UPDATED at 12:30 a.m.:
A Richmond police SUV drove up on a curb, through a crowd, striking multiple people who were blocking the vehicle’s path during a protest at the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue on Saturday night.
Two Richmond Times-Dispatch reporters witnessed the incident, which occurred at about 9:30 p.m. on the 16th straight night of protests in the city sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
No one appeared to be seriously injured.
Protesters were blocking the entrance to the traffic circle around the Lee monument. A video shows the vehicle back up, then drive onto the sidewalk. As it returned to the road, people screamed as it collided with protesters. The crowd converged on two other police cars and forced them back.
The Richmond Police Department said in a statement released just after midnight that it is investigating the incident on N. Allen Avenue. According to the statement, Richmond police are investigating a possible assault on an officer who was inside the SUV, as well as "reports on social media that a person in the crowd may have been struck by the vehicle."
Another video posted on Twitter shows a crowd around the driver's side of the police vehicle as it re-enters the road from the sidewalk.
Police asked anyone with information to call the department's non-emergency line at 804-646-5100.
A woman who was hit by the SUV said she was uninjured but shook up. She said she ran to block the car from hitting pedestrians up on the curb. “The next thing I know, he hit me. It’s unreal.”
Sierra Shoosmith witnessed the incident. She said she saw the officer hop the curb and hit a man and keep going.
“I don’t know if he was hurt. I don’t know where he is. I don’t know if he has broken bones,” Shoosmith said. “He just hit him and continued on his way. .... I fell over because other people were falling.”
“They’re supposed to protect us. I don’t know, but my whole world view just got upside down in that moment.”
Just before the incident, a crowd was gathered in the circle listening to loud music.
Saturday began peacefully, with a large and diverse crowd of people rallying and marching in Richmond in an organized protest calling for racial justice and law enforcement reform.
Virginia’s 5,000 Man March was a peaceful demonstration, with thousands of people marching, chanting and carrying placards along Monument Avenue and Broad Street.
Vicki Whitties brought her grandchildren Jaylin, 7, and Meredith, 5, from Petersburg to Richmond to attend the march. Whitties said she told her grandchildren about participating in the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s.
“They said, grandma, we have got to go to the march in Richmond,” Whitties said. No bus was available on Saturday, so they took a taxi, she said.
“George Floyd should not have been treated like that,” Jaylin said. “Everybody should be treated equally.”
“I’m just hoping for change,” Whitties said. “We need change. I think everybody has an understanding now. Sometimes you have to see it to feel it. I think that video [of George Floyd’s killing] did it.”
In the circle around the Robert E. Lee monument, where the march began, and down Monument Avenue, vendors sold shirts, buttons and other merchandise. Food trucks were available, selling meals to marchers.
Organizer Triston Harris, who organized the 1,000 Man March in Richmond four year ago in response to the death of Eric Garner, included vendors and performers at the event because “it just showed positivity, and that was the message that we were trying to send. Love lives here.”
The vendors that participated were asked to donate to cover the march’s expenses, such as the sound system and walkie-talkies that volunteers used. A GoFundMe Harris set up a few days before the march, which made $2,650, also helped cover those costs. Any surplus funds raised will go to the Jefferson Davis Neighborhood Civic Association.
Some Richmond organizers have been critical of the 5,000 Man March, due to the cooperation of the Richmond Police Department, calling it harmful to organize alongside police. Some said they see it as an attempt to take over a movement that’s been progressing. The RPD supplied dump trucks to block off the march’s route, and officers on motorcycles and in police cars led the protesters.
“The police are the very reason we’re out there,” said Jasmine Leeward of Richmond For All. “Our goals are not aligned; they’re completely opposite. We’re calling for a reordering of our priority from investing in harmful policing to reinvesting into systems of care, like our school system.”
The backlash represents a rift among prominent black voices in Richmond. Some find it necessary to collaborate with the police in order to gain true police reform. However, Leeward said the true focus should be the leaders like the Richmond City Council and Mayor Levar Stoney.
