The day after six members of the Richmond City Council pledged to take down the Confederate statues towering above Monument Avenue, the remaining three council members voiced their support, as well.
Among them was Councilwoman Kimberly Gray, a candidate for mayor who represents much of Monument Avenue. In the past, Gray has opposed local control of the statues and advocated for adding new ones to the famous street, not taking existing ones down. She outlined the conditions of her about-face in a statement Friday morning.
“I will support removal of these statues as long as a thoughtful and deliberative process is instituted to evaluate the expenses of removal and no funds are spent that would take resources away from critical public education and infrastructure needs,” Gray stated.
Gray’s two closest allies on the council — Kristen Larson, 4th District, and Reva Trammell, 8th District — followed suit shortly after.
Eight days of unrest that have changed Richmond had spurred yet another surprise: a united front of city leaders on a long-divisive issue that many have been loath to act on — until now.
The consensus all but guarantees the four locally controlled Confederate statues on Monument Avenue will come down, along with that depicting Gen. Robert E. Lee; Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday ordered the state-owned Lee statue removed “as soon as possible.”
Black Lives Matters demonstrations have gripped the city over the past week, following the death of George Floyd, 46, while in Minneapolis police custody on Memorial Day.
As residents marched against racism and police brutality, they also set their sights on Richmond’s Confederate monuments, the most prominent in the country in what is the former capital of the Confederacy.
Protesters spray painted the pedestals of each of the statues, which were added to Monument Avenue between 1890 and 1929. Declaring the monuments symbols of white supremacy, protesters have called on city leaders to take them down.
The pressure prompted Mayor Levar Stoney to take a more aggressive approach on the statues than his administration had previously charted.
In 2018, a panel said the city should remove the Jefferson Davis statue and add context to those honoring Gens. J.E.B. Stuart and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Confederate naval commander Matthew Fontaine Maury.
Stoney shelved its recommendations this week when he joined Councilman Michael Jones to announce an ordinance authorizing removal of all the statues.
The demonstrations produced more dramatic shifts.
Trammell, the 8th District councilwoman who represents a majority African American district, voted against three separate requests for control of the statues. In a text message, she explained what changed her stance.
“While many citizens support putting the Confederate statues in a museum, some oppose it,” Trammell stated. “After giving this much thought, I will vote to take them down. I feel it is the right thing to do.”
“I never thought I would live to see the kind of damage and destruction that has been inflicted on Richmond, and we need to end this now.”
Looters, vandals and arsonists damaged businesses and vehicles last weekend, prompting much of downtown to board up this week. Most of the property damage occurred on the first two nights of demonstrations. The vast majority of protesters have refrained from such tactics, and, instead, have gathered peacefully.
Larson, the 4th District representative, also opposed past requests for control. She said Thursday that she was still fielding input on the matter. Before noon Friday, she issued a statement backing removal.
“Through this action, I believe we can find ways to bring Richmond together and heal from the trauma and history of racial inequality and divide,” Larson stated. “I look forward to working with my colleagues to find a way to finance this removal in a way that it will least impacts [sic] city services to our residents.”
To remove the statues, the council must follow a process outlined in a state law that takes effect July 1. It requires localities to hold a public hearing and publish notice of their intent in a newspaper. It also permits them to conduct a nonbinding referendum regarding the monuments.
If the City Council votes for removal, it must have a 30-day waiting period in which it offers to relocate the monuments to any museum, historical society or military battlefield, among others.
The council meets electronically Monday. It is not scheduled to take action on the monuments at that meeting.
The past few days have been a blur — in more ways than one — for Brian Palmer, a photojournalist who was tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed last Sunday evening while covering a protest march on Broad Street.
He’s been moving around as part of that coverage — the Robert E. Lee statue, City Hall, among other places — but when he called on Wednesday, he was standing in the quiet of East End Cemetery. He has been involved for several years in the restoration of the historic African American cemetery that had been long-neglected until volunteers rescued it.
“I am taking a break,” Palmer said, “and gathering my soul.”
If serenity has a sound, I could hear it in the background.
