supremacist movement, they have frequently been targets of aggressive policing and prosecution. Yet, prior to the “Unite the Right” rally, white supremacist groups, who also participated in violent demonstrations, largely avoided prosecution. They often escaped the sweep of arrests and prosecutions typically reserved for anarchists and left-wing protesters.
In fact, allegations of police bias and collusion with neo-Nazis have simultaneously surfaced in several parts of the country.
“We’ve seen a pattern of classic content-based discrimination in violation of the right to freedom of speech and assembly, coupled with selective prosecution,” says Yael Bromberg, a supervising attorney and teaching fellow at the Civil Rights Clinic of Georgetown University Law Center, who has written critically about disparities in policing of white supremacists and leftists. “The state has only been cracking down when it disapproves of the reasons a protest occurs.”
Charlottesville is a case in point. Leading up to the “Unite the Right” rally, those who stood off the city’s growing cadre of white nationalists sustained months of intimidating surveillance and harassment from law enforcement, including a string of politically-motivated arrests and prosecutions.
“We’ve always known the police treat leftists and others who seek to disrupt the current systems of power differently, although it’s shocking to experience it directly,” says Pam Starsia, an attorney who represented activists in Charlottesville that were arrested and spied on by local police.
Michael German, a former FBI agent now affiliated with New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, told Shadowproof the DHS’ framing of altercations between anarchists and white supremacists is “absolutely shocking.”
“It presents the white supremacists as victims of an attack defending themselves, with absolutely no evidence to support that,” German said.
In written remarks submitted to the House Homeland Security Committee on November 30, Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke referenced the memo as a positive example of the agency’s cooperation with local police. Duke noted her agency’s commitment to targeting both “violent racial supremacy and violent anarchist extremism,” describing each as “a danger to our communities.”
The DHS declined a request for comment on the memo.
Heavy-Handed Policing Of Leftists Coupled With Failure To Address White Supremacist Threat
Home of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville was initially targeted by white supremacists because it is a liberal bastion that proposed removing Confederate monuments from city parks.
On August 11, the evening prior to the “Unite the Right” rally, the world was stunned by images of tiki torch-bearing mobs of angry white men marching across the university campus while chanting “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us.”
President Donald Trump’s contemptible response to Heather Heyer’s death the following day, which implied moral equivalence between Nazi and anti-Nazi motivations, dominated the news in the days that followed. So, too, did the actions of law enforcement and city officials.
Despite numbering 1,000 strong, police stood aside throughout the day as white supremacists repeatedly charged and pummeled their ideological opponents, before retreating behind lines of heavily-armed militia members.
Seeking answers, the city of Charlottesville hired a consulting firm led by former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy and released a comprehensive report on the police’s failures on December 1.
The report assigned much of the blame to Charlotesville police for “planning and coordination breakdowns.” In an interview, Heaphy told Shadowproof he hoped the report would become a “template and a primer for how small cities around the country deal with these kinds of events.”
But many of the comments Heaphy’s review team received are arguably more insightful than the report itself. Jalane Schmidt, a University of Virginia professor or religious studies and a founder of Charlottesville’s Black Lives Matter group, wrote a nine-page, single-spaced letter. It detailed months of heavy-handed policing of leftists and anti-racists, coupled with the thoroughgoing failure of police and city officials to consider seriously the threats posed by white supremacists.
“Law enforcement and city officials view with suspicion leftist activists who are their own neighbors (we live here, have children and mortgages, go to our jobs, pay taxes, and have a stake in community defense), and appear to regard us as an equal or greater threat as attacking alt-right hoards,” Schmidt wrote. “Even when we covered our tattoos, wore suits, researched and wrote documents of the sort I am here providing, and presented these at city forums and press conferences, we were seen as an annoyance rather than an ally in protecting the community.”
The police’s monitoring and suppression of anti-racists noticeably ramped up before a Ku Klux Klan rally at the city’s Justice Park on July 8.
In June 2017, the Charlottesville Police Department arrested artist and activist Veronica Fitzhugh at her home based solely on an allegation by Jason Kessler that Fitzbaugh had shaken his chair. The following day, they arrested civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel, this time because Fogel tapped Caleb Norris, who is a friend of Kessler’s.
Later that month, a Charlottesville police officer made unannounced visits to the homes of Fitzbaugh and another female activist of color, ostensibly to inquire about their plans to demonstrate at Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan rally in the on July 8. The police also contacted left-wing and white liberal activists based on posts they made on Facebook to inquire about plans for a July 8 Ku Klux Klan rally.
