Leadership & Governance

Did UVa Miss Signs of Looming Violence?

Professors and activists say university officials failed to spot indications of a melee in the making, leaving students vulnerable

August 14, 2017

Anadolu Agency, Contributor, Getty Images
Hundreds of right-wing protesters march with torches through the U. of Virginia campus on Friday night. Later the group surrounded a group of counterprotesters at the foot of the Jefferson statue, hurled torches, and hit them with pepper spray.

A demonstration by white nationalists that turned violent on Friday at the University of Virginia appeared to catch officials off guard, but local activists say there was evidence hours beforehand that the night could get ugly.

"It was common knowledge out in town that an action was going to happen by the alt-right that night," said Walter F. Heinecke, an associate professor of education who has helped organize progressive demonstrations in Charlottesville. "As it got later in the day it became clearer something was going to happen at UVa."

Professors at the university and other counterprotesters say that social media postings, eyewitness accounts of white nationalists congregating near the campus on Friday, and basic common sense should have given university officials ample time to prepare for a dangerous confrontation. But when hundreds of men wielding torches and chanting racial epithets wound their way to the university’s Rotunda, observers say, they encountered a paltry police presence that intervened only after a brutal melee ensued.

Witnesses describe a chaotic scene Friday, reminiscent of a Ku Klux Klan rally, where torches were deployed as spears and pepper spray filled the air. Police officers eventually dispersed the crowd, declaring an unlawful assembly, but they did so far later than observers expected.

A university police officer was injured in the scuffle, which resulted in the arrest of a single protester who was charged with assault and disorderly conduct, the university reported.

Teresa A. Sullivan, UVa’s president, told The Chronicle on Sunday that she first learned of a possible march on the Rotunda around 8:15 p.m. Friday, when a resident assistant showed her a social-media post about it. But that would have been well after an "anti-fascist" website, It’s Going Down, posted an alarming Tweet with a photo of a rally at the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville three months earlier:

An hour later, the site gave an even more specific description of what was to come:

Sharing Alerts Via Text

In the hours before white nationalists marched across the lawn, encircling counterprotesters at the base of the Jefferson statue, many progressive activists were gathered nearby at St. Paul’s Memorial Church.

It was there that Cornel West, the Harvard University philosopher, declared Charlottesville "ground zero for the struggle against white supremacy and the alt-right," which proved a profoundly prescient statement.

Willis Jenkins, an associate professor of religion, ethics and environment, had planned to arrive at the church early, around 6 p.m., because event organizers were already concerned about a confrontation with white supremacists. Mr. Jenkins saw himself as an unlikely candidate for security detail, but he agreed to stand guard at the church doors. There was no consistent police presence to speak of at St. Paul’s, Mr. Jenkins said, despite ominous developments nearby.

"We had seen people when it was still light out, walking down the street with what appeared to be tiki torches," he said. "You knew something was going to happen. It was really clear. That was happening at 7:30 or 8."

To share intelligence about possible security threats, Mr. Jenkins and other organizers created a texting group. Beginning at 9:31 p.m., he started to get word of an approaching force of white nationalists gathering at "Nameless Field," an outdoor playing field on campus.

A transcription of the texts, provided by Mr. Jenkins, showed anxiety turning toward panic as organizers feared that demonstrators might come to the church:

"Do we need to keep folks in the church?"

"Yes."

"where are the folks with sticks?"

"came from the corner up university ave turned RIGHT on Rugby."

Mr. Heinecke, the education professor, was also on hand at the church, where he had planned to participate later that night in training on nonviolent resistance. But that training was canceled as white nationalists closed in nearby.

When Mr. Heinecke learned that about 20 counterprotesters, including Virginia students whom he had taught, were being surrounded by demonstrators at the Jefferson statue, he ran toward them. Allen W. Groves, the university’s dean of students, was the only official Mr. Heinecke recognized at the site, he said.

"I saw Allen Groves there and I said ‘Where is UPD? Where are they? Where are they?" Mr. Heinecke recalled. "He said ‘I don’t know. Maybe they’re on duty helping the Charlottesville Police Department patrol around town.’"

Mr. Groves did not respond to an interview request sent by email on Monday.

Mob Hurls Torches

Absent police intervention, Mr. Heinecke said, he and Mr. Groves entered the circle of students, who were surrounded by the men carrying the torches and screaming racial epithets. The professor was "baffled," he said, that he and the dean seemed to be the only ones offering protection.

Moving counterclockwise around the statue, Mr. Heinecke said, he stopped in front of each student, asking, "Do you feel safe here? Do you want to leave?" By the time he was halfway around the circle, he "saw a torch come flying and hit Allen."

"I saw another torch being thrown at the students, and immediately the pepper spray started hitting us all."

The dean and professor, caught in an enclosing mob, grabbed students and pulled them from the circle, Mr. Heinecke said. The two men tended to the rattled counterprotesters, including a woman "in a wheelchair who had just been creamed with pepper spray," Mr. Heinecke said.

Elizabeth T. Pettit, who graduated from the university in 2009, watched the scene unfold with surprise and confusion. Mr. Groves and Mr. Heinecke, she said, seemed to be leading the security response.

"I’m pretty floored there weren’t at least 50 police officers on the lawn," she said.

Charlottesville police have been similarly criticized for their subdued response to the "Unite the Right" rally Saturday, where more than 30 people were injured either in clashes with each other or by a vehicle that mowed down demonstrators, killing one counterprotester, Heather D. Heyer. Two Virginia state troopers who had been monitoring the day’s events from the air were killed hours later in a helicopter crash.

Anthony P. de Bruyn, a university spokesman, did not respond directly on Monday to an email inquiry about whether the university police force was asked before the Friday night march to provide protection. He said the university had been "working closely with state and local law enforcement" in response to events last weekend.

The debacle Friday left Mr. Jenkins, the religion professor, angered at the university and feeling helpless. As white nationalists encircled the Jefferson statue, Mr. Jenkins said, he shuddered, feeling duty-bound to guard the church, while his students faced down a hate-fueled mob.

"Some messengers ran to us and begged us to help defend those students, and we couldn’t," Mr. Jenkins said, "because we had put that church on lockdown. And I am haunted as a faculty member that I had to watch them overtake those students."

Halting to collect himself, Mr. Jenkins continued, "And there was no one to assist them. It was long minutes of violence before the police came."

At 10:16 p.m., Mr. Heinecke said, he called 911, according to cell-phone records he reviewed.

"It was really loud," he said. "There was screaming going on. I couldn’t hear the 911 operator very well, but I told her what was happening. She asked questions and I tried to respond, and all hell was breaking loose. I had to attend to the students."

Eric Kelderman contributed to this report.

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.