Palmer, 56, brings not only a keen eye and international credentials to the task at hand of covering this historic moment, but also an uncommon perspective as the great-grandson of slaves.
A freelance journalist, he will be a visiting assistant professor in journalism at the University of Richmond in the fall. Palmer was a CNN correspondent and prior to that Beijing bureau chief for U.S. News & World Report. As a freelancer, he has provided words or pictures for The New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine, among many others.
He was embedded three times with U.S. Marines in Iraq, producing magazine pieces, a documentary titled “Full Disclosure” and photo exhibitions. He won a Peabody Award in 2019 for a “Reveal” radio story, “Monumental Lies.”
He moved to Virginia in 2013 — first Hampton, then Richmond — while he and his wife, Erin, worked on a documentary about a freedmen’s community in York County that his great-grandparents had helped establish.
The residents of the community were uprooted in the 1940s to make way for a top-secret military installation — Camp Peary Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity, a covert CIA training facility. His great-grandfather is buried there.
We met last year when I wrote about an exhibition at UR, “Growing Up in Civil Rights Richmond: A Community Remembers.” Palmer provided the portraits of those interviewed for the project.
Over the course of his career, he’s covered a lot of civil unrest, which brings us back to the protests in Richmond, sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police who were arresting him in Minneapolis.
Palmer covered his first demonstration more than 30 years ago in his native New York City, which wanted to clear squatters from Tompkins Square Park. Protesters clashed with police, and the ensuing violence led to charges of police brutality as the situation escalated into what Palmer recalled as something of a “class war.”
His experience in New York came to mind after what he witnessed — and felt — on Sunday evening as he walked near the front of a group of protesters, photographing the scene as they marched along Broad Street. He heard no warning from police before the first tear gas was fired, scattering the crowd, which he said had been peaceful. Then he was hit with pepper spray.
“I saw no violence, some graffiti but no violence, until the first tear gas canister,” he said. “I didn’t even see any violence from the demonstrators at that point. I just saw people run, and then I couldn’t see much because I had pepper spray in my face.”
He staggered to what he thinks was a GRTC bus stop, where he found Roberto Roldan, a reporter for Virginia Public Media (who a few minutes later also would be hit with pepper spray and tackled by a police officer). Roldan said he splashed a concoction of milk and water on Palmer’s face to lessen the sting.
“Worked, too,” Palmer said.
He added, “It really is kind of crazy. It’s like I’m going back to the beginning of my career getting clubbed in the head by the NYPD.”
Palmer sensed a lack of “tactical discipline” on the part of police, same as he saw, he says, in Tompkins Square Park in New York all those years ago.
“I’m a grandson of a police officer,” he said. “I know what professional behavior is, not because I’m a grandson but because I’ve dealt with police for over 30 years. I know when dudes are itching to bust heads and when they’re being law enforcement professionals.”
Decrying a lack of leadership — “I have no doubt they’re trying to defuse the situation, no doubt,” he says, “but it appears to be quite reactive” — Palmer said he is simply a journalist and a citizen “who doesn’t want to see people hurt, who does not want to see a repeat of what happened to George Floyd because individual officers are expressing their biases with their pepper spray canisters and whatever else they have at their disposal.”
Police seem to have backed off the use of tear gas since Monday evening when they fired it at demonstrators gathered at the Lee monument. Police Chief William Smith apologized a couple of hours later, calling the action “unwarranted.”
Palmer said he has spent “hours and hours” with the protesters, and he has come away impressed with their diversity and their discipline and the way they relate to one another.
He told me about two in particular: a young African American man, directing demonstrators, while telling them, “We’re not seeking confrontation”; and a young white woman who climbed atop the Lee monument, saying, “We need to put our white bodies in between police and our African American sisters and brothers.”
“I can smile for a few seconds and get emotional in the right way,” he said, “because that’s the energy I’m hoping will carry us through November 2020 to a different world.”
(Since we talked Wednesday morning, before the news broke about the impending removal of the Confederate monuments on Monument Avenue, I called him back to see what he thought of that development. He described the removal of the statues as a “powerful symbolic move” but wonders if there is a “long-term plan for genuine racial justice” that includes issues such as education and police reform.
