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

26 nights in, protesters in Richmond say they’re not going anywhere
Protesters gather outside Capitol Square at the conclusion of their march just before 10:30 p.m. in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. (Source: Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam expressed befuddlement Tuesday at ongoing protests against police brutality in Richmond, defending the 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 of 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.”

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.