Over the weekend of Aug. 12, the ugly underbelly of America swarmed my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, and killed a member of my community.
I was shocked it was only one.
The invaders were dressed for a war. They were clad in bulletproof vests and helmets, armed with homemade riot shields, pepper spray, and most significantly, an obscene amount of weaponry. They were arguably more prepared for violence than the state. Gov. Terry McAuliffe estimated 80 percent of them were carrying weaponry. They came looking for a fight, and they were ready should it happen.
They pushed and pepper-sprayed many who disagreed or argued with them. Their willingness to harm those labeled their enemy persisted throughout the weekend, even after Heather Heyer’s death. A North Carolina Ku Klux Klan leader said he was glad people were hit by a car. In a Vice news documentary, an alt-right man named Christopher Cantwell said, “the fact that nobody on our side died, I would call that points for us.” There was complacency with death and violence against those who opposed them, a common refrain that they did not attack until they were “provoked.” Injuries were inevitable; it was simply a question of which tools they would use.
Peace—or at the very least, the ability to suppress destructive chaos—is fundamentally related to a state’s ability to control the means of violence. What we saw in Charlottesville was an armed vanguard willing and able to inflict harm upon civilians and a police force hesitant to act against those breaking the law. There were multiple reports of the police hesitating, standing a block away and allowing the situation to escalate or refusing to pursue individuals that had allegedly assaulted those on the other side. Unlike during the KKK demonstrations back in June, there was no police buffer providing a barrier between the two sides. Multiple experts told the Associated Press that the response from Charlotteville’s police department was inadequate and that they appeared hopelessly underprepared for the rally.
Some uninformed commenters have posited that the police were responding to an order to stand down or to avoid making arrests. But multiple officials, including Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas, have denied such accusations. I believe them.
Still, there has to be a rationale for their hesitation, particularly since everything I have seen and heard suggests that the Charlottesville police force does not enjoy seeing its town overrun and threatened by white supremacists. I would posit that what happened that on Aug. 12 was not premediated but rather a reaction to the arsenal wielded by the alt-right protests. The Charlottesville Police Department is not an urban police force. They did not have the armament, numbers, or training to seriously challenge an insurgency. That in itself is a problem, but when faced with overwhelming numbers who are better armed and more willing to shoot, settling for minimizing death and destruction seems a reasonable goal. It is at least understandable, and perhaps even a sensible recourse, to avoid aggression against those willing to shoot the people you are sworn to protect, to say nothing of your co-workers. It is possible to see their restraint not as an act of cowardice, but of preservation.
James Fields used a car, not a gun. Had he chosen differently, one death could have been dozens. Charlottesville could have easily joined the fraternity of cities that have lost innocent lives to a mass shooting. And in the wake of such an event, we might have been having a more urgent conversations about how the police should deal with infiltrating and unofficial militias—which, make no mistake, is what they were tasked with handling.
Still, this was not the first time that white supremacy publicly rallied this summer, and it won’t be the last. Pro-Confederate and white supremacist rallies are springing up all over the country. It is entirely likely that these gatherings will be similarly armed and predisposed to conflict. And at least some of them will occur in other places that lack the police resources necessary to contain them. The police might be similarly hesitant to act for fear of inciting widespread chaos and perhaps lighting the fuse that ends in death. If someone pulls a trigger, few would be equipped to stop the madness that follows.
The solution to this is not a more militant police force. Amidst concerns about how well-equipped and well-prepared the CPD were, it’s tempting to suggest better guns—guns that could go toe-to-toe with the alt-right’s armaments—could serve as sufficient deterrent. But adding more weaponry to a situation would likely only serve to escalate violence, not diminish it. Perhaps instead of worrying that those rallying would fire the first bullet, we would have to fear that the police could have. As police grow more militarized in their armament, they grow increasingly likely to jump into violent situations and to violent action, recent research conducted by Casey Delehanty and Jack Mewhirter found. Adding more guns or fancier guns into situations like that in Charlottesville will likely serve to make the situation more dangerous, not less. Fighting fire with fire just burns down the house.
Perhaps, instead of focusing on better arming the police, we should at least consider disarming the protesters. There are already limits on open carries for airports and some school zones; zoning where someone can and cannot openly carry a deadly weapon is nothing new. Let’s add peaceful protests to the list. There could be restrictions placed upon the armament of protesters and public assemblies.
Sure, it’s a challenging proposal. Protests are large gatherings held at varying locations. People pour in from all directions. There might not be easy ways to tell who is affiliated with the protest and who is not, which could lead to some complicated question: Does someone forfeit the right to openly carry a weapon the moment he or she decides to join a protest?
But rallies, like the one in Charlottesville, also center around concrete locations for which permits must be obtained. Designating the official zone of the protest as an open carry–free zone when the permit is being obtained is a good starting point. For Charlottesville, this would have meant that Emancipation Park, the space where the protest was scheduled and permitted to take place, would have been designated a gun-free zone, something the organizers would have known when planning. Police could have further informed individuals as they entered the space that this was the policy and that those who violated it would be removed or arrested. It would not have entirely solve the problem. Armed individuals could have still remained in other parts of the city. But it would have at least minimized the presence of weapons in the designated areas of conflict, and it might have enabled the police action to have been more swift, targeted, and effective.
The terrorist who attacked my town came from a state where there is more paperwork involved with getting a drivers license than a rifle. I should not have to fear for the lives of my classmates, friends, and family if they are moved to be politically active. I should not have to fear for the safety and sanctity of my town every few months. If these protests are peaceful and the actions of these groups are truly in the interest of free speech, there should be no issue with taking deadly weapons out of the situation.