Cops, Courts & Prisons

RICHMOND COPS MASS AT LEE STATUE. WAS IT INTIMIDATION? A PROVOCATION?

By Phil Wilayto for The Virginia Defender

Originally published July 21, 2020 to the Virginia Defender Facebook page.

For Defenders video of this incident, see this link.

RICHMOND, VA, June 20 — On a day when armed, right-wing organizations had threatened to mass in Richmond, the biggest threat that emerged turned out to come from the Richmond police.

Around 150 people of different races sat and stood this evening on the grassy traffic circle surrounding the 60-foot-tall, now-graffiti-covered statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on the city’s famed Monument Avenue, an area that has become a daily gathering place for BLM protesters.

The atmosphere was calm, even festive, with people taking photos of each other in front of the statue or sharing stories of the week’s protests. Four young men, three of them Black, one white, played basketball at a recently placed hoop. Others kept a watchful eye out for unwelcome intruders.

Suddenly, at about 7:50 p.m., the blue flashing lights of around a half-dozen police cars were seen approaching on the east-bound lane of the avenue. About 35 cops emerged from the vehicles and started walking toward the crowd.

As the police got closer, you could see that many of them had what looked like tear-gas canisters attached to their shirts. Some were wearing body armour. A few had what looked like combat-style, semi-automatic long guns. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, none wore face masks, perhaps to facilitate putting on gas masks.

Just yesterday, the newly appointed interim police chief, Major William “Jody” Blackwell, had issued a “reminder” to the public that “the Richmond Police Department has the authority to declare protests that become violent, dangerous or disruptive as unlawful assemblies. … Failure to disperse will result in arrest and/or exposure to chemical agents.’”

People also had been on edge because several right-wing organizations had announced their intentions to come to Richmond to “defend” the Confederate statues. And, earlier in the day, an armed, off-duty Richmond International Airport police officer had been arrested for trespassing after being seen standing on the roof of a nearby building, filming the people gathered around the Lee state.

The people in the circle, which recently had been ringed by state-government-installed concrete barriers, quickly became agitated by the approaching police presence. Some began yelling ”Hands up! Hands up!” a cry protesters have used to encourage others to demonstrate they were not carrying weapons. Others shouted, ”What are you doing here? Nothing’s happening!”

At one point, someone apparently threw some kind of metal can, which fell short of the police line. About 20 Black youth yelled for people not to do that.

Then the officer apparently in charge called out that if people moved their cars from around the circle, where they had been parked alongside the new concrete barriers, the police would leave. Some in the crowd repeated the orders to those further back.

And people did move the cars, at least those on the west side of the circle facing the police. As they did so, about a half-dozen mostly young Black people formed a line with their backs to the cops, facing the crowd, telling people to move back.

FInally, when the last car visible on the west side of the circle had been moved, the police began slowly walking backwards toward their vehicles.

When the cops got into their cars, they gingerly backed up from the circle, going west in the avenue’s eastbound lane, then turning north on a cross street.

The confrontation was over.

But questions remain: Why was it necessary to send some three dozen combat-ready officers to tell peaceful protesters to move their cars? Were their commanders afraid there would be a confrontation? Was it meant as an exercise in intimidation? Was it designed to provoke the crowd and so justify declaring the gathering an illegal assembly, allowing the cops to attack it with tear gas?

As soon as the police left the area, the people in and around the circle relaxed and went back to enjoying themselves. This reporter circulated through the crowd, distributing copies of The Virginia Defender.

As the sun dipped behind the nearby houses and trees, it was just another peaceful evening in a newly awakened Richmond.

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