I spent some time in the last few weeks hanging out at the beautiful Marcus-David Peters Circle (nee Lee Monument) that a prominent and well-designed sign tells me has been liberated by the people in this year of our Lord, 2020 (in Roman numerals, no less: MMXX). I went there to get a true sense of what was happening on Richmond’s most prominent avenue—and also what was going wrong. The Marcus-David Peters Circle is now a place for families to hang out, play basketball, throw footballs, barbecue, play music, wave flags, practice art, shout in grief over murdered citizens, and even celebrate marriages. It is also, alas, a place to get shot with rubber bullets, pepper sprayed, and tear gassed.
If you have been paying attention the last few weeks, the title of this article should not surprise. Nearly a month ago, on June 1st, police tear gassed peaceful protesters at around 7:30 pm at the Marcus-David Peters Circle. The nominal reason for tear gassing a bunch of folks hanging out, posing absolutely no threat to anyone was declared in this 8 p.m. tweet from the Richmond Police Department (RPD):
“Some RPD officers in that area were cut off by violent protestors. The [tear] gas was necessary to get them to safety.”
But there were at least two drone video recordings that directly contradict this report. One of them is linked below. Check out the black vehicle / truck at 4.08. Near the end, check out the cop, cheerfully waving goodbye to the protesters. This occurred well before the 8 p.m. curfew.
Richmond Times Dispatch reporter, Katy Evans even rebutted the official narrative, saying: “This contradicts what I saw. I did not see any violent protesters or anyone cut you [police] off. I was among those standing closest to you all [police] at this time.”
Another video, shared multiple times, from Virginia Public Media (VPM) illustrates how vicious and arbitrary the use of pepper spray was. Check at about .20 seconds. Also note the police holding up their pepper spray in symbolic victory as they ‘take back’ the circle.
There were also attacks on the press. VPM reporter, Roberto Roldan gave this account:
“After showing my badge and yelling “I am with the press” a Richmond Police officer sprayed pepper spray in my face and shoved me to the ground. [He] had “3397” on his helmet. I’m out.”
It’s apparent neither the Richmond City police nor the Virginia State police liked the press that evening. NBC 12 Olivio Ugino was dragged out of her car when she tried to video tape the police riot.
“Police seem to be swarming vehicles and arresting those out past curfew. I attempted to get out of my car to shoot video and was approached by officers with guns pulled and was told to get on the ground.”
Even with protestors fully subdued, (literary tie cuffed at their feet), the police behavior was incredibly vile. This video shows an officer spitting on a detained protester.
The video was sent to the Richmond Police Department who initially denied they had arrested anyone, and that the video was not filmed that day. After finally acknowledging it was in fact accurate, the police said the officers did not spit on the protestor, but just in the grass beside the protester.
But VPM had their own video of the incident which they released. It shows multiple officers spitting on the same detained person.
The Richmond Times Dispatch also posted a video. It is heavily edited and does not show what the others show; neither the drone footage nor the direct use of pepper spray on protesters. Rather, it shows folks initially berating the officers and then, weirdly shaking their hands.
So I suppose this is a tale of two protests; but only one of them is true.
After being confronted with the drone coverage, and caught in an obvious lie, the Mayor subsequently issued an apology and said there would be an investigation. He declared that he would march with protesters to show solidarity.
“Every peaceful protester should be allowed to protest, that is your right. That’s the bottom line, and we violated that,” Stoney told the crowd at City Hall.
Then Police Chief William Smith also apologized and also took a knee briefly after being invited to do so by a woman in the crowd.
“I apologize for the mistakes that we have made,” Smith said.
This didn’t exactly mollify the throng of people, many of whom had been tear gassed for no apparent reason, shot at with rubber bullets, and spit on. They called for resignations.
Not three days later, a Richmond Police SUV plowed through a crowd of activists at the Marcus-David Peters Circle — no one was seriously injured but there was considerable outrage. The mayor said in a tweet that the driver of the Police SUV was placed on leave pending an investigation.
Not satisfied with that response, the activists moved their protest to the hornet’s nest itself, directly outside the Richmond Police Headquarters. They demanded the release of arrested protesters and to hold officers accountable for the tear gassing and driving their SUV through the crowd—and getting spit on, of course.