The police’s conduct reached a low-point at the rally itself. Minutes after escorting roughly 50 Klan members from the park, the police fired tear gas into a crowd of 1,000 counter-demonstrators and arrested 27 people. The officers were clad in riot gear and flanked by two armored personnel carriers.
Targeting Left-Wing Activists Who Warn City Officials Of Violence
In advance of the “Unite the Right” rally, the group Solidarity Cville presented significant evidence to city officials concerning threats of violence against left-wing activists, city officials, and people of color. But documents obtained by the Virginia-based blog “Restore the Honor” show police failed to monitor far-right groups that were likewise heavily relying on social media to broadcast their activities.
Instead, a law enforcement emergency operations center known as VOST monitored left-wing activists and local journalists both during the July 8 KKK rally and on August 11 and 12.
One alt-right tweet, which someone at VOST forwarded, stated, “Charlottesville is about to see record levels of violence and it all will be from #Antifa and the #defendcvillecrowd. #UniteTheRight.”
“This seems to be a growing sentiment,” the officer added.
Shadowproof reached out to VOST for comment on the officer’s email, but a representative of VOST did not respond.
According to Heaphy’s report, a Charlottesville police detective approached a Kentucky FBI agent regarding the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Workers Party’s plans for the rally. The FBI agent responded that neo-Nazis were “not likely to cause problems” but that “the counter-protesters might.”
The report also mentions that a New York City Police Department detective contacted the Charlottesville police to warn that Black Lives Matter New York members planned to travel to the rally, indicating that the NYPD had the group under surveillance. It does not say whether any local police departments volunteered intelligence on white supremacist groups.
The FBI did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
White Supremacists As People Bothered By ‘Nasty Anarchists’
U.S. law enforcement’s contemporary focus on anarchists, as well as those it labels as anarchists—largely dates back to 1999, when militant protests partially shut down a World Trade Organization summit in what became known as the “Battle of Seattle.” The protests dealt a brief but powerful setback to the U.S.-led global economic agenda.
Under Trump, prosecutors have carried on this tradition by aggressively targeting leftists and anti-racists, including the more than 200 demonstrators who were charged with felonies for protesting Trump’s inauguration in Washington, D.C. Fifty-nine of those charges are still pending.
This wave of repression has been accompanied by an ideological campaign that has attempted to demonize the Black Lives Matter movement and the network of anti-fascists known as “Antifa,” many of whom are anarchists. In late-November, FBI Director Christopher Wray announced a federal probe focused on individuals who are inspired by “kind of an antifa ideology.”
Last August, the FBI’s counter-terrorism division set forth its new focus on counteracting “Black Identity Extremism” in a memo obtained by Foreign Policy.
The “Black Identity Extremism” rubric spread quickly, fusion center documents obtained by Shadowproof show.
An August 16 report by northern California’s fusion center, Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, lists four “Major Anti-Racist/Antifa Affiliated Groups in CA” and five “Major Black Identity/Separatist Groups” in California by name.
Under the former category, the document lists “By Any Means Necessary (BAMN),” “Anti-Fascist Action Bay Area,” “Northern California Anti-Racist Action,” and “Regional Antifa Groups.” Under the latter, it lists “Black Riders Liberation Party, Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge,” “Israel United in Christ,” “Nation of Islam,” and “New Black Panther Party.”
Other California fusion center documents acquired by Shadowproof focus almost entirely on the purported threats posed by anti-racists.
A July 15 State Threat Assessment Center report calls “Violent Radical Interactions in California” reviewed four different violent clashes in California since February 2016. It claims “Antifa extremists” were responsible for instigating the violence at each.
“Within the last year, anti-fascist organizers have effected unlawful violence against their political opponents and non-aligned bystanders,” the report states. It makes no corresponding statement concerning white supremacists.
Mike German, who as an FBI agent infiltrated Nazi skinhead and white militia organizations, sees a clear pattern of bias in the California fusion center documents and in broader police behavior. “It’s just astonishing to me that in so many cases law enforcement is presenting the white supremacists almost as these very fine people, as Donald Trump said, who are bothered by these nasty anarchists.”
In an interview with Shadowproof, Northern California Regional Intelligence Center Director Mike Senna denied that his agency disproportionately focused on investigating left-wing groups. “We are always going to deal with people as equally and fairly as we can,” Senna said.
Senna agreed that it was likely his agency’s reports had helped inform the August 9th Department of Homeland Security and Virginia Fusion Center report on violence by “anarchist extremists.” “They probably read a lot of the stuff we were putting out there,” he said.
