The neo-Confederate rally this weekend is shaping into a larger, messier situation. Richmond Police hosted a series of briefings and forums Thursday night to share information, and CSA rally co-organizer Tara Brandau held a press conference this morning to answer questions about their plans.
The presser was short and mostly a reiteration of the group’s statement that they seek a peaceful demonstration in support of the General Lee statue. Brandau was flanked by two co-organizers bearing Confederate flags as she took a few questions. The group was not as visibly armed as they’ve been in their social media posts, but the shape of a holstered handgun was apparent under Judy Crompton’s t-shirt as she filmed the press with her smartphone.
The group has been much more active on social media, documenting their drive into Virginia, announcing discounts on any merchandise supporters purchased during the rally, and airing beefs with local Confederacy groups. They’ve attacked the Sons of Confederate Veterans in a post calling their anti-rally stance “completely unacceptable” and asked followers to make the sentiment go viral.
Last night’s community meeting at First Baptist Church on Monument Avenue started with an apology from police Chief Durham expressing his condolences to residents and issuing stern words for the organizers. “If you want to protest, you should have stayed in Tennessee with that nonsense. But you want to come here, we’re going to deal with you accordingly.”
He was also critical of counter-protesters, underscoring a message of no-tolerance policing for the weekend. “They don’t play by the rules, but we’re going to introduce them to the rules.” The police did highlight one local counter-protest group as being law-abiding and cooperative, in later remarks by Captain John O’Kleasky. He highlighted the Richmond Peace Education Center, one of the organizers of a rally and march starting this Saturday at the Maggie Walker statue on Broad Street as a group they’ve worked successfully with around peaceful protests.
RVA Mag has highlighted some resident questions and common themes from the community meeting, which can be found below:
“How should counter-protesters protect themselves from being shot on Saturday, especially as you’re not allowing safety gear?” said one woman, touching on a theme that would resurface throughout most of the questions.
“Don’t show up,” Chief Durham responded. “I can’t predict when somebody is going to pull a firearm. The Governor is looking at eliminating the ability to bring guns to a protest, and I think he should be.”
Chief Durham referenced the post-Charlottesville protest in Richmond that turned violent on August 13th. “We had about 13 individuals with assault weapons, my officers have sidearms. We’re outgunned. The same fear you have, my officers have.”
Other residents were more worried about their cars, a sentiment that seemed banal and small by comparison to the fears of gun violence and car attacks. One man stood up to ask Chief Durham if he was providing off-site parking for neighbors, perhaps in the DMV lot or at the Bookbindery building.
Chief Durham: “For residents? No sir, we are not providing parking for residents.”
Another common theme was around Constitutional rights and state laws. “Why can’t the Governor temporarily ban open carry?” one man asked. Others seemed confused by the Governor’s temporary ban of protests on state property versus the Constitutional right to assemble, asking why the city can’t ban all assembly this weekend.
Chief Durham defended the Constitution, but was critical of permissive state laws around open carry. “I can’t speak for the governor. I will say, I had my first experience at the GA, and residents need to go up there and voice their opinions.”
The trauma of Charlottesville haunted many residents. An African-American man asked for specific advice for people of color, referencing the brutal beating of Deandre Harris by neo-nazis in Charlottesville.
“Every person here has the right to defend him or herself,” Cheif Durham responded. He asked that anyone who witnesses an assault provide video and photo evidence to the police as soon as possible, noting that it can be hard to track down out-of-state people without community support.
The next speaker identified herself as a counter-protester in Charlottesville and was critical of police response there. “We were there as counter-protesters because people were in danger and were not protected by authorities,” she said. “We went to promote peace. Will you have our backs? I want to know that we’ll be protected, and not just arrested because these people are terrorists.”
Chief Durham stressed that the police will be there to protect the community. “I can’t stress it enough. We’re going to be there and we’re going to respond to any illegal acts. We’re going to be there.”
Early into the meeting, a woman voiced her concerns over moderate voices being silenced. “Protests happen because people want to raise their voice and there is no other place to do that. Why doesn’t Richmond give people a space to debate this?” She opined that people who say “Heritage, not hate” don’t have a voice.
Chief Durham didn’t respond to her or other political comments, but a later speaker did and pushed back against an introductory remark the Chief made about Richmond not asking for this rally.
“You said we didn’t start this, but we did. We’ve had this problem for a long time here. And we did have a forum to discuss this, it was the Richmond Monument Commission. The second meeting got canceled, and the first one was a mess.”
One woman said she’d emailed copies of social media posts by Tara Brandau to the RPD, who frequently poses with firearms and has written that she’s ready to “take out the trash” in response to comments about counter-protesters. “I’ve gotten no response from the police,” she said, referring to the posts as a threat.
Chief Durham apologized for the lack of response, but assured her they were reading the emails and explained that the posts didn’t qualify as a legal threat. “To be a threat, it has to be directed at someone. Take out the trash–what does that mean?”
Monument Avenue residents asked about the logistical challenges of protecting their neighborhood, and Chief Durham agreed with them. “This is a unique situation. Other protests were in parks, this is in a neighborhood.” One man asked about coordination with other city departments; the Chief confirmed that they’d be working with the Department of Public Works among others.
“What about dogs?” The man asked.
“Dogs? We don’t do dogs. That was the 1960s,” the Chief answered to scattered applause. “Next question.”
After more questions about firearms and logistics, James Edwin Ray, 1st Lt. Commander of the Richmond Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter, rose to clarify his organization’s role. “Our members were told not to go to this rally, or to Charlottesville. We are not affiliated. Please do not confuse us with these lunatics,” he said, referring to the CSA II.
The next question was about identifying officers. “Looking at photos [from Charlottesville], it was hard to tell the militias from the police. Can you help us identify you better?”
Chief Durham: “You are right. The militias wear the same tactical equipment as law enforcement now.” He explained that most police will be wearing regular uniforms, but his tactical teams would be in “turbo gear” and would be recognizable by the badge numbers on the back of their helmets.
The meeting ended with a final question about the growing use of cars as weapons. “Other cities are using trucks to protect against them. Even at Trump Tower. I think the people around here deserve at least as well as Trump Tower does. Will you be using trucks?”
Chief Durham: “We will.”
Anyone looking for more information should follow police updates on Twitter and Facebook. The department will be providing information as quickly as possible over social media. Citizens are advised to call 911 to report anything suspicious and can call the Joint Information Center (JIC) at 804-646-1095 with non-emergency questions. The police and Mayor Levar Stoney have both advised that residents avoid the area around the Lee Statue if at all possible.
As of Friday afternoon, Capitol Police and private contractors had erected barriers on the roads leading to the Lee Monument and set up fences blocking street access to homes. Neighbors in the street were cautious but expressed confidence that police were managing the situation and would keep them safe during the rally.