A Tale of Two Parks

After the protests in the Charlottesville I canceled my ACLU membership. They’d fought for the white nationalist organizers to protest in Emancipation Park, and while odious speech is protected speech, in the specific instance of this protest it wasn’t “speak at Emancipation Park or don’t speak at all.” It was “speak at Emancipation Park or speak at a larger park a mile down the road.”

Here is what went down as near as I can tell.

The racists wanted to hold their rally in Emancipation Park, formerly Lee Park. Emancipation Park is a rectangle roughly 200ft by 270ft, dominated by a large statue of Robert E. Lee which is on borrowed time, and precious few places to pontificate about the existential plight of the middle-class white. The white nationalists really, really wanted to rally here because they were “defending the statue.”

But the city felt this space was too small because racists tend to draw huge numbers of counter-protesters. Also racists like to come heavily armed to their nominally non-violent peaceful assemblies and occasionally hit people with sticks. And they are also just a teensy bit provocative, what with the nazi flags and everything. (Although truth be told, the women’s march had pink hats with cat ears and a name that was a double-entendre, so both-sides-same-same.)

Rather than the city just saying “no, you can’t,” they offered nearby McIntire park instead. McIntire is a large city park that has multiple baseball diamonds as well as some wide-open grassy areas. I am not sure how large McIntire park is, but you could almost fit Emancipation Park into one of the baseball diamond infields. It is obviously a much more suitable place for an event expected to draw a thousand people or more. There’s a great big lawn and lots of trees, too, perfect for civil war reenactments with live ammunition.

Isn’t Emancipation park tiny? On the satellite view, it appears most of the park is taken up by the statue. Now look at how much space there is in McIntire. This is a nice park. It’s just … you know. It doesn’t have Lee. And “safer” also means “harder to start a citywide riot in.” So I guess that’s two marks against it.

Here’s my point minus the snark. The principle of free assembly was never under any significant threat. The city was not fighting to have the racists expelled; the city was fighting to give them a more safe venue. The right that was being abridged was specifically the right to protest anywhereeven if it created unsafe conditions. The Supreme Court has already ruled on this (in Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 1984). The city seemed to have serious concerns that in retrospect were entirely justified. They made a fair and reasonable accommodation given the anticipated size of the rally and counter-protests. But it wasn’t good enough for Unite the Right, it wasn’t good enough for the ACLU, and it wasn’t enough for Bush appointee Glen E. Conrad. Judges make bad decisions sometimes.

Now. Maybe you think differently; maybe you think Conrad’s decision and the ACLU’s was right despite the obvious danger. That’s fine. Reasonable people can argue reasonably at least as long as one of them isn’t threatening the other with assault weapons and waving nazi flags in the other’s face.

But when we argue about the right to assembly in Charlottesville, everyone needs to understand that the issue was not “rally or no rally.” It was “rally in this tiny, highly symbolic park” or “rally in this larger, far safer park.” Context makes that a far different argument.