26 nights in, protesters in Richmond say they’re not going anywhere

By: - June 24, 2020 12:01 am

Protesters gather outside Capitol Square at the conclusion of their march just before 10:30 p.m. in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury

Gov. Ralph Northam expressed befuddlement Tuesday at ongoing protests against police brutality in Richmond, defending city and state police officers who earlier in the morning used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear a sit-in outside of City Hall that was blocking a side street.

“Mostly these demonstrations have been peaceful, but here in Richmond we continue to see nightly conflicts between demonstrators and our police,” Northam said during a press briefing on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. “After three weeks it is no longer clear what the goals are or a path to achieve them. Clearly Richmond needs a different path forward. These nightly conflicts cannot continue indefinitely.”

Protesters in the city have been clear about their demands, which have been widely reported and include calls for increased accountability, greater transparency and reduced police budgets in favor of community services. And Northam indicated he is indeed aware of what demonstrators are asking for, promising “future action on police reform and other important equity issues” when the General Assembly reconvenes in August. “Action is coming and new laws starting July 1 reflect my commitment to criminal justice reform,” he said.

The disconnect appears to lie in the fact that demonstrators don’t trust Northam and state lawmakers to follow through.

“Going to do it and doing it are two different things,” said Von Sante, who sat Tuesday at the base of the Lee Statue with a samurai-style sword as protesters gathered for their 26th consecutive night of demonstrations. “Them saying that is not going to shush us. We’re not going to be shushed. We’re here for results and answers.”

Another protester, who identified himself as K.J., concurred. “In the past when these sorts of movements happen the government gives a couple key people a seat at the table and ‘hear us out’ and do nothing and it mollifies us,” he said. “That’s not the case anymore. We don’t trust them — they haven’t given us any reason to.”

He said the response by police, who have so routinely deployed teargas and pepper spray that many protesters now carry industrial respirators and goggles, has only intensified the group’s resolve. “He says that they’re going to pass laws, and yet when we’re out here peacefully, we get gassed.”

Police say they launched tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters outside City Hall early Tuesday morning because the group of several dozen wouldn’t leave a street where they had been staging a sit-in since 6 p.m. When police arrived, attendees had set up a screen and projector and were preparing to watch a movie, according to Commonwealth Times reporter Eduardo Acevedo, who said one of the demonstrators screamed, “Who brings flash bombs to a fucking sleepover?”

In a statement, the Richmond Police Department justified their response as necessary in the face of “activity such as sit-ins, sit-downs, blocking traffic, blocking entrances or exits of buildings that impact public safety or infrastructure.”

Asked whether he supported the use of weaponry by police in such circumstances, Northam said Tuesday he wouldn’t tell police how to do their jobs. “I’d just encourage protesters to be peaceful and not break the law,” he said. “Last night in Richmond an unlawful assembly was called and people refused to leave. When people break the law, we can’t condone that.”

Demonstrators out Tuesday responded that they’ll continue protesting until they see concrete reforms from city and state leaders.

“Why would we trust him?” asked Goad Gatsby, a protester who has documented the nightly demonstrations on his widely-followed Twitter account. “At what point would we trust him if he’s not willing to hold police accountable for all these actions?”

As night fell at the Lee Monument, a crowd of several hundred stayed in defiance of new state rules closing the area between sunset and sunrise. The state-controlled traffic circle has become a focal point for the demonstrations. On one side of the statue, a crowd massed and formed a line anticipating conflict with police. On the other side, a DJ played music, a woman grilled chicken and people took turns taking shots on a basketball hoop someone dropped off at the site.

“The substantial increase in pedestrian and bicycle traffic in and around the monument and intermittent blockages to vehicular traffic within the intersection pose serious safety risks,” the state’s Department of General Services said in a statement Monday. “In addition, such legal violations as vandalism, trespassing on nearby private properties, littering, public urination and excessive noise have steadily been on the rise.”

Police did eventually arrive, but not until the crowd had substantially diminished. State police said at 3:30 a.m. they had cleared the circle without incident and state crews were picking up trash before reopening the circle at sunrise.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.