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L.A. may deny rally permits to hate groups, city attorney says

City Atty. Mike Feuer said Friday that he would urge Los Angeles officials to consider imposing restrictions or even deny permits to hate groups seeking to rally here in order to prevent the kind of violent clashes that erupted last weekend at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

Permits for such demonstrations have not been sought in L.A. But if they were, Feuer said, he would recommend that officials look to precautions taken by other cities, such as Boston, which banned backpacks and bats at a rally planned for Saturday.

If it seemed unlikely that such violence could be prevented, Feuer said, he would “look very carefully” at turning down the request for a permit.

“Obviously, we are a nation where we value as one of the most high ideals freedom of expression. Fair enough,” he said. “But even the ACLU leadership … is saying today that has its limits. When people are coming to incite violence ... that’s where we draw the line.”

“I think as a city we can draw that line,” Feuer added.

Feuer was referring the the American Civil Liberties Union, which, in response to the Charlottesville violence, said Thursday that it would not represent white supremacist groups that want to demonstrate with guns. The ACLU’s three California affiliates released a statement Wednesday declaring that “white supremacist violence is not free speech.”

Officials in Charlottesville had initially denied organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally a permit to hold the event at the site of a Robert E. Lee statue. But the ACLU filed a lawsuit defending protesters’ rights to gather there.

The rally ended with one woman killed and dozens of people injured as neo-Nazis and other far-right groups that had come armed with shields, helmets and even guns clashed violently with counter-protesters.

The violence in Virginia prompted concern among officials in other cities — including Boston and Berkeley — where far-right demonstrations have been planned.

“There is a difference between protest that incites violence and protest that does not,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, director of advocacy/legal director at the ACLU of Southern California. “Protecting the right to protest is a core ACLU issue and we have litigated many, many cases on that subject. … But we were nonetheless very surprised by what happened in Charlottesville.”

Arulanantham said there would be a crucial factor to consider if L.A. officials consider denying permits for such rallies: whether the group seeking such a permit was encouraging violence at the event. Denying a permit because opponents or others might become violent would not be enough, he said.

”It’s not just whether violence would happen, but whether the people seeking the permit are going to invite it or encourage it,” he said.

Arulanantham said officials should also closely examine the credibility of a permit-seeking group that might claim to be nonviolent. Social media posts, the group’s past behavior and what organizers tell people to bring to such rallies might indicate otherwise, he said.

The city attorney and ACLU weren’t the only ones speaking out against violent demonstrations this week. On Friday, the union representing rank-and-file Los Angeles police officers issued a statement decrying neo-Nazis, white supremacists, anti-Semites and the Ku Klux Klan. It implored those intending to hold violent rallies to “cancel their event and stay home.”

“We urge them to look into their souls and try to figure out where their hate is coming from and seek professional help,” the statement said. “No one is born hating other people.”

Feuer’s remarks came during an hourlong lunch with reporters, where he spoke candidly about the hateful speech and actions that have captured the country’s attention after the deadly Virginia rally. It was a far-reaching conversation, covering specific actions his office has taken and broader themes of solidarity and education.

He covered the uptick in the number of hate crimes and incidents reported to his office — 32 so far this year, compared with 11 at about the same point in 2016 — and actions city prosecutors have taken against alleged white supremacist gangs. He urged public officials to speak up and encouraged educators to talk to their students about the issues they see playing out in the news.

The conversation, he said, had to go beyond what happened at a single rally.

“There is no place for complacency in our nation at this moment,” he said. “Sitting on the sidelines can’t exist right now.”

The conversation became personal at times, as Feuer spoke about the anti-Semitism he felt growing up in San Bernardino and the discrimination his Jewish grandmother endured in Russia.

Feuer also spoke of his late father. Mel Feuer was a turret gunner during World War II, captured by the Nazis and held in the infamous Stalag 17 prison camp after his plane was shot down.

Mel Feuer survived his imprisonment, despite being marched across a snowy Austria as the Nazis retreated. When he returned to the U.S., his son recalled years later, education became his calling, a way to teach children the principles that could deter such horror from happening again.

Feuer said he believes teachers should speak to their students about the current climate in the United States. The city attorney grew emotional as he spoke about his father, stopping to sip water as he tried to compose himself.

“What would my dad do?” he said. “He would say the key right now is to focus on kids. This is the quintessential teachable moment.”

Times staff writer Matt Pearce contributed to this article.

kate.mather@latimes.com

Twitter: @katemather

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