“My concern now is that we tear down Robert E. Lee and think we’ve solved something,” he said.)
As we talked during our first conversation, Palmer had been walking around East End Cemetery, which straddles the line between Richmond and Henrico County, with his dog, Teacake. He had arrived, he said, at the grave of William I. Johnson Sr., whose life paralleled that of Palmer’s great-grandfather, Mat Palmer.
Johnson was born in 1840 and died in 1938. He had been enslaved in Goochland County, just like Mat Palmer. During the Civil War, Johnson walked away from enslavement and a Confederate military camp and enlisted in a segregated regiment of the U.S. Army.
“He served for his own freedom,” Palmer said, “as my own great-grandfather did.”
Virginia moved into the second phase of the state’s COVID-19 reopening on Friday, with the exception of Richmond and Northern Virginia.
In Phase Two, folks in the region’s suburbs — including Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties — can now gather in social groups of 50, up from 10, though the guidelines call for social distancing of 6 feet to continue.
Restaurants and bars can open their businesses for indoor dining at 50% capacity, while gyms may open at 30% capacity. The state will allow some recreation and entertainment venues to reopen, such as pools, museums and outdoor concert venues; indoor concert venues and overnight camps will remain closed.
Guidelines for religious, retail and personal grooming establishments remain the same: Churches and retail can open at 50% capacity; salons and other personal care businesses must operate by appointment.
But with temperatures in the 90s on Saturday, expanded pool access interests many.
Under Phase Two, swimming pools may expand operations to both indoor and outdoor exercise, diving, and swim instruction. But they can’t open their main pools for public wading or swimming.
“We were a little disappointed,” said Joyce Steed, general manager of ACAC in Midlothian.
ACAC has a wading pool and a large outdoor play area with water slides and spray gardens that won’t be open under Phase Two.
“I don’t know when we’ll be able to open the wading pool,” Steed said. “It’s really sad. We are eager for our kids to be able to enjoy the water again.”
Under Phase Two, ACAC will be able to open its indoor pool for lap swimming and exercise, although not the hot tub. It will open the indoor pool on Monday.
In Phase Two, up to three people will be able to swim in a lane. For example, a parent could swim with a small child or as a family in one lane, which will allow smaller children to enjoy the water. In Phase One, only one person was allowed per lane.
“Kids can get in the water, but it’s very limited. It’s just for lap swim or instruction,” Steed said.
ACAC will also be able to offer water exercise classes under Phase Two.
But for little kids who don’t know how to swim yet, Steed isn’t sure how they’ll be able to offer classes under the current restrictions. Older swimmers who already know how to swim will be able to take lessons.
At the Midlothian Athletic Club, owner Melissa O’Toole said Phase Two “is a game changer for us,” primarily because it means members can enter the facility at 30% occupancy.
“It’s been really difficult for our members who want to use our equipment inside — like our weightlifting areas or our racquetball courts,” she said.
The MAC bills on the 15th of the month, and O’Toole said that from a financial perspective, the timing couldn’t have been better.
“It’s literally the difference between serious financial distress and salvage,” she said.
The MAC has a large outdoor water park with multiple water slides, a splash pad, buckets and sprinklers that it won’t be able to open under Phase Two.
“We’d really hoped we’d be able to open that, but we’re not allowed to,” O’Toole said.
The indoor pool, however, will be open for lap swimming and exercise classes.
“Our lanes have been very busy with lots of families and kids signing up for swimming,” she said.
But other pools in Richmond — such as the one at the Southampton Recreation Association — are still in Phase One.
“We’ve had quite a few people happy that we’re open in some form but frustrated we’re not open more,” said Jeff Price, president of the Southampton pool’s board.
At the pool, only children age 10 and over who can swim the length of the lane are allowed to lap swim — which means that younger children haven’t been able to use the pool. Likewise, parents with babies haven’t been able to swim with their children yet under Phase One.
