Organizer of deadly Charlottesville rally withdraws demand for new event
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Jason Kessler, the organizer of last year’s deadly ‘‘Unite the Right’’ rally by white nationalists and neo-Nazis, is no longer seeking a permit from the city to hold a sequel next month.
On Tuesday, Kessler shocked even his own lawyers by withdrawing his request that a federal judge order the city to grant him a permit for a ‘‘Unite the Right 2’’ rally for the weekend of Aug. 11.
But after the hearing, one of his lawyers, James Kolenich, told reporters that Kessler could still show up at Market Street Park, formerly known as Lee Park and then Emancipation Park, next month with a group of 24 people or less, without needing any permit. He and others maintain they are protesting the city’s effort to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Kessler, who lives in Charlottesville and graduated from the University of Virginia, quickly vanished after the hearing and was unavailable for an interview request.
Kessler’s court appearance Tuesday was part of his ongoing lawsuit against the city, alleging that its denial of his permit violated his First Amendment rights. Kolenich said that the lawsuit remains active because Kessler wants to prove the city acted illegally so that he can obtain the permit for a ‘‘Unite the Right’’ rally in Charlottesville for August 2019.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Kessler showed up 45 minutes late and missed one of his attorney’s opening statements. When Judge Norman Moon asked his lawyers for his location, Kolenich and Elmer Woodard didn’t appear to know. Kolenich also arrived late, blaming his tardiness on his sick child and his late American Airlines flight.
‘‘What is the point of this? Is this a serious matter before the court?” Moon asked, angrily. ‘‘Why are we here today? What is he asking for? What’s going on?’’
Charlottesville is still reeling from last year’s rally, which featured Nazi flags, scores of white supremacists carrying torches and chanting anti-Semitic slogans and violent confrontations with counterprotesters. One counterprotester, Heather Heyer, was killed when a self-professed neo-Nazi rammed his car into a crowd. More than 30 others were injured, including a black man beaten in a parking garage. Additionally, two Virginia state troopers conducting surveillance of the event were killed when their helicopter crashed.
Kessler, who recently claimed online that he supports ‘‘white rights’’ and doesn’t hate other races or ethnic groups, applied in November for a city permit to hold what he described as a ‘‘two-day festival’’ with an expected crowd of 400. His permit said the event wanted to call attention to ‘‘government civil rights abuse’’ and ‘‘memorialize the sacrifices made by political dissidents’’ during last year’s rally.
The next month, city manager Maurice Jones denied Kessler’s application, asserting that the demonstration would ‘‘present a danger to public safety’’ and would likely cost too much money for the city to protect and keep peaceful.
For this year’s anniversary, Kessler has sought demonstrations not only in Charlottesville, but also across from the White House in Lafayette Square. So far, he’s received initial approval from the National Park Service to hold the event Aug. 12, but has not received the permit yet.
After his Charlottesville permit was turned down in December, Kessler filed a lawsuit in federal court here asserting that the city was denying his First Amendment rights, and demanded that the court order the city to allow the event to proceed. In one motion, his attorneys argued that a ‘‘tiny but hyperactive group of persons who are opposed to anything remotely approaching Mr. Kessler’s political message’’ is influencing the city. ‘‘This counter protestor activity is a classic ‘heckler’s veto’ of Mr. Kessler’s speech,’’ they wrote in June.
In another motion this month, Kessler argued that the rally would not pose a safety threat because he recently struck an agreement with the city, as part of another lawsuit, that he would discourage people in groups of two or more to attend his events with guns, shields or other weapons that could cause bodily harm.
But the city, in its motions, said the judge should still uphold its denial of Kessler’s permit because other demonstrators who did not sign the agreement with the city could show up bearing arms or other weapons. The city also signaled that it was skeptical that Kessler would have even adhered to the agreement.
‘‘The City’s concerns about the trustworthiness of the Plaintiff himself are substantial,’’ its lawyers wrote. ‘‘[T]he City has collected a great deal of evidence...that the Plaintiff will state peaceful intentions in public while in private encouraging and enticing attendees to engage in violence.’’
Before Kessler arrived Tuesday, Woodard told the judge Kessler had drastically reduced the scope of the rally, saying he needed a permit only for a two-hour event for Aug. 11, and nothing more.
In his remarks, Charlottesville attorney John Longstreth told the judge that Kessler was exploiting the permit process, constantly trying to modify his application to see what would ultimately appease the city.
‘‘The city has been faced with a moving target,’’ he said, saying Kessler was trying to get a federal judge to write [the permit] for him.’’
Longstreth said it would have been ‘‘highly irresponsible’’ of the city to approve the permit for a ‘‘redo’’ of an event that caused an ‘‘unimaginable disaster’’ for Charlottesville.