'There’s still so much work to be done’: Hundreds gather to celebrate Marcus-David Peters’ birthday

Updated: Oct. 17, 2020 at 7:16 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - The grounds of the Robert E. Lee statue, which has been unofficially renamed Marcus-David Peters Circle, were transformed into a birthday celebration of Marcus-David Peters, the 24-year-old Richmond biology teacher who was shot and killed by Richmond Police in 2018 while experiencing a mental health episode on Interstate 95.

The celebration coincided with an event titled Step to Unite: A Performative Rally, hosted by the The Precision Step Team. The step teams performed in front of the crowds that gathered at the Lee Monument with the message being that they are enraged and tired of the social injustice. The Precision Step team organized step teams from the community and Hampton Roads.

Princess Blanding, who has become an outspoken political activist since her brother’s death, says Saturday was as much about honoring Peters’ life as it is about pushing for police reform on a city and statewide level.

“It hurts to know that we’re having a big party and the main host is not here,” Blanding said. “If a person’s kidneys fail, in the worst-case scenario, they will get started on dialysis. But our brain is the only organ that when it doesn’t function properly, we demonize them, especially if you’re Black. We’re going to demonize you, we’re going to criminalize you, we’re going to dehumanize you, we’re going to kill you. And that’s not acceptable.”

Peters, who was a VCU alum, would have turned 27 this year. People who came to celebrate were asked to make a prayer at an ancestral alter by taking a scoop of grains inspired by Peters’ favorite colors and placing it by his memorial. Blanding says everything about the live performances, food and music was inspired by Peters' favorite things.

“If you go to our food table, you’ll see a big bin of his favorite food that has Gushers and Fruit Roll-Ups. So we wanted people to have a little taste of something that Marcus has really, really enjoyed," said Blanding. ”We have a guitar player who also played one of Marcus’ favorite songs."

During the celebration, plants and STEM technology kits were handed out to children under 18 years old to promote positive growth in their communities.

“Those plants are really, really important and symbolic because it’s growth," Blanding said, “and we want them to take a pledge when they take a plant to help them to become a well-rounded citizen, right and then as they continue to take care of that they’re growing.”

Blanding says the large crowd that gathered to remember Peters brought her a sense of closure, but she’s hoping that the collective energy from her brother’s birthday can be used to continue pushing for police reform.

"My strength is in knowing that my family and I won’t back down and we’re not going to give up and that we have as evident by this amazing presence of community members and supporters here. said Blanding. "We have a strong army of supporting us as we continue to fight for justice and reformation, as we continue to fight even for the Marcus Alert bill.

Formally dubbed the mental health awareness response and community understanding services, or MARCUS, alert system, House Bill 5043 would require the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and the Department of Criminal Justice Services to work together to create evidence-based training programs for the care teams so that they know-how, to effectively address, mitigate and de-escalate mental health crisis situations.

Both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly have approved a proposal to establish a statewide system that pairs teams of mental health professionals and peer recovery specialists with police officers responding to mental health crises.

The Senate approved the measure by a vote of 24-15 on Thursday Oct 1.

The House gave the legislation the green light in September with a vote of 57-39. The proposal now needs a signature from Gov. Ralph Northam to become law. Blanding says she’s happy to see progress being made, but she believes the language of the bill is too weak to address all of the problems she believes still exist in the Richmond Police Department.

“I’m encouraged and strengthened by the support of our community, the unshaken support, but I also am wise enough to know that the fight is far from over that there’s still so much work to be done,” said Blanding. “I’m wise enough to know that the fight is far from over, that there’s still so much work to be done. These false victories are not accepted and I won’t rejoice over them. A person is experiencing a mental health crisis deserves help, not death, with a huge period at the end of it.”

“Marcus isn’t here in person, but he’s here in spirit and a lot of people since Marcus’s murder have reached out to me and said, ‘look, I’m dealing with mental health issues myself,’" Blanding said. "A lot of people who did not feel comfortable coming out publicly and talking about mental health issues that either they personally deal with, or that they deal with in their family, feel comfortable and feel safe saying, look, I deal with it, too.”

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