During a regular pool season, the Southampton pool serves the Stratford Hills and Oxford neighborhoods and “really caters to [families with young kids]. They’re the body and soul of our pool. They’re the ones that are really disappointed. Adults can use the pool, but their kid cannot,” Price said.
Financially, the Southampton pool is taking a hit. Price said 60% of the membership signed up for this year’s season. He said families may join as late as early July but, meanwhile, the facility is operating at 40% below a normal season.
“We have money saved. I think we’re in good enough financial shape to be fine through the year,” Price said. “Our membership has grown tremendously, that’s the only thing that saved us. But we’ll definitely take a hit.”
Swim team is a big part of many families’ summers and that’s changed due to the coronavirus.
The Richmond Metropolitan Aquatics League has decided to offer virtual meets this year, rather than in-person meets that can draw hundreds of kids. Last year, RMAL served roughly 1,400 swimmers. This year, the group is planning for 600 to 700 swimmers to participate in the virtual meets.
With virtual meets, swimmers use their home team’s pool, socially distanced, with three swimmers in the pool, three timers and minimum officiating.
“Each pool has different protocols and measures. We wanted decisions to be made locally so that families and communities can decide what they’re comfortable with,” said Scott Soukup, president of RMAL.
“This is a summer for fun swimming. We’re not going to worry about making records,” Soukup said.
Richmond city pools are not currently open. The city’s pools typically open for the season at the end of the school year in mid-June. A decision regarding opening is still being made, according to Parks, Recreation & Community Facilities.
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Protesters who have marched for eight nights in Richmond already have seen officials pledge police reform, racial equity training for workers and the removal of Confederate monuments, but they keep showing up.
On Friday, they showed up to Forest Hill Avenue, to Monroe Park, to Monument Avenue and to the Richmond City Justice Center , where Childish Gambino’s “This is America” pulsed through the street as people behind bars waved to the crowd.
They want to ensure promises are kept.
Isaac Hayes and Alana Wilson, an interracial couple, said they showed up to march in South Side for their future son or daughter, who will inevitably encounter systemic racism.
“We would be hypocrites to not come,” Wilson said. “I have to do this for my students, too, if I believe in a better future for them.”
As the couple rounded Forest Hill Park, hundreds gathered in Monroe Park to discuss slashing law enforcement budgets and investing the money in black and brown communities disproportionately affected by police violence.
In 29,997 police reports documented by Richmond officers in 2017 and 2018, nearly two-thirds involved black people, according to data obtained from the Richmond Police Department by the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project, an organization that advocates for greater police oversight.
William Smith, then the interim police chief, told The Times-Dispatch in 2019 that the numbers were more due to inconsistencies in report-taking than biases among his officers.
On Friday, marchers also demanded the firing of police involved in Monday’s tear gassing, where canisters were launched into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators before curfew, and for charges against the more than 200 people involved in last week’s uprisings be dropped. They also called for an independent citizen review board with subpoena power.
Jenni Nurse, who has joined the protests on three different nights, said she’s pushing not just for police accountability, but to end the “racist ways in which white supremacy seeps into all parts of our system.”
“Racism is structural,” Nurse said. “Change has to be systematic.”
Mayor Levar Stoney outlined a few of these steps Friday, promising to implement years of organizers’ demands, such as the Marcus Alert, in honor of Marcus-David Peters, a high school biology teacher who was killed by a Richmond police officer ; establishing a review board to hold police accountable that’s independent from police internal affairs; taking down Confederate monuments; and racial equity training for city workers.
The alert will mandate that mental health professionals be the first responders in a suspected or confirmed mental health crisis. In those situations, police would serve as their backup.
“Let me reiterate: these are FIRST STEPS,” he posted to Twitter. “We have 400 years of injustice to tackle, and I look forward to working with the community to build on this momentum.”
Naomi Isaac, an activist with the Virginia Student Power Network who helped organize Friday’s march from Monroe Park to the Richmond City Justice Center , said they're hesitant to trust.
“I’m not going to accept any answers ... less than what is being demanded,” Isaac said. “All the resources and money and investments that we spend on trying to fix these intentionally broken systems that rests on foundations informed by white supremacy and capitalism is money that could be better distributed.”
