Isle of Wight seeks to require permits for protests

Published 8:57 am Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Racial tensions over the presence of a Confederate monument outside the Isle of Wight County courthouse complex have cooled somewhat since last August, when representatives of the local NAACP asked the county’s Board of Supervisors to take it down. Nevertheless, the board remains concerned that the violence seen during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville last year, could one day occur much closer to home.

To that end, during a work session last Wednesday, the board asked County Attorney Mark Popovich to draft legislation that would allow the county to have appropriate levels of law enforcement standing by in the event a local protest would turn violent. The legislation would likely take the form of some type of permit requirement for demonstrators, and would be based on the input of fire and rescue departments, police departments for both of the county’s incorporated towns, and the commonwealth’s attorney.

“Unfortunately, Charlottesville taught a lot of lessons for how not to do something,” Popovich said. “There is an ongoing effort throughout the Commonwealth to develop an appropriate permitting process counties can impose on demonstrators, without imposing on their constitutional rights.

“At present, you have nothing, no permitting process, that would at least try and put some parameters on what a potential demonstration could look like in Isle of Wight County.”

Windsor District supervisor Joel Acree asked what cost could be charged to protesters to get a permit. Popovich replied that it would have to be minimal, as overcharging would constitute an infringement upon the protestors’ freedom of speech.

“It’s just a permit, basic covering of administrative costs to do a background check,” he said. “We’re not talking thousands of dollars.”

Newport District supervisor William McCarty and Hardy District supervisor and chairman Rudolph Jefferson both expressed concern regarding the permit fee’s ability to cover the cost to county law enforcement, saying that levels of policing or fire and EMS services needed could vary depending on the group protesting and the type of protest.

“If we have a rally of 50 people, how many deputies would be needed to cover 50?” Jefferson asked. “If we have 200 or 250, you need so many more deputies.”

“We saw what happened in Charlottesville, so from my perspective, we want to be proactive, and I don’t know how to put a dollar figure on that,” McCarty said.

Isle of Wight Commonwealth’s Attorney Georgette Phillips, who was in the audience at the meeting, said she did not want people in the county under the mistaken impression that because the county did not currently require a permit for protesting, anyone could just come in and start a riot.

“There are criminal codes that would prohibit that,” she said.

She added that any permit requirement would have to allow both for protestors and counter-protestors.

“You can have barriers,” she said. “But if I was going to say you get it [a permit] at the north end of the county and you get it at the south end of the county, that’s even a violation.”

One suggestion she made, which she said other localities have implemented since Charlottesville, is to limit what protestors can carry during a demonstration, such as prohibiting anything flammable like tiki torches, or any clubs or sticks of any kind.

However, she cautioned against prohibiting weapons in general, saying that anything, to include a thrown water bottle, could be used as a weapon.

McCarty also cautioned against infringing on the rights of citizens with concealed carry permits for firearms. Though Phillips said that if a protestor is displaying a firearm or other weapon or using it to promote violence, would become a violation of the criminal code.

The “Unite the Right” rally occurred Aug. 11 and 12 last year, intended to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. According to The Washington Post, tiki-torch-wielding white supremacists, neo-Nazis and armed militia groups, many from out of state, clashed with counter-protestors. Several dozen people were injured and one woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when a rally-goer plowed his car into the crowd of counter-protestors.