“We need to address the people who have the power to make changes, and oftentimes, that is not the police,” she said. “The police have acted outside of the orders they’ve been given, like tear gassing people before curfew. We have a unique opportunity here in Richmond to cut the spending on police that consume ever larger sums of the city budget.”
The hope for organizers is that money that goes to the police department would be reallocated in schools, infrastructure and community safety that does not rely on the police.
The vision of not relying on the police for safety seemed too far gone just four years ago, in the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement. In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed by MPD officer Derek Chauvin, the city council has voiced its support to dismantle the police department.
Harris denies that police were involved in organizing the march, explaining that, when it became evident that the event would be heavily attended, police insisted on blocking the roadways to protect the marchers. Additionally, Harris said he asked the police to stay outside the circle surrounding the Lee monument — a request that he said was honored.
Following the march, numerous speakers addressed the crowd from atop the Lee monument’s base.
Among them was Tavares Floyd, a cousin of George Floyd, whose death sparked the recent wave of protests around the country.
“On behalf of my family, I thank you very much for joining the movement,” Floyd told the crowd gathered at the monument.
“The grief is real and the grief is profound,” Floyd said, repeating his cousin’s dying pleas: “I can’t breathe.”
“I refuse to let George die in vain, and today I am asking you to give us a new breath, a breath that results in solutions, a breath that brings about new change,” he said, calling for law enforcement reform.
After the march concluded, midafternoon saw another peaceful gathering at the base of the Lee monument. People brought their dogs and sat beneath the shaded medians of Monument Avenue, while children played with inflated balloon swords.
The communal atmosphere was a purposeful transformation of the space, said Ida Allen of the Richmond Action Alliance.
“[The monument] has come from a place where nearly no one came, to a place of conversation, love and unity of all walks of life,” Allen said. “It’s been amazing.”
Allen started RAA along with Ashley Cottingham after being involved in the protests that ended with crowds being tear gassed. She said she was motivated to remain present in the movement but wanted a less-intimidating and potentially less-dangerous alternative to the marches.
The organization started with handing out free waters but has grown with local support, and now provides food, medical supplies and crafting materials in support of the crowds.
RAA’s booth Saturday was set to help people register to vote, and Allen said that, along with education and vocational support, the organization’s long-term plans include engaging with and challenging local government.
“We want to make sure we’re in conversations and we’re in the rooms where decisions are being made,” Allen said.
But the peaceful tone of the gathering was not without criticism. One man carried a sign saying: “This isn’t a music festival, it’s a protest.”
RVA 26, a group that was born in jail following the mass arrests on May 31, arranged for artists, poets and performers to demonstrate at the foot of the monument.
Marwa Eltaib, one of the group’s organizers, said the group planned a “different kind of protest,” one that let people emote creatively.
“All of us have been out here every day,” she said. “We are singing. We are rapping. But we are protesting.”
Many among the group, Eltaib said, were “unjustly” arrested by police on May 31 — the third of what is now the 16th straight day of protests, and the first night of a state-issued curfew that saw 233 arrests.
Eltaib said they’re hoping to gain some attention to the arrests in hopes of getting the charges dropped, and potentially file a lawsuit that might change the conditions for those who are detained in the future.
As one of the performers rapped in the background, a group of 13 black men dressed in suits marched arm in arm chanting, “No justice, no peace.”
They marched eight laps around the Robert E. Lee statue — for the eight gunshots that passed through Breonna Taylor, a black EMT who was shot to death by police in her home in Louisville, Ky., in March, and for the eight minutes that a cop in Minneapolis knelt on George Floyd’s neck. Much of the crowd joins the march at the conclusion of one rapper’s performance.
“Show them the beauty of black people,” said the man at the center of the line. “More than the violence, more than a riot, we are a protest.”
Earlier in the day, hundreds of people gathered at the Maggie Lena Walker Memorial Plaza in Richmond for a youth rally.
The rally was organized by Richmond-area students Makayla White, 13, and Stephanie Younger, 18. Many of the speakers were teenagers.
“We put this rally together because we wanted to voice our opinions and hear some opinions from the youth,” White said.
