As local activists face fines for organizing unpermitted events, some Charlottesville officials and city councilors are at odds over the city’s approach to a planned Aug. 12 demonstration and its slow move to issue the fines.
The city has started cracking down on events that don’t receive a permit in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
Robert Gray received a $500 fine for the Juneteenth celebration in Washington Park. Zyahna Bryant was fined $500 on Sept. 4 for organizing the Black Joy Fest without a permit, according to a letter obtained under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. She did not return a request for comment.
As of Friday, the city is still reviewing the use of Market Street Park for the Reclaim the Park event on Aug. 12, even though it occurred four days after Bryant’s Black Joy Fest and it’s been two weeks since she was fined.
The city stopped issuing special event permits on March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All fines have been issued for violating the event regulations rather than an ordinance limiting in-person gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The city’s operating procedures for special events make exceptions for events of fewer than 50 people and demonstrations that occur without prior planning or announcement as a spontaneous response to a newsworthy occurrence.
Outgoing City Manager Tarron Richardson, whose last day is Sept. 30, issued a warning ahead of the Aug. 12 event to community organizers saying they could be cited for it.
His statement focused on the city’s ordinance intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus and highlighted dangers of non-permitted events.
According to emails obtained through FOIA, Richardson’s statement was supported by leadership in the police and fire departments, but received pushback from Councilors Michael Payne and Sena Magill for holding a hard line around a delicate subject.
While Magill and Payne wrote that they understood the strain that the events placed on city resources, they felt the planned tone of Richardson’s statement could spark turmoil around the anniversary of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally.
“The way this particular release has been worded will potentially light a match,” Magill wrote. “The trauma that people are still experiencing is very real, the need for the community to express that is just as important as the precautions we need to take regarding covid.”
According to the emails, the statement was revised before it was published.
In further exchanges, some councilors were concerned about the city’s slow response to the events. They were worried that an extended review process could undermine the need to exercise equal enforcement of its regulations.
In late August, Richardson issued a stronger statement saying that the city has supported the community’s right to “peaceably assemble,” but that “obstructing city streets and using parks without the proper permits will no longer be allowed.”
The statement said that organizers of previous events would be fined, but at the time not all had received a penalty.
The statement appeared to reignite simmering tensions between Richardson and the council and came two weeks before the two parties announced they had mutually agreed to part ways.
In an email to Richardson the night after the statement was released, Mayor Nikuyah Walker asked if only the Juneteenth organizer had been fined and, if so, “that isn’t fair and should be corrected.” Walker, who indicated she had asked the questions in a text message as well and hadn’t received an answer, asked if Richardson had decided only to fine Gray and what led to his decision.
In response, Richardson first detailed a paragraph about his whereabouts since Walker’s text and why he hadn’t yet responded. He said that he was reviewing the events and the Juneteenth event was already fined because Gray had agreed to pay it rather than cancel the event.
Walker responded that Richardson’s first paragraph was “unnecessary and rude per usual.” She said the events don’t need an extended review process.
“These events did not need further review. You’ve been present for all of them, you know which ordinance was in effect, and you know the amount that each event costs the City,” she wrote. “If you’re not fining everyone who has had an event, you shouldn’t fine anyone. It’s simple.”
Councilor Heather Hill responded that it was her understanding organizers would be fined for all events that were not spontaneous demonstrations, which Richardson confirmed.
“I do agree that it should not be a lengthy process to evaluate this and it is important for the community to understand sooner versus later that we are being consistent,” she wrote.
Councilors have noted the city is trying to strike a difficult balance between public safety and free speech.
Magill said Saturday the regulations are especially difficult with the convergence of the pandemic and ongoing unrest around police brutality and systemic racism.
“We are trying to navigate two pandemics. Many of the protests are bringing forward that there’s been this other pandemic going on for hundreds of years and it has to stop and they’ve been saying it has to stop and it’s not stopping. And we have to stop it,” she said. “These protests are just as important because so many people think we’re done with it. There are still so many people who don’t think they’re racist when they have racial bias and they don’t realize they do and don’t want to believe they do.”
Hill said Friday enforcing the ordinance is “very challenging because we do care about this community.”
“It’s a very delicate balance of wanting to be sure we allow people to express themselves while keeping our community safe,” she said. “It’s really important we’re consistent with enforcing our ordinances.”
Meanwhile, Police Chief RaShall Brackney has pushed for stronger enforcement measures while Neighborhood Development Services Director Alex Ikefuna said downtown business owners could call the police with concerns about an activist group delivering aid.
Jason Ness, the city’s business development manager, wrote in an Aug. 18 email that he had been approached by Downtown Mall business owners with concerns about a tent that had been routinely set up on the mall.
The tent, operated by the Charlottesville Black Youth Action Committee, was used as the focal point to distribute food and water for people who are homeless. The committee also accepted monetary donations for community organizations, but didn’t overtly use the tent for a fundraiser.
Ness wrote that the organizers were using a tent and amplified sound without a permit. He said one business owner called the police over a dispute with those at the table “so there are larger issues at play.”
Ness said downtown business owners supported the committee’s cause, but were concerned that if they were allowed to operate without a permit that a group with “offensive ideas” could receive the same leeway.
“I’m not sure what are the exact next steps but if this group continues to plan to set up on the Mall, then it is in the City’s best interest to ensure all vendors are treated the same and held to the same expectations,” Ness wrote.
Assistant Zoning Administrator Craig Fabio told Ness the tent didn’t require a vending permit and he felt it should fall under special event regulations. He said it could be considered a demonstration, but if it was that the group should not use the tent for safety reasons.
Ikefuna wrote to Ness that the police department is responsible for enforcing the noise ordinance and, therefore, business owners should contact officers if there is a noise concern.
“It is more effective to call the police when the violation is occurring rather than after the fact,” he wrote.
Brackney wrote to city leadership about a planned event on Aug. 21 with contact information for the organizers, one of whom she said was a University of Virginia student.
Brackney came under fire this summer after Virginia State Police troopers were seen using city vehicles to respond to a nonviolent rally protesting police brutality.
In response to Brackney’s email, Interim Fire Chief Emily Pelliccia noted UVa has a portal for community members to report violations of its coronavirus regulations, whether on Grounds or not.
Brackney was concerned about events calling for attendees not to notify or speak with police or the media, saying they were “cause for a heightened level of concern.”
“We need to do something about these events and the strain they are putting on City resources,” she wrote.
She also notified city leaders about a planned event by activist Tanesha Hudson later this month, writing “Another park event … this is getting out of control.”
Councilor Lloyd Snook said the city has “a legitimate interest in controlling demonstrations that disrupt traffic, or that monopolize a city park.”
“If someone wants to stage a demonstration that blocks important intersections at rush hour, the city is allowed to say, ‘Not then, not there. Two hours earlier or later, or in the Park; just not then and there,’” he said. “That power to regulate the ‘when’ and ‘where’ of demonstrations is not unlimited, but nor is the freedom of protesters to choose the ‘when’ and ‘where.’”
Snook said if the city allows protests to violate the coronavirus regulations on crowd sizes, it would hypothetically have less legal standing at a fraternity party.
Above all, Magill noted, the city is focused on the coronavirus pandemic.
While most protesters or demonstrators may follow safety measures, Magill said, the city doesn’t have the resources nor does it want to go through a crowd and ensure that every single person is being safe.
“We don’t want to be some sort of dictatorship that’s going through and checking people’s papers,” she said. “We want the police as far away from free speech protesting as possible.”