Focus shifts to DC as Charlottesville anniversary approaches

Published: Jul. 24, 2018 at 5:41 PM EDT
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The primary organizer of last summer's deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, withdrew his request Tuesday for a court order allowing him to stage an event there marking its anniversary, but he vowed to press forward with plans for a similar event in Washington.

One of Jason Kessler's lawyers announced his change of plans during a disjointed hearing in federal court. It was delayed by his tardy arrival.

After the hearing, Kessler tweeted that he will be "focusing exclusively" on his plans to hold a rally in Washington on the anniversary of the bloodshed in Charlottesville. The National Park Service approved his application for an Aug. 12 "white civil rights" rally at Lafayette Square, near the White House, but hasn't issued a permit for the event.

National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst said Tuesday that there hasn't been any change in the status of Kessler's application.

"When we have all the information we need to make sure that the public is safe and that park resources are protected, then we'll issue the permit," he said.

Kessler had requested a preliminary injunction that would compel the city of Charlottesville to issue him a rally permit for next month. He sued in March, claiming the city's refusal to grant him a permit trampled on his free speech rights under the First Amendment.

After arriving more than a half hour late for the hearing, Kessler conferred with his lawyers, who had been addressing the judge. The attorneys then said he was withdrawing his request, a move they did not explain to the judge.

One of Kessler's lawyers, James Kolenich, who also was late for the hearing, told reporters afterward that he doesn't know why Kessler abruptly abandoned his efforts to get a permit.

"He ordinarily has good reasons for what he does. I don't know what it is right now," Kolenich said.

The decision doesn't necessarily mean that no event will take place in Charlottesville, activists and the city's police chief said. The city requires permits only for events at which more than 50 people are expected, or for which street closures or park reservations are sought.

Lisa Woolfork, a University of Virginia professor and Black Lives Matter-Charlottesville organizer, attended the hearing and said she felt sure white supremacists would return to Charlottesville with or without a permit.

"What's more important is that we as a community come together and resist," she said.

Police Chief RaShall Brackney said that although Tuesday's development was "a victory," authorities would continue with public safety preparations ahead of the anniversary, as well as social media monitoring.

"We understand that the weekend and that day has national significance and even international significance, so we are going to be prepared for that weekend to come regardless," she said.

John Longstreth, an attorney for the city, said it would be "very difficult" for Kessler to refile another motion.

Kessler didn't address the court and didn't respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Last August, hundreds of people traveled to Charlottesville to participate in the "Unite the Right" rally and protest the city's plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park that was named after the Confederate general. The list of scheduled speakers included several leading white nationalist figures, including Richard Spencer.

On the eve of the Aug. 12 rally, dozens of young white men wearing khakis and polo shirts marched through the University of Virginia's campus, carrying torches and chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans. The next day, hundreds of white supremacists and counterprotesters clashed in the streets before a car plowed into a crowd, killing 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer.

James Fields Jr., 21, of Maumee, Ohio, is charged with murder in Heyer's killing under Virginia state law. He is charged separately in federal court with hate crimes.

A monthslong investigation of the rally violence, led by former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy, found the chaos stemmed from a passive response by law enforcement officers and poor preparation and coordination between state and city police.

Earlier this month, Kessler reached a settlement agreement in a separate lawsuit over last summer's violence in Charlottesville. Kessler signed a consent decree in which he agreed to "actively discourage" coordinated, armed activity at any future rallies in the city. More than a dozen other defendants signed similar agreements.