She called the students of 2020 a generation that has been changed by the realities of the coronavirus pandemic and now the stark images of black Americans dying at the hands of police.
“Richmond and America, we are here today because we care,” she said, calling for education reforms to put more African American history into the school curriculum.
Monuments. Streets. Schools.
Confederate iconography remains throughout Virginia and in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy. Virginia’s 244 Confederate symbols are the most in the nation, according to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
As protesters continue to rally against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death, they’re also calling for racial justice. Part of that message is for Confederate monuments to come down.
Elected officials have pledged to take down some of the monuments, but last week saw many toppled or damaged. A pair of Confederate monuments in Richmond have been torn down. In Portsmouth, protesters beheaded four statues.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced June 4 that he was directing the Department of General Services to remove the Robert E. Lee statue from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, the most well-known Confederate tribute in the state. The statue’s removal is now in a court fight, with a Richmond judge last week granting a temporary injunction to keep it in place. The injunction lifts Thursday.
The other monuments in Richmond will soon be in the city’s control, with a new state law allowing local governing bodies to take down the memorials. Every member of the Richmond City Council has voiced support for their removal.
Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney have asked people to consider the risk of injury and allow the monuments to be removed professionally.
There are nearly 20 tributes to the Confederacy in Richmond, according to 2019 data from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Across Virginia, there are more than 200.
What to do with those tributes has been a matter of debate for decades.
Proponents of removal say the monuments and other symbols were erected, as Northam’s legal counsel Rita Davis said last week, to “fit a narrative that minimized a devastating evil perpetrated on African Americans during the darkest part of our past.” Opponents, however, say taking them down erases history.
“The Governor’s decision to remove the Lee statue from Monument Avenue is not in the best interests of Virginia,” Senate Republican Caucus leaders said when Northam made his announcement. “Attempts to eradicate instead of contextualizing history invariably fail.”
The symbols are facing a reckoning as protesters continue to hold rallies around them, call for removal and in some cases pull them down.
“It’s time. These statues are not just reminders of a painful past, but symbols of a painful present and even harbingers of a difficult future,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said in a statement. “The Governor’s action answers a question: Why glorify those who fought to keep people in bondage because of the color of their skin?”
Kaine supports changing the name of Confederate Avenue, the Richmond street where he lives.
Here are more statistics from the SPLC that show the Confederacy’s prominence in Virginia:
Nearly half of the Confederate tributes are monuments. Robert E. Lee’s five monuments are the most of an individual leader, followed by Stonewall Jackson (4) and Jefferson Davis (3). The Southern Poverty Law Center data was last updated in July 2019 and does not include the monuments recently torn down, including the Davis statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond.
Robert E. Lee, who was born in Stratford and died in Lexington, is the most honored Confederate leader in Virginia. He’s followed by 22 public symbols for Stonewall Jackson, another Virginian, and 19 for J.E.B. Stuart. Ninety-two Confederate symbols have no specific honoree.
Fourteen schools in the state remain named for Confederate leaders. Richmond recently renamed J.E.B. Stuart Elementary for former President Barack Obama, and the city school system has pledged action on others, including Binford Middle and John B. Cary Elementary. Other school districts have decided to keep Confederate school names and mascots, most notably Hanover County Public Schools, which is facing an appeal in a lawsuit over the names of Lee-Davis High and Stonewall Jackson Middle.
Virginia has removed 18 Confederate symbols, including renaming 10 schools, since the 2015 shooting in which a white man killed nine black people during a Bible study in Charleston, S.C. Across the country, 123 symbols have been removed.
Military installations named for Confederate leaders have gained renewed attention after President Donald Trump said his administration would not consider renaming them. Virginia, where much of the Civil War was fought, has three such stations.
Fort A.P. Hill in Bowling Green honors the Confederate lieutenant general, while Fort Lee near Petersburg is named for Robert E. Lee. The third, Fort Pickett in Nottoway County, pays tribute to Confederate Gen. George Pickett.