Isaac said the demands aren’t out-of-reach, referencing how Los Angeles mayor announced a $150 million cut from its police department Thursday, according to the L.A. Times.
Waves of protests unleashed by the outrage from George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis have spurred change that government officials for years told organizers was not attainable, Isaac added.
In Colorado, a bill was introduced June 4 requiring law enforcement agencies to fire officers and revoke their certification who are guilty of using force.
Michigan police officers are now required to undergo violence de-escalation training and mental health and racial bias screenings on Thursday.
Princess Blanding, the sister of Peters, said in a Thursday night webinar on police accountability that these are demands organizers have called for for years, and that relationship building must be at the forefront, especially in the aftermath of violent killings at the hands of police, such as Breonna Taylor.
“History has shown, the recent attack on protesters has shown that trust has been broken,” Blanding said. “At least here in the city of Richmond.”
On Friday, a sea of purple balloons bobbed atop people’s heads in honor of Taylor, a woman who was killed in her home by Louisville Police serving a no-knock warrant at the wrong address. Officers have yet to face criminal charges.
In the past week, protesters in Richmond and around the country have shouted the name of the EMT.
On the street median in front of Lee Friday, nearly a hundred people chanted guttural prayers of healing, singing beside children, and various church congregations — all celebrating lives lived but lost to police violence.
In the distance, at the foot of the Lee Monument, was a flowered shrine for Taylor, happy birthday signs scattered.
She would’ve been 27 years old.
An attorney who attended a protest at the foot of the Robert E. Lee monument Monday evening is suing a handful of Richmond police officers for tear-gassing kneeling demonstrators more than 20 minutes ahead of an 8 p.m. curfew.
The plaintiff, Jonathan Arthur, is a lawyer with the firm Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, which handles personal injury and civil rights claims and filed the suit Thursday on Arthur’s behalf.
The civil lawsuit seeks $50,000 for violating Arthur’s First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights, as well as excessive force, assault and battery. Ten unidentified officers, listed at John Doe 1-X, were named as the defendants, as opposed to the city or Richmond Police Department.
Two hours after the incident, after previously defending the action twice, the police department apologized on Twitter and promised discipline for officers caught on video deploying the tear gas and aggressively pursuing and spraying people with OC spray, commonly referred to as pepper spray.
Mayor Levar Stoney condemned the action, saying that “it should not have happened” and that the officers would be punished.
The suit called the attack “unprovoked, and without warning.” It described the police department’s “skirmish line” formation as an “ambush tactic used in military conflicts around the world.”
Officers in the skirmish line fired tear gas at those assembled, who “were kneeling with their hands in the air chanting ‘hands-up don’t shoot,’ to undeniably and visibly demonstrate the peaceful nature of the current protest and to show that they were no threat to the officers,” the suit reads.
“At no time prior to the ambush was the assembly at the General Robert E. Lee memorial violent. At no time prior to the ambush did the assembly at the General Robert E. Lee memorial commit any property destruction. At no time prior to the ambush was the assembly at the Robert E. Lee memorial attempting to damage, deface or destroy it,” it continues.
Arthur was gassed twice during the incident, the suit alleges. The gas was fired at the assembly, where he was near the front, right flank, and again when protesters retreated.
The Constitution protects free speech and the right to assemble in the First Amendment, and against unreasonable force from police in the Fourth Amendment. The suit alleges that officers were “malicious, reckless, callous and deliberately indifferent” to these rights.
Andrew T. Bodoh, one of the firm’s attorneys, said in an email that the suit is directed at the officers, rather than the city or police department, because “constitutional claims can only be against the municipality (e.g., the City or it agency, the Police Department) if the action was part of a policy, pattern, or practice of the municipality, rather than the actions of individual officers or employees.”
Further investigation is warranted before the firm could bring a claim against the city or department, he said.
Haskell C. Brown III, the interim city attorney, said he has not been served with the lawsuit. His predecessor, Allen Jackson, was actually listed on the suit to be served, since the officers were not known. Brown said he couldn’t comment on pending or threatened litigation.
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