Unraveling the Threads of Political Violence

tim heaphy

UVA alumnus Tim Heaphy (Col ‘86, Law ‘91) knows a few things about political violence and its causes. 

Speaking to a capacity crowd in the Great Hall at this week’s Batten Hour, Heaphy referred to himself as a “reluctant specialist in what happens when lots of people—angry people—get together and create public safety challenges.”

He gained this speciality when he led an independent review of UVA's and Charlottesville's preparation for and response to the violent mass demonstration on Grounds and downtown in August of 2017. Just a few years later, he was tapped as the lead investigator for the House Select Committee on the January 6th Attack. Over the course of his talk, Heaphy reflected on the causes of political violence, its impact on U.S. democracy and its implications for our future as a country. 

Heaphy was appointed in 2009 as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia by then-President Barack Obama, serving in that role until 2014. 

Investigating “Unite the Right”

Heaphy's early legal career included stints as a federal prosecutor in Washington D.C. and Virginia with a broad portfolio in national security, fraud, corruption, civil rights and other matters. In 2017, Charlottesville hired Heaphy to investigate the Unite the Right rally-turned-riot earlier that year. He faced a daunting situation and a community overcome with frustration and trauma over the chaos and pain that befell the city.

“The community was really hungry for answers. There was a lot of misconception about what did or didn't happen,” he said. “There was a real pressure to get out the core story in a relatively short period of time.” His team’s initial step was to create an opportunity for people to share their story. “We thought it was important for almost a cathartic value to have people have a place where they could raise their hand and say, this is what happened to me, or submit a picture or a video and provide information to us to get off their chest.”

In addition to the many interviews, the team of lawyers, researchers and paralegals poured over thousands of pages of documents and countless hours of open source material, that they ultimately distilled into a 220-page report that Heaphy described as “very critical of our own client, essentially finding that the city woefully unprepared, that there was lots of intelligence suggesting violence. The city just wasn't ready, the operational plan that they prepared really was ineffective.”

Among other consequences, the team identified the community’s diminished trust in government caused by failure to properly prepare or react to the riot. “There was already distrust of government in a lot of communities in Charlottesville before this," Heaphy said. "But after this people were really skeptical, not just about the police and the police ability to keep us safe, but city government more broadly.”

A year later, his former law school classmate Jim Ryan (Law ‘92) became president of UVA and offered him what he called a “dream job” as university general counsel. But, Heaphy’s time investigating political violence was not over. 

Heaphy vividly recalls the hours he watched the attack on January 6 unfold. “I was literally sitting in my office at Madison Hall,  just down the street from here, watching CNN at my desk.” His first thought was: "This feels a lot like Charlottesville.” Even then, he anticipated there was going to be an investigation and action report and thought, “I would really like to be part of the solution. Part of the response, part of making sense, if possible, of what happened.” 

tim heaphyCongress Investigates the U.S. Capitol Attack 

His involvement in the Charlottesville investigation became his resume for his next job. His work probing the street clashes and the police planning and response led to an invitation to head the investigation by the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack. 

For 15 months, he led a fleet of attorneys and investigators digging into the historic attack on the Capitol. His team poured over an almost unimaginable cache of evidence, including troves of text messages, social media posts, tens of thousands of hours of video, and transcripts of over 1,000 interviews. 

It was both “a blessing and a curse in an investigation when you have so much stuff,” he told the audience, “This was one of the most documented photographed, cataloged events you could imagine, and sorting through all of that was a tremendous challenge.” 

The team had high participation from its congressional committee members who he said got “very personally involved in the sausage making of our work,” far above that of typical such investigations. Still, the team faced threats to the validity of the investigation and struggled to maintain confidentiality. “We had all kinds of problems with [information] leaks. It was very hard for us to do anything in secret almost any time we had a witness come in.”

The fact of any witnesses’ cooperation was immediately reported in the press, which made it difficult to encourage others to come forward. “I had so many lawyers for witnesses say to me, ‘yes, she wants to come in. She's willing to cooperate with you, but she's worried that as soon as she does it'll be out there that she did, and there are real blowback consequences for her.’”

Just like with the Charlottesville investigation, the January 6 team published a report detailing serious failures from law enforcement and intelligence agencies to prepare for and respond to the attack. Hundreds of participants in the riot have since pleaded guilty, been convicted, or await trial for crimes related to their actions that day.

Policy Challenges

Heaphy noted the challenges that still face the nation in the wake of 2017 and 2020, including how people get the information that leads them to participate in these kinds of violent events. Social media was the primary vehicle that led them to Charlottesville and the Capitol, he said. 

“Social media platforms are businesses. Their currency is to get and keep you on the platform. The way that they do that is with these AI generated algorithms based on what you like and what you read and what you click on, you're going to get more of that.” And consumers get more provocative varieties of that content, which keeps them clicking on the platform. “That's a business model that is meant to keep you consuming,” he said.

Despite confronting the darker aspects of human behavior characterized by rage and violence, Heaphy encouraged students and professors to cultivate resilience. He shared that it is critical to better understand the divisions between people, and what is causing them.

“If everybody in this country spent time thinking about these issues with an open mind and listening to each other, we'd be fine. I have a lot of faith in the common sense of Americans to get this right. But the problem is that too many people just don't.”

Heaphy ended his talk by reflecting that democracy has to be earned. “Everybody has to continually earn it by paying attention, by critically thinking, challenging their own beliefs, and by listening to each other, and by voting, and by raising your hand to run.

“Or, if you're a Batten student to work on these issues. Run toward the fire, not away from it. That's my primary sense of what the remedy is.”

See Heaphy's bio here

heaphy and solomon
Heaphy with Batten School Dean Ian Solomon.


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