Prosecutors Respond To ‘Unite The Right’ Rally
Prosecutors have filed several charges against white supremacists in the wake of the “Unite the Right” rally.
James Fields, Jr., the alleged driver of the car that killed Heather Heyer, was charged with first-degree murder and nine other charges. Three other white supremacists, who were captured on video kicking, punching, and beating 20-year-old Charlottesville resident Deandre Harris, were charged with “malicious wounding” and “felonious assault.” Ku Klux Klan leader Richard Preston, who shot a pistol in the direction of Corey Long, a 23-year-old Culpeper, Virginia, resident, was charged with shooting a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school.
“Unite the Right” organizer Jason Kessler was indicted on a count of felony perjury stemming from his conviction on a misdemeanor assault charge in an unrelated incident in early 2017.
A handful of other white supremacists also faced lesser charges.
Still, three counter-protesters were arrested and charged by law enforcement since the “Unite the Right” rally. They are each black males from Charlottesville.
A Charlotesville magistrate levied a felony charge of “unlawful wounding” against DeAndre Harris, the 20-year-old man whose parking garage beating by white supremacists went viral. Corey Long, who improvised a blowtorch to keep Preston at bay during their stand-off, also caught two misdemeanor charges.
On January 19, the Charlottesville Police Department arrested Donald Blakney, a 52-year-old Charlottesville resident on the charge of “malicious wounding,” a felony that carries a five to 20-year prison sentence, based on the allegation that he assaulted white supremacists who had been harassing him. According to the Charlottesville chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, Blakney was interviewed by the FBI last year.
On the day of Heather Heyer’s murder, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a federal investigation of the day’s racially-charged violence, which remains ongoing.
‘I Will Not Be Bullied By the Federal Government’
Several survivors of the car attack that killed Heyer were stunned last November when they received subpoenas compelling them to testify before a federal grand jury.
Blocked to press, public, and even attorneys for the subpoenaed, grand juries have often been used as tools to repress and intimidate movements led by people of color, leftists, and anarchists.
On December 13, roughly 30 people gathered outside Charlottesville’s federal courthouse on a bone-chilling morning, standing behind a banner denouncing a “grand jury witch hunt.”
Among those summoned to testify to the grand jury was Charlottesville resident Star Peterson, who spoke to the crowd assembled at the courthouse. Peterson was run over in the same car attack that killed Heyer. She underwent emergency surgery to install a metal plate to stabilize bones that had been shattered in her right leg. She stood before the crowd in a short black dress, defying the weather to reveal the deep, pink surgical scars from the operation.
Peterson refused to testify before the grand jury, she announced. “I was already run over by a car,” she said. “I will not be bullied by the federal government.”
In communications with the subjects of the grand jury subpoenas, representatives of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western Virginia District maintained that the investigation’s purpose is to strengthen the charges they are preparing to bring against white supremacists. Shortly after the rally, the grand jury withdrew its subpoenas of most anti-racists, including Peterson.
In response to a request for comment on the status of the investigation ordered by Attorney General Sessions, an Attorney’s Office spokesman referred Shadowproof to an August 13 statement on the Justice Department website.
“The Richmond FBI Field Office, the Civil Rights Division, and the US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia have opened a civil rights investigation into the circumstances of the deadly vehicular incident,” it reads. “The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence and will ensure that the investigation is conducted in a fair, thorough and impartial manner.”
Fogel, the civil rights attorney arrested by Charlottesville Police last year, has represented Black Panthers and members of the Puerto Rican independence movement, who were targeted with grand jury repression. He says he expects the grand jury to result solely in indictments of white supremacists.
But the grand jury resistance can be read as part of a broader stand against a wave of political repression targeting left-wing activists and anarchists.
Conflicts between white supremacists and anti-fascists across the U.S. show no signs of abating. On March 5, fights broke out and authorities made multiple arrests as hundreds of anti-fascist blocked neo-Nazis from attending a speech by white supremacist Richard Spencer at Michigan State University.
Jalane Schmidt, the University of Virginia professor of religious studies and co-founder of Charlottesville’s Black Lives Matter group, told Shadowproof the kind of intensive police scrutiny to which anti-racists have been subjected, even as they faced off against a resurgent white nationalist movement, is a perfect example of why boldly confronting white supremacy is necessary and must continue.
“Systemic white supremacy has been normalized in the U.S. as the familiar social order, so the alt-right is legible to the powers that be,” Schmidt said. “On the other hand, any organized effort to confront and topple white supremacy appears to the people who uphold these systems as a threat.”