By Monday night the situation got out of hand—not by the protesters who remained non-violent, if agitated – but by the police. That evening the Richmond police said they declared the group of activist an ‘illegal assembly’ and began firing pepper spray and rubber bullets at protesters. Yet a person who shot the video of protesters being tear gassed said they did not hear the message that they were an ‘unlawful assembly’ before officers sent the canisters flying.
Activist Jimmie Lee Jarvis charged that “It turned violent, but the first act of violence was from the police.” Prior to being gassed, the activists were peaceful and nonviolent. According to Jarvis, the police officers were “very eagerly deploying pepper spray at people who were not doing anything” other than yelling at the police.
“I saw many protesters who were vomiting, crying,” Jarvis added. “I saw people kind of collapsing on the ground.”
Councilman Mike Jones and Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch had joined protesters on that Monday evening and afterwards, Councilman Jones simply tweeted “Can’t believe what I saw this evening.”
“I’ve marched before, protested before,” Jones noted. “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever encountered that number of police in riot gear and with the big guns out.”
“People were crying and screaming and vomiting and running for their lives,” observed Stephanie Lynch.
The two council members both deemed the show of force unnecessary. Jones called the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on Richmond protesters “anti-American,” while Lynch added that it’s the latest example of inappropriate response and brutality.
“There has to be another way to deescalate a situation so that innocents are not impacted by something as impactful as tear gas, chemical irritants and flashbangs,” Jones said.
“Using it on civilians, as we saw [Monday] night, is just a completely inappropriate response,” Lynch added. “Many would share the same sentiment that it has had the opposite impact of coming to a peaceful resolution.”
Following the unrest, Mayor Stoney requested Richmond Police Chief Will Smith’s resignation. Chief Smith turned it in.
“He has served this city with grace but we are ready to move it in a new direction”, Mayor Stoney said at press conference on Tuesday. Stoney also vowed a slate of reforms for the department.
Then without community input, the Mayor appointed William ‘Jody’ Blackwell to be the interim police chief for Richmond.
That was a bad move. Shortly after being appointed by Stoney, details about a fatal shooting in 2002 involving Blackwell resurfaced.
Blackwell never faced charges in the case but an investigation was launched and a grand jury heard evidence, including details that 26-year-old Jeramy Gilliam was reportedly shot in the back, and that the alleged weapon he pointed at Blackwell was found 35 feet away from him and lacked fingerprints.
This would be exactly the kind of thing BLM activists would protest, so let’s say, it was not a nuanced decision; and hardly one concerned about community input as Stoney had promised.
When he was introduced to the city by the Mayor Stoney, Blackwell was asked about the fatal shooting of Gilliam but evaded the question, saying he would not “go into any details associated with it.” But he did promise “we’re going to get the city back.” To what, or for whom, he did not say, but it turned out to be a phrase that was far more portentous than prophetic. Blackwell lasted just a little over ten days.
Jody Blackwell began his short tenure by trying to close down the heart of the protest at beautiful Marcus-David Peters Circle. Shortly after he took office, on June 22, Virginia State Police, Richmond Police, Capitol Police and Virginia Division of General Services announced “important public safety changes” that closed the Marcus-David Peters Circle from sunset to sunrise.
Apparently, there were noise complaints (admittedly police helicopters, police flash bangs, police tear gas shots, and police pepper pellets are very loud—so maybe a good solution would be for the police to not be there?) and at least one person complained of the avenue “wreaking of urine as she walked her dog”—which, frankly, I never noticed, and I’ve walked my dog all around that circle; and up and down Monument avenue.
At any rate, no matter how trivial the complaints, the protesters complied. They marched to Richmond City Hall to stage a teach-in and named the area Reclamation Square. They used traffic barriers to block off the 900 block of Marshall Street, North of City Hall so they could have their sit in without fear of getting run over by a rogue SUV. They were going to watch a movie, and discuss police violence, and talk tactics, draw up a list of demands–including reopening the Marcus-David Peters case; defunding the Richmond Police Department; dropping charges against arrested protesters; removing Confederate monuments; establishing a civilian review board with subpoena power to investigate police misconduct; and releasing the names of Richmond police officers under investigation for excessive use of force—so everyone would know why they were out there. Alas, they didn’t get that far.