Virginia has one holiday, Lee-Jackson Day, that honors the Confederacy. Democrats in the General Assembly this year decided to remove the holiday, effective July 1, in favor of making Election Day a state holiday. Virginia had marked a state holiday for Lee’s birthday since 1889. It added Stonewall Jackson to the Lee holiday in the early 1900s. After more than a dozen years of it being merged with Martin Luther King Jr. Day — it was called Lee-Jackson-King Day — the state split them into separate holidays in 2000.
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Citing urgent public demands for reform, Virginia lawmakers are vowing swift action to address systemic racism and lack of oversight in policing.
The topic will be at the center of a special session Gov. Ralph Northam plans to convene in August, during which lawmakers will also discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the state’s budget.
Protests have swelled across Virginia, with marchers demanding an end to police brutality and racial injustice following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. They have called for sweeping criminal justice reform, urging lawmakers at all levels of government to act swiftly.
Democrats in Virginia’s congressional delegation have backed the Justice in Policing Act, a federal bill that would ban the use of chokeholds by police and create a national database of use-of-force incidents, among other things.
Locally, elected leaders are discussing civilian review boards and an alert system that would mandate that mental health professionals be the first responders in a suspected or confirmed mental health crisis rather than law enforcement.
‘An urgency to provide relief’
Much of law enforcement comes down to policy at the state level, where Democrats face renewed urgency to deliver on campaign promises of criminal justice reform.
As lawmakers eye action during the special session, they are looking at banning chokeholds, boosting police training in excessive use of force, mandating citizen review boards to boost oversight of police misconduct, expanding avenues to fire or punish misbehaving officers, and rethinking the presence of police in schools.
“Black lives have always mattered to many of us, and we have been trying to deal with this issue for many, many, many years,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton. “It’s unfortunate that it has taken these high-profile murders to get even more people energized to want to take some policy initiative.”
Lawmakers in the House and Senate said addressing the issue during the special session, in what was supposed to be solely for adjusting the post-coronavirus budget, is a necessity.
“There is an urgency to provide relief from what many have seen as a racist criminal justice system and its application,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria.
Herring echoed comments from House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, who said Thursday that the special session would include action on police reform.
Republican leaders in both chambers have rejected calls from protesters to “defund” and “abolish” police departments.
Still, the Senate GOP caucus appeared receptive to some reforms.
“Republican senators will be promoting legislation to improve training, increase minority recruitment and hiring, ban the type of lethal restraint that cost Mr. Floyd his life,” caucus spokesman Jeff Ryer said.
He added that the caucus will also promote legislation to protect police officers who are assaulted during a state of emergency, and an amendment to the state’s new collective bargaining law to diminish a union’s power to protect officers “who don’t meet our high standards.”
Asked about the caucus’s position on some of the reforms floating from their Democratic counterpart, House GOP spokesman Garren Shipley said: “The caucus is still discussing the best way to move forward.”
Defunding or abolishing the country’s law enforcement system has been a key battle cry of protests across the nation, including here in Richmond.
Gov. Ralph Northam has said he supports addressing law enforcement reform during the session but that he does not support dismantling or defunding police departments. Northam said he hoped that funding already directed to law enforcement instead could be reprioritized toward areas of need, like more body-worn police cameras and community outreach.
“We need to talk about reform and the priorities of how we spend the funding,” Northam told reporters on Thursday. Notably, aside from increasing the use of body-worn cameras, Northam did not offer any specific policy suggestions to boost accountability within law enforcement, or punishment of officers found to have engaged in wrongdoing.
Asked about calls for defunding law enforcement, Herring said: “It’s time to look at the allocation of resources absolutely. We, of course, need to make sure communities are safe, but at the same time, the way we’ve been doing it has been backwards.” She specifically pointed to the incarceration of people with drug addictions and mental illnesses.
“People want to see us right that,” she said.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said there is a need to systemically reframe public safety to address the struggles that lead to crime.
“The whole ‘defund the police’ conversation is ... do we need to be spending our money addressing the root causes and underlying problems that manifest in crime?” she said. “Because we haven’t been doing that. There’s an egregious lack of trust in the system to keep people safe.”
