Officials in Richmond still won’t explain why police attacked hundreds of peaceful protestors a year ago

By: - May 26, 2021 12:01 am

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Police Chief WIll Smith (left) speak to a large crowd from the steps of City Hall in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. Stoney called the event to apologize for how peaceful protesters had been treated by police in the previous days. Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury

The police chief apologized. Mayor Levar Stoney now calls the attack “unintentional.” But a year later, officials in Richmond still won’t offer a full explanation of what exactly happened that led officers to unleash a barrage of tear gas and pepper spray on a crowd of hundreds of peaceful protestors.

City officials also refuse to detail what discipline — if any — officers involved faced.

The most Stoney spokesman Jim Nolan was willing to say this week was that it was “a mistake caused by miscommunication during a chaotic moment in the city that evening.” Pressed for additional details, Nolan would only say that there were other protests in the area, including down the street.

Stoney revisited the incident publicly over the weekend in an op-ed published by The New York Times outlining his response to the unrest that roiled the nation after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. In the piece, he highlighted his decision to apologize for the gas attack, march with protesters and, later, take down city-owned Confederate monuments.

“Delivering justice, actually healing and atoning, requires coming together to do the hard work,” Stoney’s essay concludes. “It takes time. It demands we listen. And for me, last summer, it required an invitation and an apology.”

Richmond police won’t say how many officers face discipline for attacking protesters

“The Richmond Police Department is not able to comment on this situation as it is subject to pending litigation,” department spokesman James Mercante said in a statement.

Stoney’s office also cited ongoing litigation. “As promised at the time, the incident was investigated, and further investigation into the incident informed the mayor’s understanding that what happened on June 1 at the circle was unintentional,” Nolan wrote. “As this is a subject of ongoing litigation, unfortunately we are not able to discuss it in greater detail at this time.” (Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin, who would have to sign off on criminal charges against any officers involved, said she’s still awaiting the city’s findings.)

The city is facing multiple lawsuits stemming from the incident, including a potential class-action suit filed in federal court. Records show the case is still mired in discovery, with lawyers representing the victims of the attack still working to identify individual officers responsible so they can be named as defendants.

In court filings, they accuse the city of resisting their discovery requests, but based on recordings of police radio traffic leading up to the event and body camera footage the city has so far provided, lawyers for the protesters have pieced together a timeline they say casts doubt on the idea that the attack was accidental.

Officers were initially called to respond to a different Confederate statue, where a handful of protesters were attempting to tear down a bronze likeness of J.E.B. Stuart with a hack saw and rope, according to the filings.

Police also responded to the Lee Monument, where the crowd of hundreds of peaceful protesters were gathered. According to the timeline, a sergeant arrived on the scene, observed the area for several minutes and then ordered the officers to unleash the gas attack. “Put it on them,” the lawsuit quotes a superior saying.

Tom Roberts, a civil rights lawyer who is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said Tuesday that the city’s ongoing refusal to offer a transparent account of the incident underscores the need for the kinds of reform protesters were demanding.

“Contrary to the mayor’s statement, the use of tear gas was intentional and wrong,” Roberts wrote in an email. “Mayor Stoney speaks of working to address 400 years of injustice, but as mayor of the City of Richmond he is not prepared to take the first step to provide justice to the peaceful protestors who were actually making a difference.”

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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.