The Department of Homeland Security issued a confidential warning to law enforcement authorities three days before the deadly Aug. 12 Charlottesville protest rally, saying that an escalating series of clashes had created a powder keg that would likely make the event “among the most violent to date” between white supremacists and anarchists.
The “law enforcement sensitive” assessment, obtained by POLITICO and reported for the first time, raises questions about whether Charlottesville city and Virginia state authorities dropped the ball before, and during, a public event that was widely expected to draw huge crowds of armed, emotional and antagonistic participants from around the country.
The Aug. 9 report by the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis was done in coordination with local, state and federal authorities at the Virginia Fusion Center. It stated that white supremacists and anti-fascist “antifa” extremists had clashed twice before in Charlottesville, at a white nationalist rally on May 13 and a Ku Klux Klan gathering July 7. At each event, “anarchist extremists” attacked protesters who had been issued permits, leading to fights, injuries, arrests and at least two felony charges of assault and battery.
And both sides were clearly gearing up for an unprecedented confrontation in the weeks leading up to the Aug. 12 “Unite the Right” rally, and a weekend of events planned around it by white supremacist rally organizers and those protesting it.
“Anarchist extremists and white supremacist extremists online are calling on supporters to be prepared for or to instigate violence at the 12 August rally,” the assessment warned.
One “probable” white supremacist, it said, had posted an online “call to arms,” saying “antifa must be destroyed.”
“They predicted it,” one senior law enforcement analyst from another state said of the assessment. Each side was saying, “Alright everybody, go get your weapons and we’re gonna go kick their asses. And that’s exactly what happened in Charlottesville.”
Three days after the DHS report was released, hundreds of combatants, many of them armed, collided at the rally at Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park, a flashpoint between the feuding groups since the city changed its name from Robert E. Lee Park in June. After a day of violent street fights, a suspected neo-Nazi sympathizer allegedly mowed down a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring at least 19 others.
In the ensuing hours and days, President Donald Trump’s insistence that “both sides” bore responsibility for the violence turned the event into a political watershed, as many Republicans and Democrats chastised him for failing to condemn white supremacists more directly.
Charlottesville police already have been criticized for their response to the rally, including for failing to show up in riot gear and for failing to deploy in large enough numbers to separate the groups, beginning with a torchlight march held by white supremacists the night before.
Some law enforcement experts, when briefed on the DHS report by POLITICO, said it reinforced their concerns about the response of law enforcement agencies in Charlottesville.
“It is unconscionable that with so much advance notice of the declared intentions of extremist groups from the left and right vowing to descend upon Charlottesville that law enforcement was not better prepared,” James Gagliano, a recently retired FBI supervisory special agent, said in an interview.
“Stronger police presence as a deterrence, and better separation between the two groups, should have been part of the security plan,” said Gagliano, a former senior FBI SWAT Team leader and crisis management coordinator in New York. Authorities responding to Charlottesville, he said, “were woefully underprepared for something they had advance notice of and plenty of actionable intelligence about.”
City and police officials have defended their actions, saying they did everything they could with the resources they had, but that the sheer number of combatants overwhelmed their response. Some also noted that they tried to shut down the rally altogether, but that a federal court overturned their decision to revoke the rally permit on Aug. 7 after organizers challenged it with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union.
When contacted about the DHS report, federal, state and local authorities told POLITICO that they could not comment in detail, but confirmed that they were aware of its warnings and had taken appropriate steps to prepare for possible violence.
“The piece was co-authored with the Virginia Fusion Center, with coordination from the Virginia State Police, so they were all properly advised and had, in fact, deployed considerable [law enforcement] resources to the protests/events,” said a senior DHS official. “Beyond that, we’re not able to discuss our analytic assessments.”
The DHS official, who said he was not authorized to comment by name about confidential law enforcement reports, referred calls to the Virginia State Police “for comment on how they used the assessment for their force posture for the weekend.”
Corinne Geller, public relations director for the Virginia State Police, said the agency could not discuss the assessment. “Because of the sensitive nature of the report,” she said, “we are not in a position to comment on its contents.”
“It’s fair to say that we were aware that there was the potential for conflict,” and prepared accordingly, Geller said.
Charlottesville police and city officials referred requests for comment to City Manager Maurice Jones, who said, “The city and state police prepared for the worst-case scenarios. We were well aware of the potential for violence.”
“It’s the reason why we sought to move the rally to a more amenable space outside of our dense downtown, where police could more effectively address the safety concerns,” after the court ordered the rally could be held, Jones said. “We hoped that the groups that descended on our community would not engage in violence but they did and the police responded in an effort to restore order.”
Jones’ comment underscores how badly Charlottesville officials underestimated the seriousness of the looming potential for violence as outlined in the DHS report, according to the law enforcement official from another state. But he said it should have been obvious to them just based on the huge volumes of threats and counter-threats posted online and on social media.
“That is in line with everything that we have been tracking for months on end,” the official said. The violence, he added, “was planned ahead of time and everybody knew it.”
According to the DHS report, both the white supremacists and antifa groups had spent weeks planning attacks at the two earlier rallies at the park, and at least four other events organized by white supremacist groups dating back more than a year. Those planned attacks, the report said, “are the principal drivers of violence” at recent white supremacist rallies.
Long before one June 2016 in Sacramento, Calif., for instance, “anarchist extremists began planning a counter-event, stating, ‘No Free Speech for Fascists! … Their rally must be stopped by any means necessary,’ ” the report said. In response, white supremacists who had become aware of those efforts vowed to “defend ourselves viciously.”
At that Sacramento rally, organized by the Traditionalist Workers Party, “Anarchist extremists followed through on these threats by attacking the white supremacists,” the report said.
In the run-up to Aug. 12, the report warned of numerous factors “increasing the potential for violence,” including evidence that a wide array of groups on both sides were calling on all followers to come to Charlottesville, and “to be prepared for or to instigate” attacks on each other.
“Our judgment is based on the planned attendance of numerous prominent white supremacists and on the growing importance of the location for white supremacist extremists and anarchist extremists since two white supremacist rallies were held there this year,” the assessment concluded.
In the immediate aftermath of the rally, criticism over the city’s response was overshadowed by Trump’s shifting series of comments on who was to blame for the violence, including remarks about how people were at fault on “many sides.”
Last week, the Charlottesville City Council demanded that Jones provide an explanation for the “apparent unwillingness of officers to directly intervene during overt assaults captured in many videos,” according to the Washington Post.
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