Upcoming policy proposals
Senate Democrats have tapped a subgroup of their caucus to dive into the issue and make recommendations for the special session and the normal session that starts in January. Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, the head of the group, said it has already received more than 60 ideas from members.
“The Floyd incident has caused a lot more people to look a lot more carefully at policing reforms,” Surovell said. “The pressure out there is significant, and I don’t think people are going to have a lot of patience with people continuing to say no or wait or let’s just study some things for another couple years.”
In the House, Majority Leader Herring said she is leading similar conversations about what reforms can be tackled during the August special session, and what may need to wait until January 2021.
Herring said she plans to introduce legislation mandating the creation of citizen review panels to examine excessive use of force by police. Herring said localities have the ability to establish those, but not all have plans to do so.
“Police officers should not be investigating themselves and their colleagues. That should be done by an outside source,” Herring said.
Two lawyers in the House, Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, and Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, want the legislature to reform sovereign immunity, which makes localities legally immune from an employee’s potential wrongdoing.
They said they would introduce legislation that would hold employers, including police departments and cities, responsible for “any harm caused by their employees when their actions arise out of an activity that was within the employee’s scope of employment, ordinary course of business or incident to their employment,” among other things.
“We want victims to be able to recover in the event of unnecessary uses of force, and we believe that if that option is there, it would certainly deter excessive uses of force in the line of duty when they’re not needed,” said Jones, who is exploring a run for attorney general in 2021.
“The most important thing is that we give victims or victims’ families the opportunity to recover monetarily when traditionally they have not been able to do so.”
Bourne and Jones also want proposals that would require more training in de-escalation and use of force.
Herring said House Democrats are also planning to introduce legislation allowing for the decertification of police officers who have been found to lack integrity, including by repeated instances of lying, as outlined in the 1963 Supreme Court decision in Brady v. Maryland.
In the upper chamber, Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, said she would like to see the legislature ban the use of chokeholds across the state and establish community review boards, which many Richmond-area activists have called for.
Police in schools
Also in Hashmi’s legislative proposals is the cancellation of contracts for police to be stationed in schools. While Virginia does not require school resource officers in schools, more than half of the state’s public schools have a law enforcement presence.
At least one school system, Charlottesville Public Schools, has already announced that it’s doing away with school resource officers, following in the footsteps of education leaders in Minneapolis. The Richmond School Board is set to address the topic Monday.
“They are being called upon to discipline children. Disciplining children is not the same as responding as law enforcement officials to adult situations and crisis,” Hashmi said. “So when you have a child in crisis with a mental or emotional behavioral problem, the response ought not to be to bring in police, but to offer that child opportunities to address their situation through mental health counseling, through genuine counseling services.”
“We shouldn’t be asking police to play that role when we have other folks who should and ought to be in schools to handle those situations.”
Students of color in Virginia are disproportionately suspended, expelled and referred to police. The legislature has taken steps in recent years to address the issue, including measures that bar school divisions from suspending young students for more than three days, and another that cut the maximum length of a long-term suspension to 45 school days.
A 2015 investigation from the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit newsroom, found that Virginia is the worst state in the U.S. when it comes to what advocates call the school-to-prison pipeline. About 16 of every 1,000 students are referred to police and courts, and across the state, Virginia schools referred students to law enforcement nearly three times as often as the national rate.
The change would be a dramatic shift from what the legislature did in the wake of the 2018 Parkland, Fla., school shooting, when a special committee suggested hiring more school resource officers.
“I’ve been working on this issue for years, and I’ve never felt the sort of energy to take a look at that program as I have in the last few weeks,” said Amy Woolard, a policy expert with the Legal Aid Justice Center.
“When there is a school shooting, the state policy response has been to direct funding to SROs. At some point, we need to not have them in the building. So far in Virginia, there just hasn’t been the appetite to remove them entirely. There are people on both sides of the aisle that are comfortable with having police in our schools.”
