Charges withdrawn against activists - NBC12 - WWBT - Richmond, VA News On Your Side

Charges withdrawn against activists

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – Trespassing charges were withdrawn against four protestors who blocked access last month to a controversial downtown Richmond parking lot. The four, who blocked the entrance to the former VCU parking lot over a slave burial ground, were cheered as they left the courthouse. 

Prosecutors decided not to move forward because VCU no longer owns the property and there was a question of whether the protestors were actually standing on it. But the protestors tell me either way, they believe they had every right to do what they did. 

They gathered outside the Manchester Courthouse to protest the arrest of protestors. And members of the "Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality" say they got their wish. These four...Phil Wilayto, Autumn Barrett, Donnell Brantley and Rolandah McMillan...who more than a month ago stood at the front of what was a VCU parking lot and blocked cars, will not face any jail time. 

"We are standing up for our rights. Why not? That's what America is all about," said Rolandah McMillan. 

Prosecutor says withdrawing the charges was the right thing to do. 

"They were preventing hospital employees from getting to their place of employment from treating people in the hospital and from going to work. They have a right to do that just as they have a right to protest. The arrests were necessary," said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Chris Toepp. 

But Defense Attorney Steven Benjamin, who took the case for free, says his clients never broke the law. 

"They were fully within their rights in going down and standing in the street and expressing their message. That is a fundamental right of every American citizen," Benjamin said. 

"This is something that I felt very passionate about," Donnell Brantley. 

Brantley says she's not done fighting for that site's future and she's calling for the new owners…the city and the Slave Trail Commission to keep the public involved. 

"We really need to be actively involved with the decision in terms of what is going to happen to the African burial ground," she said. 

Prosecutors can bring the charges back at any time for up to a year. Though, I'm told VCU and the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office has no plans to do that. 

Work is underway now, for free, to remove the asphalt from the burial ground. It's unclear at this point whether there will be an archeological dig at the site. 

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