An angry cacophony swelled in Charlottesville on Friday when Corey Long was found guilty of disorderly conduct after directing an improvised flamethrower at people during the Unite the Right rally last summer.
The 24-year-old Culpeper man will serve 20 days in jail and 100 hours of community service.
“We won’t stop until we have justice for all community defenders,” the crowd chanted. “We refuse to be silenced by fascist violence.”
With the sounds of singing and chanting — “Corey Long did nothing wrong” — drifting into the courtroom, a couple dozen protesters filed onto the benches in Charlottesville General District Court. Long stood quietly before the judge, wearing a bright red shirt and black suspenders.
Before the trial, city Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania made a motion to discontinue the assault and battery charge against Long after prosecutors were unable to get in contact with the alleged victim, Harold Crews. It was alleged that Long and Crews tussled over a flagpole following the white supremacist rally on Aug. 12. DeAndre Harris, who was beaten that day in a nearby parking garage, recently was acquitted of an assault charge after he swung a flashlight to break up the fight.
Frank Buck was standing near a corner of Emancipation Park on Aug. 12, watching rally goers exit the park after police declared an unlawful assembly. Buck said he saw a young black man — identified as Long — lighting an aerosol can and directing the flames about 20 inches away from people.
Suddenly, Buck said he heard someone yell, “Kill the n*****,” and when he turned toward the sound, he said he saw a man — self-identified Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard Richard Preston — pull out a handgun that was pointed to Buck’s right. Turning back, he said Preston appeared to be pointing the gun toward Long, who was standing on top of the low wall on the side of the park.
“I thought he was going to be shot and killed,” Buck said.
Buck heard the gunshot and saw a puff of dirt as the projectile hit the ground next to Long’s feet. Not seeing any police around, Buck said he followed Preston for a short distance away from the park.
Speaking in a quiet voice, Long told the court he decided to go to the rally last summer to protest the “alt-right” demonstrators and self-described white supremacists. What he encountered throughout the day was total chaos, he said. Long described some of the threats and racial slurs hurled at him, as well as one instance in which a member of the Ku Klux Klan spit on him.
After police declared the rally to be an unlawful assembly, Long stood by the steps to the park as ralliers left the area. He said he saw two people, including Preston, break away from the main group and approach him, yelling racial slurs at him. Fearing for his life, he said he sprayed the aerosol can to make them back away. When the people continued to come towards him, he said he lit the aerosol spray to protect himself.
Long’s attorney, Jeroyd Greene, asked the court to consider the atmosphere of that day — the threats and racial slurs, as well as physical attacks. Greene said Long perceived the people coming out of the park as a threat.
“Lighting the can was a reaction to the chaos, to the severe lack of police presence and to these two individuals breaking away from the group to engage with him,” Greene said. “My client felt like he needed to protect himself.”
To find his client guilty, Greene argued, Long needed to have the specific intent to commit an act of disorderly conduct. But, Greene said, he didn’t.
“Let the city heal; let this go,” he said.
Platania agreed that it was a chaotic and dangerous environment, but that Long’s actions were disorderly because they caused a tendency for others to react violently in the situation. In one video, a man with a flag lashes out when Long directs the flames toward the group.
Judge Robert H. Downer Jr. agreed with the prosecution and found Long guilty of disorderly conduct.
“We have to look at the context of the situation,” Downer said. “His actions motivated people to react in a way that disrupted the peace.”
Platania asked the judge not to impose any active incarceration and said Long was always polite and voluntarily spoke with detectives about the incident. Greene agreed with Platania and said Long was still dealing with the effects of Aug. 12.
“Let him learn from this and move on,” said Greene.
Downer sentenced Long to 360 days, with all but 20 days suspended. Long also will be required to complete 100 hours of community service.
Following the trial, Long briefly spoke to those gathered and said, “It is what it is,” before raising a fist and exclaiming, “Black power.”
“Would I do it again,” Long asked, shrugging. “Who knows?”
Malik Shabazz, Long’s legal adviser, said they disagreed with the conviction but that sometimes it’s a necessary result of standing up for justice. He said Long was a hero and stood up to the racists who invaded Charlottesville on Aug. 12.
“Yesterday, today and tomorrow, we declare that Corey Long did nothing wrong,” said Shabazz. “If you look at the context of everything that took place, if you look at the racism and racists that invaded this town — the Klan that has hung, lynched and killed black people for decades and decades — there was no police presence or protection.”
“He made a moral decision; he made an ethical decision to stand up against racism and injustice, and sometimes standing up against those things will be rebuked by the American court system,” he said. “But that does not make Mr. Long wrong.”
Local clergy leader Seth Wispelwey, a member of Congregate Charlottesville, said it was disappointing to see Long convicted, particularly because Long was trying to protect the city from white supremacists.
“For me, Black Lives Matter is not a slogan but a way of living with gospel specificity,” said Wispelwey. “It’s important that our court system upholds the value of black lives when we all were forced to defend ourselves. Corey Long came to defend our community and today he was found guilty of that.”