Bills set to take effect July 1 revise the training standards for school resource officers, require school systems to review their agreements with law enforcement and mandate that the Department of Criminal Justice Services collect and publish data on incidents involving students and SROs.
A filing date for legislation for the special session has not been set, but lawmakers know there’s pressure to act.
“We have waited too long to address these issues,” Bourne said. “We’ve seen what happens by inaction, and we need to act now.”
State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said in an interview Friday that the state plans to meet its goal of deploying 1,270 contact tracers by the end of June, as he acknowledged “hiccups” in the process have led to the hiring of just 316 tracers statewide.
Those tracers, most of whom the state has brought on as independent contractors, are working alongside 656 government health employees who have been reassigned from their jobs to help with the COVID-19 crisis.
Some of those workers include flu experts, nutritionists for low-income women and children, vaccine specialists, data analysts, sexually transmitted disease tracers, public health nurses and more.
Oliver acknowledged that as the state begins to reopen, the need for a staffed-up tracing workforce, as well as the return of reassigned workers, will be critical.
“There were some hiccups in the process I believe we have ironed out. We feel that we are on track to hit 1,200 by the end of the month ready for July,” he said. “We are also aiming to recruit and hire more contact tracers because we want to get those repurposed VDH employees back to their day jobs.”
Asked about when reassigned workers would return to their jobs, Oliver said: “This has been going on for many months, and we can sustain it for another couple, but I hope that by the end of the summer, we have our employees focused on their regular jobs.”
Last week, the Richmond Times-Dispatch first reported on the state’s contact-tracing workforce shortage, which comes weeks after state officials vowed to boost contact tracing as a key to safely reopening the state — with the aid of $58 million from the federal government.
Oliver told members of the state’s Senate Finance Committee that the VDH had received more than 6,000 applications for tracing jobs, and planned to hire hundreds of tracers per week.
But as of last week, the VDH had brought on only 168 contact tracers since it kicked off a hiring campaign in mid-May, according to an agency spokeswoman.
On Friday, Oliver said that number had grown to 252 contact tracers, with an additional 94 workers who were ready to be brought on this week.
In addition, the health districts in Fairfax and Arlington, which operate with significant independence from the state, had contracted 22 and 42 tracers, respectively. Fairfax, with more than 1.1 million residents, is using more of its own workers to augment tracing, according to state health officials.
Oliver told The Times-Dispatch on Friday that the rollout of the state’s recruitment plan faced significant hurdles, which he said the agency has worked to address.
He said the state contracted with 12 staffing agencies, but guidance about how people should apply led to duplicative applications, which slowed recruitment.
Oliver said the state has worked to streamline the application process, and has shifted onboarding of new contractors from regions to individual health districts.
“There were some challenges with that process. It was messier than we wanted it to be,” he said. “All of those things have sped up the onboarding process.”
Oliver also corrected figures from a call with reporters hosted by the VDH on May 21, wherein a state official said Virginia had 1,270 people working on contact tracing, including many VDH employees.
Oliver said the figure was incorrect and likely the source of confusion: “I wish we’d had 1,270 people working on contact tracing, but we’ve never had 1,200 tracers.”
Taking into account reassigned workers at the VDH and within the Fairfax and Arlington districts, there are a total of 962 people doing contact tracing in Virginia. By this week, that number is expected to rise to 1,056 Oliver said.
He added that the state’s goal is to employ 1,270 this summer, though moving forward, that target could change.
Oliver said the VDH has begun studying projections from the University of Virginia showing the expected number of cases and COVID-19 transmission rate.
“It’s a more nuanced way to figure out how many tracers we need based on the course of the disease in Virginia, as opposed to an abstract number coming out of a report from Harvard,” he said.
“We’ll figure it out as we go along based on that model. We’ll scale up or scale down as needed.”
Through the contact tracing process, the state will compile a list of known contacts for a new COVID-19 patient, or people who might have been exposed to that person while they were likely contagious.
Those individuals are then contacted and asked about any illness or symptoms. If they report any, the state will direct them to get tested. If they do not, the state will encourage them to self-quarantine and monitor their symptoms for 14 days.