Why Did UVa Allow Banned Torches During White-Supremacist Rally?

August 25, 2017

Samuel Corum, Anadolu Agency, Getty Images
White supremacists carry torches across the U. of Virginia campus on August 11. While the university maintained it was hamstrung from blocking the march by free-speech rules, laws are in place that could have interrupted the event, and perhaps the deadly violence of the next day.

When hundreds of white supremacists converged on the campus of the University of Virginia earlier this month, their use of torches could have been a reason to shut down their demonstration before it escalated into violence.

A little-known policy from 2013 forbids the use of an "open flame" on campus. The policy, posted on the university’s website, is this: "A person shall not kindle or maintain or authorize to be kindled or maintained any open burning," unless they receive a special approval from the university’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety or Medical Center Fire Protection Inspector’s Office.

The only exceptions to the rule are for cooking food, keeping it warm, or performing laboratory experiments.

But UVa’s president, Teresa A. Sullivan, has publicly suggested the college didn’t have the power to simply extinguish the flames, because, she said, university policy "does not generally prohibit open flames in outdoor spaces or outline approval processes for using open flames in public places."

Ms. Sullivan became president in 2010, so she was in charge when the ban on open flames was approved.

“They wanted to kill us, They were throwing flammable liquids and torches on us -- people could have died.”

For weeks, the university has been on the defensive about how it responded to the torch-wielding white supremacists. The torches themselves endangered not only the historic campus buildings but also students and employees who were attacked by the white-supremacist protesters. After The Chronicle contacted several UVa administrators by phone on Friday, the university asked that questions instead be sent in writing. The university’s written response did not address certain questions, such as why President Sullivan falsely stated there is no university policy against open flames.

A university spokesman, Matt Charles, wrote that UVa has responded to the events of August 11 with “immediate steps and improvements” and “the university will continue to evaluate opportunities to make further improvements and will continue to enact any additional recommendations that will enhance the overall safety of its learning and living environment.”

‘They Wanted to Kill Us’

The existence of a university policy prohibiting open flames may renew questions about whether UVa could have quickly shut down the white-nationalist rally, long before violence occurred. One employee was injured when a thrown torch struck him in the left arm. A university library employee, Tyler D.R. Magill, suffered a stroke that may be related to injuries he suffered during the on-campus clash with white supremacists.

"They wanted to kill us," Mr. Magill said. "They were throwing flammable liquids and torches on us … people could have died."

By the time the torches became weapons hurled at students and employees, they’d already been paraded around campus for about 30 minutes — in clear violation of university rules.

Meanwhile, an FAQ page on the UVa website states that the torch rally never obtained special permission to use open flames through the fire inspector or environmental office. "The University did not approve the use of any open flame device related to the August 11 march," it states.

An email sent to faculty and students Thursday by the dean of the law school, Risa Goluboff, mentions another tool that university police could have perhaps used in dealing with the torch-carrying mob. Going forward, Ms. Goluboff writes, university police are "committed to full enforcement of section 18.2-423.01 of the Virginia Code, which states ‘any person who, with the intent of intimidating any person or group of persons, burns an object on a highway or other public place in a manner having a direct tendency to place another person in reasonable fear or apprehension of death or bodily injury is guilty of a Class 6 felony.’"

But on the night of August 11, the university did not aggressively enforce that state law or its own rules prohibiting open flames.

A Recent Tactic

Months earlier, white supremacists had signaled their fondness for fire. In May, the white nationalist Richard Spencer led a torch-lit rally in downtown Charlottesville’s Lee Park (since renamed Emancipation Park). Mr. Magill said the university should have expected that the group would use torches again.

It was shortly before 10 p.m. on Friday, August 11, when hundreds of white supremacists gathered at UVa’s Nameless Field to ready their torches. From there, the group marched past Clark Hall, Garrett Hall, and the university’s hallowed Lawn, before finally settling in front of a statue of Thomas Jefferson, where the neo-Nazis and white nationalists clashed with a small group of student counterprotesters. Those students were joined by a handful of university employees, who tried to protect them.

Devin Willis, a student and member of the college’s Black Student Alliance, was one of the counterprotesters. Mr. Willis said the white supremacists approached while shouting "slurs and remarks."

"I was very fearful for my life," Mr. Willis said. "It was very much a confrontational way that they approached us … it was very violently postured."

As the brawl came to a close, Mr. Willis said he noticed a handful of police officers on the scene, out of the corner of his eye.

"They were mainly kind of spectating," he said. "It was strange."

Mr. Magill, the library employee, placed much of the blame for the university’s tepid response on President Sullivan.

"She was afraid," he said. "And we cannot have that sort of fear running an institution like the University of Virginia."

The violent melee was followed by more bloodshed the next day in the city of Charlottesville, when a white nationalist plowed his gray Dodge into a sea of counterprotesters — injuring more than dozen people and killing 32-year-old Heather D. Heyer. Mr. Magill faults the university’s inaction on Friday for fueling the boldness of white supremacists a day later.

"The very great success of Friday night led directly to the carnage of Saturday," he said. "If they had been shut down, they certainly would not have been as emboldened on Saturday. I sincerely believe that. But they were not shut down, they were allowed to try to kill 30 or 35 people in front of the eyes of the police. They acted with total impunity, in front of the eyes of the University of Virginia police. So of course they were whooped up for Saturday."

Update (8/26/2017, 12:20 p.m.): This article has been updated with a statement from UVa in response to questions from The Chronicle.

Michael Vasquez is a senior investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter @MrMikeVasquez, or email him at