The University of Virginia’s president Tuesday defended the school’s response to torch-wielding white nationalists who marched on campus last week, saying that university police were aware in advance of the event but that the demonstrators changed their plans.
The march Friday night led to a confrontation between the white nationalists and a small group of U-Va. students who formed a circle around a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the public university’s historic campus. But after hundreds of marchers surrounded the students with torches, fights broke out and chemicals were sprayed by both sides. The marchers also threw torches toward the students.
Some students who were there described those moments as terrifying and questioned why the university didn’t do more to help those at the scene and warn others.
One senior, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is worried about safety, called it a “jarring lack of response from our school administration.”
“These are people tasked with protecting their students. And yet they let torch-bearing Nazis come on the Lawn,” she said.
“Students didn’t feel safe,” said Nathan John, a leader in the Black Student Alliance who spoke with many after the event. “They wanted more protection” from university and city police.
U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan wrote to the campus community that law enforcement learned Friday afternoon that a protest was planned at the Rotunda, and officers were staged along the route that the white nationalist group said it would walk. But the group took another route and turned onto the Lawn, Sullivan wrote. She wrote that law enforcement stepped in within minutes of the violence and ordered people to disperse. They made one arrest, charging the person with assault and disorderly conduct.
“Given the short duration of the physical altercation and the law enforcement response to mitigate the threat, a university alert was not issued,” Sullivan wrote. “There was a compelling interest in not attracting more protestors and heightened violence.”
She said that the university does not prohibit flames in open spaces but that officials would review that policy. “I write today to reassure you that your safety is our most important concern,” she wrote.