Virginia police are using intimidating surveillance in an attempt to stop left-wing and anti-racist protesters as far-right groups increase demonstrations in their state, anti-racist activists tell Al Jazeera.
Pam Starsia, a local activist with Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), delivered a letter detailing a series of complaints to the Charlottesville Police Department (CPD) on June 23.
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According to the letter, police have made unannounced visits to homes, places of work, and arrested activists.
“I had failed to appreciate that right here in Charlottesville, the police were engaging in surveillance and monitoring of these types,” Starsia told Al Jazeera in an interview.
Charlottesville became a flashpoint in the national debate over racism and the far right when plans to remove monuments to the pro-slavery Confederacy of that fought in the United States’ Civil War became public in May.
‘Hidden and torch-lit’
A torch-wielding coalition of far-right groups marched to the site of the monuments in downtown Charlottesville on May 13.
Richard Spencer, a white nationalist and a leader of the alt-right movement that has gained notoriety for its vocal support US President Donald Trump, led the protest against the statue’s removal.
The march caused activists in the area to increase their anti-racist actions, especially once the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, announced a July 8 rally in support of the monuments.
“The issues of police surveillance and racial targeting have always been there. The statues have made it so that white people can’t ignore it any longer,” Starsia said, going on to detail that the only activists who received home visits from police were people of colour.
“The arrest of Veronica Fitzhugh is another example.”
Fitzhugh, a local activist and artist, publicly confronted local white nationalist blogger Jason Kessler on May 20.
She and members of SURJ gathered around Kessler and three friends and chanted “Nazi go home”, and other slogans.
During the confrontation, Kessler and Fitzhugh had a heated exchange. Kessler claims Fitzhugh shook his chair and screamed in his face. He admits that no physical contact occurred. Still, Fitzhugh was charged with assault and battery and disturbing the peace.
As a misdemeanour offence, the charge would usually result in a summons or order for Fitzhugh to report to the police station on her own. However, Fitzhugh was arrested by five officers at her home on June 1.
Fitzhugh, who declined to be interviewed, said in a statement that she wasn’t arrested because of the confrontation with Kessler, but “the white supremacy that has been an undercurrent of Charlottesville for too long … It is about white supremacy, hidden and torchlit”.
Police ‘sending a message’
Later that month, local officers visited the activist in an attempt to garner her cooperation. Officers wanted her to give information as to the planned activist response to the July 8 KKK rally.
Al Jazeera spoke with Jeff Fogel, a Charlottesville lawyer representing Fitzhugh, who was himself arrested the following night after the altercation with Kessler for another alleged misdemeanour assault.
Fogel, whose decades-long career includes numerous cases in which he defended free expression, was “surprised” by CPD’s conduct. He says that by coming to Fitzhugh’s house after arresting her for a minor offence and contacting activists, police are “sending a message: ‘We’re watching you, don’t screw up.'”
Police cast a wide net in terms of which groups and individuals to contact. Gail Hyder Wiley, a woman in her late 50s who describes herself as an elder of her church and non-violent organiser, received a call from CPD because of a Facebook group called Cville [short for Charlottesville] Stands Against Hate (CSAH).
A detective charged with investigating the groups “said they wanted information about the group and its members”, Wiley told Al Jazeera in an interview.
“I did feel quite intimidated … I knew of no such ‘group.'”
CSAH was a name used on a flyer to advertise a community meeting on social media, Wiley explained. The “group” has no history in Charlottesville.
In response to a request for comment from CPD, Lieutenant Steve Upman delivered a statement that read: “The overall goal of keeping this community and its citizens safe remains our number one priority … To accomplish this goal, the Police Department will gather as much information as possible in order to coordinate an appropriate public safety response”.
CPD Chief Al Thomas said at a local forum in June that his main concern “is not the KKK […] It’s being in a situation where local citizens make poor choices and we have to step in.”
Lawyer Fogel replied to Thomas’ comment: “He should be worried about the KKK. The people of Charlottesville have never hanged anybody.”
Police actions remind Fogel of historic examples of law enforcement wrongdoing. The lawyer mentioned the “Red Squads” that were a fixture in major police departments during the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union, and the nationwide “Counter Intelligence Program,” also called COINTELPRO, undertaken by the FBI.
The object of these initiatives was to surveil, infiltrate and dismantle social movements and political groups seen as a threat. Their tactics were often illegal, stifling free expression guaranteed US citizens by the Constitution.
COINTELPRO is often cited as a major reason behind the end of the Black Panther Party, an influential leftist and anti-racist organisation active from 1966 to 1982.
Charlottesville isn’t the only city in Virginia with burgeoning protest movements. The state capitol, Richmond, has seen an increase in activism.
Hundreds of people protesting the election of Donald Trump shut down the main highway that runs through the city on its way to the US capital, Washington, DC, in November. A similar protest occurred last July in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
On January 20, the day of Trump’s inauguration, Richmond police raided an abandoned warehouse where plainclothes officers allegedly saw activists “training” to engage in another demonstration.
The search warrant, obtained by Al Jazeera, says that same morning two separate construction contractors told police they saw stolen property that belonged to them.
Local newspaper the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s report on the incident detailed that police were monitoring Richmond Struggle (RS), a local left-wing group that had called for “shutting the city down”.
A representative of RS told Al Jazeera they were not involved with any protest “training” at the warehouse.
In their view, the police “utilised the media in an attempt to intimidate us and other groupings on the Richmond left”.
Richmond police did not respond to a request for comment.
While RS hasn’t experienced direct police interference like activists in Charlottesville, the group is “confident [they] and the left, in general, remain under police surveillance for exercising our democratic rights.”
Political groups have reason to be wary. The social unrest brought on by the election of Trump has met harsh crackdowns. Over 200 anti-Trump protesters face up to 80 years for demonstrating on inauguration day.
Activists from the anti-pipeline water protectors in North Dakota and BLM have recently experienced increased surveillance. Many no longer trust their smartphones for fear of the prying eye of the police.
Trump’s Justice Department signalled a new era of reduced law enforcement oversight in March when Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of all reform agreements the Obama administration made with troubled police departments.
According to Fogel, this makes sense: “Whenever the system is threatened, it responds in ways that are not consistent with its own ideals. It will respond in ways that aren’t necessary”.