Newly released emails suggest that law enforcement in Charlottesville, Virginia, downplayed the threat of violence from white supremacist groups in the lead-up to the “Unite the Right” rally on August 12. Instead, it appears that police focused most of their attention on the activities of anti-fascist counter-protesters, despite repeated warnings and growing concerns among community members.
In one email, University of Virginia police chief Michael Gibson declined a request for safety information from the leader of a student group. In another, he turned down an offer from the police chief at nearby George Mason University to send additional officers for assistance. The documents also show that Gibson sent a link about the activities of anti-fascist demonstrators posted on the website It’s Going Down, but did not send similar links to white supremacist websites or other far-right groups planning to attend the rally.
The emails are part of a cache of documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the watchdog group Shadowproof, and published by journalist Ken Klippenstein. Included in the file are emails sent and received by Gibson, as well as the Charlottesville mayor, sheriff, and police chief.
The documents, dated August 11 and 12, cover the time period immediately before and during “Unite the Right,” a white supremacist rally that erupted into violence and led to the fatal car attack that killed 32-year-old civil rights activist Heather Heyer and injured 19 others.
The exchanges provide revealing new details about the internal handling of the event, showing that university and city officials failed to take action in response to repeated warnings from students and community members about the potential for violence at the upcoming rally.
One of those warnings was sent to Charlottesville police chief Al Thomas the night before the rally, when several hundred torch-bearing white supremacists stormed the campus of UVA. In the email, UVA professor Walt Heinecke described how the torch-bearing mob turned violent as a result of “no police intervention.”
“The students were engaging in non violence surrounding the statue and were viciously attacked by the neo Nazis and white supremacists,” Heinecke wrote to the police chief. “If this is a sign of things to come, the White supremacists will be violent tomorrow.”
There is no indication in the emails that city officials or law enforcement heeded the warning. Instead, they shared talking points and looped in a public relations firm, giving the impression of a city more concerned with their public image than the impending threat to public safety.
MISSING IN ACTION
The newly released documents lend support to the firsthand accounts of Charlottesville residents and community groups, many of whom said the police failed to offer adequate protection even as hundreds of white supremacists surrounded a small group of student protesters and began attacking them with torches.
As fights broke out at the rally the next day, police reportedly stood as far as a block away and didn’t intervene to stop or deescalate the situation. Witnesses say police didn’t help or make arrests when 20-year-old Deandre Harris was attacked in a parking lot and savagely beaten by a group of white supremacists within eyeshot of Charlottesville PD officers. It was his friends—not police—who eventually saw what was happening and stepped in to pull him to safety. Even as a white supremacist pointed a pistol toward a crowd of counter-protesters and fired off a shot, police stood on the sidelines.
“To make his escape…the armed protester strolled past a line of about a dozen state police troopers who were safely positioned about 10 feet away behind two metal barricades,” the New York Times reported. “None of them budged.”
According to the ACLU of Virginia, police said they wouldn’t intervene “until given command to do so.”
That command apparently didn’t come until a car plowed into the crowd of protesters.
Perhaps most troubling is that the trove of emails appear to confirm a series of leaked chat logs and planning documents from rally organizers, who discussed working closely with law enforcement and voiced their expectation that police would focus on counter-protesters instead of rally attendees. The chat logs and documents were obtained from an app called Discord and first published by the activist media collective Unicorn Riot, and have since been verified by Wired and Pro Publica.
In one secret planning document, Unite the Right organizers said they had talked with law enforcement, and “in our communications with them [police], they know that the left are the ones looking to do violence.” (Local officials have acknowledged making “advanced arrangements” with the white supremacists, though no details about the plans were given.)
Similar discussions took place on Charlottesville 2.0, a private message board on Discord operated by Unite the Right organizers Jason Kessler and Eli Mosley. In a leaked chat log, Mosley was asked about his communication with law enforcement referenced in the planning document.
“When I said ‘they knew,’ I was referring to the police who, time and time again, admitted to us that they knew the left was (sic) going to be the violent ones,” Mosley was quoted as saying.
But the leaked conversations also reveal how those involved in planning the white supremacist rally intentionally tried to play up the threat of violence from counter-protesters as they worked with law enforcement ahead of the event, in an apparent attempt to shift attention away from their own activities. Unite the Right organizers pointed law enforcement in the direction of anti-fascist websites and social media accounts, which they alleged contained evidence of left-wing threats of violence. In one post, they specifically mentioned sending content to law enforcement from the website It’s Going Down.
If the newly revealed emails from Charlottesville and UVA officials are any indication, it appears that the efforts of rally organizers to divert attention away from the threat of white supremacist violence was devastatingly successful.
As white supremacists took to the Charlottesville 2.0 discussion board to post gruesome memes and fantasies of violence—including references to mowing down protesters with a vehicle—UVA’s police chief was refusing an offer for additional help and sending emails to university and city officials containing a link to a post about the plans of local anti-fascist activists. The link came from the same website referenced by Unite the Right organizers in their communications with law enforcement.
The emails were sent without context, so it’s unclear what Gibson was trying to convey by sharing the link. When viewed in their entirety, however, the emails suggest that local officials planned their strategy for the rally based at least in part on the guidance given to them by the white supremacists who organized the event. Meanwhile, anti-fascist protesters and other counter-demonstrators were reportedly not consulted, despite coming forward with concerns about credible threats of violence.
Taken together, the newly released emails, leaked chat logs, and eyewitness testimony raise serious questions about how the event was handled—and why local officials turned a blind eye to the concerns of Charlottesville residents while offering white supremacists a seat at the table.