Cops, Courts & Prisons


Originally published July 1, 2020 to the Virginia Defender Facebook page. Republished in the Summer 2020 edition of the Virginia Defender newspaper, printed August 14.

By Phil Wilayto

RICHMOND, VA, July 1 — At the very moment today when close to 1,000 people stood in the rain to watch the City unceremoniously remove the 100-year-old statue of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson from his perch at the intersection of Monument Avenue and Arthur Ashe Boulevard, deputies from the Richmond Sheriff’s Department were wrestling to the ground a well-known local housing activist attempting to attend eviction hearings in the John Marshall Courts Building just five miles away.

Omari Al-Qadaffi, a longtime and well-respected housing organizer who now works with the Legal Aid Justice Center, was one of some 150-200 people who attended a rally against evictions outside the courts building at 400 N. 9th St. near City Hall in downtown RIchmond.

Today was the day a statewide moratorium on evictions during the coronavirus pandemic ordered by Gov. Ralph Northam was due to expire, and social justice organizations had called for the rally outside the courthouse where eviction cases are heard. The sponsoring groups included Leaders of the New South, New Virginia Majority, Richmond Strike and the Richmond Tenants Union.

After speaking about the eviction crisis and what they felt Gov. Northam was not doing to address what could be an impending eviction crisis, the activists marched to the Governor’s Mansion at Capitol Square, then to City Hall, circling it while chanting, and then returned to the John Marshall Courts Building.

“People decided they wanted to enter the courts building so they could go to the eviction hearings, which is normally allowable,” eyewitness and local activist Breanne Armbrust told the Defender in an interview later outside the city jail. “So they opened the door to do that, and once they did, the sheriff’s officers started to move in on people at the door. Omari was just standing there and they grabbed him and tackled him to the ground. He was being completely nonconfrontational.”

Video of the incident posted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch shows an orderly crowd outside the courthouse doors with a few people beginning to quietly enter into the lobby. Then video taken from through the building’s windows shows at least five deputies on top of Al-Qadaffi on the lobby floor. A woman inside the lobby objecting to his arrest is also seen being seized.

Outraged at the apparently unexpected arrests, the crowd began banging on the doors and windows demanding, “Let them go!” At some point – after the arrests – one of the building’s floor-to-ceiling windows was reportedly broken.

Another eyewitness, who asked not to be identified by name, said that everything had been peaceful until the arrests. “No one expected this,” they said. “It seemed to move from zero to hundreds in seconds, and it wasn’t because of us. More cops showed up, and a lot of people got maced, or pepper sprayed – it was some kind of handheld spray – and people retreated from the door and were treated by medics. Other police, maybe Capitol Police, showed up and moved people out, including people being treated by the medics, so the crowd dispersed.”

“Things only really got heavy when we opened the doors,” said another eyewitness, a 29-year-old woman who asked not to be identified by name. This person, who is white, said the deputies seemed to single out Black people in the crowd. “No one ever touched me,” they said. “At one point I was holding the door open, and an officer there didn’t even look at me.”

Shortly after, supporters, including two legal aid attorneys, went to the city jail to wait for those who were arrested.

Al-Qadaffi was later released after being charged with two counts of felony assault on law enforcement officers, obstruction of justice and trespass. The other person – whose name The Defender does not have permission to report, was hit with obstruction of justice and trespass.

According to a report published last year by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, Richmond has the second-highest eviction rate of all large U.S. cities. That 11.44 percent rate has held steady for the past 16 years. Incredibly, each year nearly a third of all Richmond renters receive a notice of eviction.

Further, VCU researchers with the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs last week reported that 3,800 eviction cases are pending in Richmond and the counties of Henrico and Chesterfield. The report said the threatened renters owe an average of about $1,200.

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