By Dan K. THOMASSON
Tribune News Service
Years ago, the chief of police in Gary, Ind., was faced with the same dilemma recently encountered by officials in Charlottesville, Va. How to preserve peace during a proposed demonstration by white extremists, an arduous task anywhere but especially in a place like Gary, a majority black community in a state once plagued by the Ku Klux Klan.
The chief understood it was imperative to preserve the constitutional rights of peaceable assembly and free speech and knew denying the request for a permit would be difficult. But as the city’s top law enforcement officer, he also realized he had the right to set strict conditions on the march in the name of community safety.
The permit, he said, would stipulate that the march take place between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. It would be held in a confined space, a football stadium, and access would be strictly limited to participants. Any counterprotestors would be kept at a distance, and sticks or other implements that could be used as weapons would be prohibited.
The result was a decision by the permit’s applicants to call the whole thing off.
Looking back on Gary’s handling of the episode seems appropriate in the wake of deadly demonstrations in Virginia’s normally tranquil university town. The national uproar that followed has other cities concerned about the possibility of similar situations, especially in communities where there is divisiveness over Confederate monuments honoring the Civil War and its heroes, which white power groups see as an opportunity to express their long-held hate agendas.
Adding to the tension, of course, is the controversy swirling around President Donald Trump, who, outside one brief statement he quickly all but disavowed, failed to condemn the actions in Charlottesville as racially motivated. The absence of any presidential behavior has given succor to those who spewed anti- Semitic and anti-black vitriol during the march and ensuing riots, in which three individuals died and scores of others were injured.
Would changing the conditions of the permit have made a difference? It seems obvious it would have.
Most law enforcement experts say nighttime marches should be prohibited. And clearly, the use of torches added a dangerous element to the affair.
The history and nature of those seeking an assembly permit should be considered before permission is granted, allowing ample preparation by law enforcement. The Charlottesville police, who had to change from normal uniforms to riot gear as the violence began, lost valuable time in controlling the situation. The size of the force was also utterly inadequate, not surprising in a city where there haven’t been even signs of such turmoil in decades.
Further, entrances and exits to such marches should be strictly controlled. In this instance, those leading the Klansmen, Neo-Nazis and so forth reportedly promised the groups would enter and leave the protest zone in an orderly fashion but failed to make that happen. That should have been a strict condition of the permit.
Trump saying there were good and bad people on both sides of the protest is flat-out wrong.
The good people there to legitimately demonstrate against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue didn’t join the hate-mongers, who were easy enough to identify with their shouts of, “Jews will not replace us” and other quaint things.
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.