According to Blue Virginia, shortly after midnight “approximately 100 police officers from Virginia State and Richmond Police showed up at 12:30 AM. They marched to the corner of Marshall and 10th at 12:45 AM and held formation in riot gear for approximately 45 minutes. During this time, a loudspeaker repeatedly announced that the protest “had been declared an unlawful assembly” and that “failure to disperse will result in arrest and the use of chemical agents.”
For the record, “‘unlawful assembly’ declarations require a group of people committing violence or a clear and present danger of imminent violence, but the protesters did not move and did not engage in any violence. Nevertheless, at 1:27 AM, Richmond and Virginia State Police brutally attacked them.”
You can get a sense of how brutal from the video below.
Ultimately, a good protest will show how broken a system is. When British soldiers march horses through passive Indians, clubbing from their horse mounts, or when ‘Bull’ Conner unleashes his dogs in Birmingham, Alabama, we see at once the injustice, the unfairness, and the terrible vapidity of official violence.
At Reclamation Square, the police showed everyone exactly what they were. The Virginia State Police and Richmond Police gave a brilliant performance of the now classic ‘police riot.’
According to Blue Virginia, reporting from the ground: “The police start running and grabbing people who are trying to get away as clouds of gas rise to envelop the City Seal on City Hall. Half a block to the right is Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall’s home.”
“It becomes a horror scene. You can hear blood-curdling screams from victims. The light has changed as if there’s a fire. I try to film the screams and the police come at me though I’m far away from the protests. White privilege kept me safe while others were brutalized for their political views. It went from peaceful to this in less than three minutes.”
There was actually a strobe light used as an anti-assembly device by the Police, hence the nightmarish lighting.
Breanne Armbrust, who arrived at the demonstration around 8 p.m., said there was no sign of police for hours. She said some of the protesters had used their cars to block the intersection around 11:45 p.m. to prevent anyone from driving into the area where they were gathered. Police SUVs arrived shortly thereafter, she said, but officers were wearing typical uniforms — not riot gear.
It wasn’t until roughly 12:30 a.m. that Virginia State Police officers clad in riot gear arrived.
“Not one person was prepared or expecting there was going to be an incident with police,” Armbrust said.
At the time, civilians, two of whom were using wheelchairs, were sitting at a nearby GRTC bus stop, but Armbrust said that officers did not alert the bystanders of their intent to use chemical agents.
After arriving, officers attempted to make an announcement while pointing strobe lights at demonstrators. Amid the flashing lights, Armbrust said that she and others present could not comprehend what was being announced. Officers began firing tear gas canisters — oftentimes at a close range — around 1 a.m.
“I’ve been protesting for a long time and I’ve never seen what I’ve been seeing,” said Armbrust, who is the director of a nonprofit organization in the city. “There was just complete chaos that was happening.”
Between 1 and 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, officers released several waves of tear gas on demonstrators, she said, also using rubber bullets and pepper pellets to disperse the crowd. Since she joined the protests May 29, Armbrust said she has never seen “the volume of tear gas” deployed as it was that Tuesday.
Chased from Reclamation Square, the protesters moved back to beautiful Marcus-David Peters circle. That next Friday, June 26, Blackwell made his ‘last stand.’
Initially, the Virginia Capitol Police said they “arrived at the Lee monument at 10 p.m. Friday, declared the gathering illegal and all 100-plus people inside immediately left.”
Apparently the activists didn’t ‘leave’ fast enough for the Richmond police or State police, however.
The following first hand account is from Blue Virginia:
“At roughly 10:25 PM, officers were using paintball guns to take potshots at protesters far outside of Lee circle. There [outside the circle] many dozens of people who were not protesting but were lining the streets enjoying what had been a beautiful Friday evening. Thirty seconds later, police launched an unprovoked attack with tear gas, Skat Shells, and flash bangs. The recording can only pick up so much noise, but you can see the ground shake in this residential neighborhood filled with families and elderly people.”
“The opening salvo inevitably wounded people. You can see and hear a Black man writhing in pain being treated by medics. He gets on his feet perhaps a hundred yards away from the officers and screams and is met with more militarized violence. It is impossible – impossible – for anyone to maintain the officers are fearful and this is reasonable force.”
