‘Bruised and broken:’ As nation reels from unrest, Virginia leaders begin search for solutions

By: - June 2, 2020 12:01 am

Thousands of people marched through downtown Richmond on June 1, 2020. The peaceful demonstration was one of the largest gatherings in the city since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

As Del. Delores McQuinn spoke about the “explosion” of civil unrest gripping her hometown and cities across the country, she said her 6-year-old granddaughter offered an apt summary of what’s been happening.

As a TV played news coverage of George Floyd’s death and its aftermath, McQuinn, a longtime Democratic leader from Richmond, said she didn’t think the little girl was paying attention.

“But all of a sudden she said: ‘Whoa! Whoa mister policeman whoa! That’s just too much,’” McQuinn, D-Richmond, recounted as she joined political and civic leaders at an event Monday afternoon in downtown Richmond. “My heart was bruised and broken.”

Standing near the slavery reconciliation statue she helped install in 2007, McQuinn, a senior member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said the state of “crisis and chaos” is the result of centuries of systemic racism that’s gone unaddressed and unseen by the whiter, wealthier parts of society. But the energy unleashed by Floyd’s death, she said, has to be directed toward something productive.

“I know that anger and conflict will not produce positive results,” she said. “For God’s sake I call for a peaceful protest.”

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, speaks Monday afternoon in Richmond. (NBC 12)

After four nights of chaotic demonstrations against police brutality in Virginia’s capital city that have led to fires, smashed windows, tear gas, ransacked businesses, hundreds of arrests and one man being shot, the state’s political leaders are urging peace and a unified search for solutions.

But the calls for calm grew more complicated Monday night as Richmond police shot tear gas at a group of seemingly peaceful protesters gathered at the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue before the 8 p.m. curfew imposed by Mayor Levar Stoney. Though the Richmond Police Department initially said the gas was “necessary” to retrieve officers who had been separated by “violent protesters,” the agency later apologized and said the officers involved would be punished for violating protocols.

Stoney also invited protesters to go to Richmond City Hall today for an apology and a discussion of what can be done to “repair this community.”

The renewed focus on policing and criminal justice reform comes at a time of rapid change in Virginia politics, with Democrats in control of the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion after years of legislative rule by tough-on-crime Republicans.

The Black Caucus, made up of 23 Democratic state lawmakers, issued a statement Saturday calling for the State Crime Commission to meet “immediately” to begin taking up the work of “tearing down institutional racism in our criminal justice system.”

“As Black leaders in our legislature we are prepared to take action in a way our Commonwealth has not seen before,” the caucus said.

Standing with McQuinn Monday, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a former Richmond mayor, warned that some are all too eager to turn Floyd’s death into a “fake story” about looting and destruction instead of a story about excessive police force compounding the health and economic crises black communities are already facing due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve got to keep the focus on the behavior and the trauma, rather than giving people ammunition by trashing minority businesses or small businesses,” Kaine said. “They’ll use that to take everybody’s eyes off the trauma that has to be solved.”

Though protests over Floyd’s death have erupted nationwide, decisions governing municipal police forces are largely handled at the local and state levels.

Stoney, a Democrat widely thought to have aspirations for higher office, offered his support for a policing reform sought by local activists that would allow mental health experts to respond to some crises currently handled by officers alone. 

The proposal is called the Marcus Alert, named for Marcus-David Peters, a black teacher who was shot and killed in 2018 while lunging at a Richmond police officer despite being naked and unarmed. The shooting was ruled justified, but Peters’ relatives argued there should have been a better way to handle what they believe was a mental health crisis.

Stoney also appeared to back the concept of a civilian review board, oversight bodies many cities have created to enable independent investigations of police misconduct.

Wielding total majority power for the first time in decades, Democratic legislators passed several criminal justice reforms earlier this year, including marijuana decriminalization.

The legislature also passed the Virginia Community Policing Act, a data collection and anti-bias bill designed to make it easier for policymakers to spot and address racial disparities in police stops and uses of force.

This data will be analyzed to expose the existence and prevalence of such concerns, with an annual reporting of findings along with recommendations for change,” Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, the bill’s sponsor, said on Twitter Monday evening. “Standardized data collection is the first step in policy reform.” 

In an interview, State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said the 2020 session was a start, but the legislature has “a long way to go” in the areas of police training and accountability.

McClellan said some legislation could potentially be passed over the summer when lawmakers return to Richmond for a special session dealing with the pandemic fallout and its impact on the state budget. Other proposals may take more time, she said, because the issues are so “systemic” that legislators need to take time to gather data to understand them.

“There appears to be a disconnect between what the policymakers think is happening on the street and what’s actually happening on the street. I want to make sure I’m not falling into that gap,” said McClellan, who is considering a run for governor in 2021.

The discussion over where to go from here, McClellan said, has to involve people in positions of power and privilege having conversations with marginalized communities about possible solutions.

“And not just parachuting in and saying ‘This is what I’m going to do for you,’” McClellan said.

Gov. Ralph Northam issued a statement last Wednesday decrying Floyd’s death and saying the events in Minneapolis should move all Virginians to “renew our commitment to working for justice.” But he took a somewhat subdued approach to the ensuing protests, waiting until Sunday afternoon to issue a statement saying he had agreed to Stoney’s request for a curfew and activated the Virginia National Guard.

I hear you. I know your pain is real,” Northam said in the release. “We have all seen too many people harassed, abused, and killed by law enforcement officers, in too many places, for too long—just for being black. I also know that others are exploiting this pain and are now causing violence.”

Northam also authorized an 8 p.m. curfew starting Monday night in Virginia Beach.

Republican legislative leaders had been largely silent on the situation until Monday, when House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, issued a statement calling Floyd’s death “inexcusable” and saying those upset by it are “rightfully angry.” He also faulted leaders for allowing protests to turn violent.

“Those who inflicted this chaos and damage don’t seek meaningful change, they seek only the mayhem that will further divide us as Americans and as human beings,” Gilbert said. “This hijacking of an otherwise righteous demand for respect and change, and the accompanying failures of leadership that have allowed it, are completely unacceptable. Peace and security must be restored.”

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, the only declared GOP candidate for governor, has taken to social media to warn her followers to be on the lookout for antifa movement into the Richmond suburbs and vow to “swiftly dismantle any deemed terrorist organization” if her run for governor is successful in 2021.

“Stay awake. Stay alert,” Chase said in a video posted Monday. “If you own a gun, keep it next to your bedside tonight.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]