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The Role The Judiciary Played In The Rally In Charlottesville, Va.


Last Monday, after violent racist protests and counter-demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., we interviewed Virginia's Governor Terry McAuliffe on this program. He condemned the violence and called on the white nationalists to leave Virginia. But he also said something some of us found surprising. He called out the courts in Charlottesville for not doing enough to help local officials.


TERRY MCAULIFFE: We've got to do a better job working with judiciary. They need to listen to the local city officials about where these permits are allowed to allow people to come into your city with guns. Our job is to protect it. And the judiciary needs to do a better job of working with us.

CHANG: NPR's Robert Benincasa dug into the role the judiciary played in the Charlottesville rally and the reports that courts may not just be unwilling to help, they may also be unable.

ROBERT BENINCASA, BYLINE: Police and business leaders in Charlottesville knew the rally was likely to be violent. Would-be demonstrators took to Facebook, threatening city officials and counter-protesters. The goal is to get a thousand men, one said, to crush and demoralize antifa to the point where they don't return to the park. Another posted, I can assure you there will be beatings. Rally organizer Jason Kessler boasted in a podcast. He said his rally would be like the one in Berkeley, Calif. in April where demonstrators clashed violently with counter-protesters.

CRAIG BROWN: Law enforcement and the city recognize that there was a significant likelihood of violence.

BENINCASA: That's Charlottesville City Attorney Craig Brown. Evidence of the potential for violence mounted and five days before the rally, the city acted, not to cancel it but to move it away from downtown. Officials told Kessler he'd have to demonstrate at another park a mile and a half away. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Kessler sued in federal court. The judge ruled in his favor, saying there was evidence that the city was discriminating against him for his beliefs. And here's the thing. The city didn't tell the court about the evidence it had of looming violence.

Instead, with a group of business owners who joined the suit, it focused only on the potential for a larger crowd than the 400 Kessler listed on his permit.

MIKE RODI: We conceded too much when we continued to treat it like a political rally and not an act of hostility, an act of violence towards our town.

BENINCASA: Mike Rodi has owned a restaurant and pool hall called Rapture on the downtown pedestrian mall for 19 years. He was one of the business leaders who joined the lawsuit. In that suit, Police Chief Al Thomas warned that some demonstrators planned to carry guns and that Emancipation Park wasn't a safe location for that. City Manager Maurice Jones told the court that police, fire and rescue workers, quote, "cannot adequately protect people and property downtown."

Courts have allowed governments to put reasonable and narrow restrictions on the time and place of free speech. But City Attorney Brown says persuading a judge to intervene based on a threat of violence is very difficult.

BROWN: The standard is extremely high. You have to show not just that there is a chance of violence but it's very likely and that it's something that you can't control.

BENINCASA: Business owner Rodi is among those calling for Charlottesville to take a harder line on white nationalist groups in the future.

RODI: They got what they wanted. They came here, they hurt us, they scared us and they killed us. So I think we need to go forward and say to this group when they try to get a permit, we must not even concede that they are legitimate political groups. They are terrorists. That is what they've shown us. They are coming here to hurt us, and we have a right to defend ourselves.

BENINCASA: Rodi says the optimist in him hopes that some of the supporters of the rally are horrified by what they saw and that hate groups will become less powerful. Still, he fears that his city will become an even bigger target in the future. Robert Benincasa, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Robert Benincasa is a computer-assisted reporting producer in NPR's Investigations Unit.