“Richmond Police left the Circle and walked en masse about a quarter mile to the corner of Allen and Park by Bethel Assembly of God Church. They appeared to be packing up their cars to leave when one officer told another: “Grab somebody. Get a hold of somebody.” An officer sprinted about 15 yards and assaulted and arrested a man peacefully standing on the sidewalk (video from woznyphoto). Every lawyer reading this knows how egregiously illegal this is.”
“The officers form a ring around the innocent victim. When they lift him up you see he is dazed. A woman tries to speak with him and she is assaulted. An officer deploys pepper spray, and dozens of people on the street start to cough during a pandemic.”
“In the area where this person was arbitrarily arrested, there was no declaration of unlawful assembly; the Richmond Police had already started their engines and were leaving. These individuals were doing nothing more than exercising their constitutional rights to political speech and to film police.”
In short, this is a false arrest, no doubt, one of many. The Richmond Police wrote up the incident saying the individual was arrested for “unlawful assembly and obstruction of justice” and “an RPD officer deployed pepper spray one time, due to ongoing assaults from the crowd.”
There’s a word for this kind of police report. It’s called a lie.
William “Jody” Blackwell resigned the following day. A few hours after his resignation, apparently fearing a leadership vacuum, Mayor Stoney announced the new head of the Richmond Police Department.
His name is Officer Gerald Smith.
Mayor Stoney said that “He is a reform-minded change agent who I think is going to be able to bring the reimagining of policing and public safety we need here in the great city of Richmond.”
But again, the facts are not in favor of the official narrative.
Gerald Smith was most recently Deputy Chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
You might have heard of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police because they are in the middle of an ugly lawsuit over their use of “riot control” agents against protesters they had entrapped during a peaceful June 2 rally. In fact, a judge is temporarily restricting the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s use of riot control agents (like tear gas and pepper spray) following the incident.
The lawsuit accuses Police Chief Putney of organizing a formal plan to end peaceful protests with a “deliberate show of force in an apparent frustration that the protests would not cease.”
That story has unfortunate echoes close to home.
I’m not sure what — if any — lesson Deputy Chief Gerald Smith may have drawn from Chief Putney’s failed effort at suppressing free speech, or his time at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, but let us hope it is one that does not involve rubber bullets, tear gas or pepper spray.
Yesterday, June 30, Governor Northam extended a state of emergency which promises more funds for Virginia State police and Richmond police and Richmond City and likely signals an even more permissive attitude toward violence with regard to protesters. The order also includes activation of the Virginia National Guard. When questioned about the activation, Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said the administration has “absolutely no plans to deploy the National Guard,” and said a reference to it in the order is standard language.
The ACLU noted that Northam’s “actions show no understanding of the anti-Black racism that infects our civil and social structures, accepts the police version of the facts and demonstrates an unwillingness to recognize that treating people as enemy combatants invites violence rather than quells it,”
Later, in the evening on June 30, the ACLU lost a request for a preliminary injunction on the use of tear gas in a law suit brought against the Virginia State Police and Richmond Police for violating protesters first amendment rights to speech and assembly.
Today, July 1st, an all night vigil is planned for beautiful Marcus-David Peters Circle.
Note: This article is based on multiple eye witness accounts many of whom wish to remain anonymous. I’ve also sourced published articles, public twitter and media accounts and commentaries where available, including VPM news media, Blue Virginia, the Commonwealth Times, Jimmie Lee Jarvis, various other local news outlets, and the ACLU.
Virginia Code on what constitutes and ‘unlawful assembly’
- 18.2-406. What constitutes an unlawful assembly; punishment.
Whenever three or more persons assembled share the common intent to advance some lawful or unlawful purpose by the commission of an act or acts of unlawful force or violence likely to jeopardize seriously public safety, peace or order, and the assembly actually tends to inspire persons of ordinary courage with well-grounded fear of serious and immediate breaches of public safety, peace or order, then such assembly is an unlawful assembly. Every person who participates in any unlawful assembly shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. If any such person carried, at the time of his participation in an unlawful assembly, any firearm or other deadly or dangerous weapon, he shall be guilty of a Class 5 felony.
Code 1950, §§ 18.1-254.1, 18.1-254.3; 1968, c. 460; 1971, Ex. Sess., c. 251; 1975, cc. 14, 15.