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Crime
breaking alert
Mayor calls on prosecutor to investigate after Richmond officer drives through crowd at Lee statue

The day after a Richmond police SUV drove through a crowd of protesters at the intersection of North Allen and Monument avenues, Mayor Levar Stoney said on Twitter that he has asked the commonwealth’s attorney to investigate the incident and the police department to place the officer involved on administrative leave.

In a tweet on Sunday, Stoney said he asked Colette McEachin, the city’s top prosecutor, to “expedite this review, along with several other cases from the past week.”

No one appeared to be seriously injured.

Police said in a statement late Sunday that an officer was allegedly assaulted. The release did not mention or respond to Stoney’s request to place the officer involved on leave.

“Suspects who threw objects at the police SUV and reportedly assaulted the officer could face criminal charges,” police said in the statement seeking the identities of those involved.

In their statement, police provided a timeline that differs from videos of the incident posted to social media and the accounts of two Richmond Times-Dispatch reporters who witnessed the following:

Around 9:30 p.m. Saturday, while live music was being played at the foot of the Robert E. Lee statue as part of ongoing protests in the city sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a Richmond police SUV slowly made its way north on Allen Avenue toward a line of bicyclists who were blocking cars from entering the traffic circle around the statue.

It is unclear why the police vehicle moved toward the event, which had been going on since 1 p.m. without incident.

The front windows of the SUV were down, and while the vehicle’s blue lights had been on initially, they were switched off before the confrontation in favor of a floodlight.

No siren sounded, and the two officers in the SUV could not be heard giving any orders or instruction.

After briefly stopping at the blockade of cyclists, the SUV tried to back up but was blocked by another vehicle. In a video posted to Twitter, a water bottle appears to strike the roof of the vehicle just before it moves forward to mount the curb, in an attempt to get around the crowd. But more demonstrators gathered to block its way.

The protesters stood against the front bumper as the vehicle lurched forward, causing some in the crowd to jump back and others to fall to the side.

As it returned to the road, people screamed as it collided with protesters. A second video posted on Twitter that was shot from a higher vantage point shows a crowd swarm the driver’s side of the police vehicle.

The crowd parted, allowing the SUV to head east on Monument Avenue. No one appeared injured in the immediate aftermath.

The crowd then converged on two other police SUVs that tried to follow the first but were forced back down Allen Avenue. They retreated west on Park Avenue, the opposite direction of the first SUV.

In a statement issued at 12:04 a.m. Sunday, the Richmond Police Department said it was 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.”

In the second release, issued at 8:18 p.m. Sunday, police said the SUV was “trapped by protesters.”

“Objects were thrown at the vehicle, so officers stayed inside due to safety concerns,” the statement said. “The officer driving the police SUV attempted to back up and leave the area. That officer was reportedly assaulted through an open window and protesters continued to throw objects at the vehicle, causing damage.”

Attached to Sunday night’s release were photos of the damage to the vehicle including a dent to a side panel and a shattered rear window.

“The officer drove the police SUV on the curb in an attempt to leave the area and avoid the protesters standing in the middle of the intersection,” the statement continued. “Protestors then surrounded the vehicle.”

This timeline conflicts with the two videos that show that protesters don’t come into contact with the vehicle, or the officers, until the SUV attempts to drive around the protesters and come off of the curb.

The Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project, which has been advocating for external oversight of the police for more than two years, said in a text message that “until elected officials wake up and step into their leadership by taking action on community demands, it’s clear the Richmond Police Department will continue terrorizing our city.”

Several officers have already been pulled from duty after tear gassing a crowd of peaceful protesters at the same statue on June 1. McEachin is investigating that incident as well.


Local
Lohmann: These sisters are 'living the dream' and paying back by helping others

As their charity organization was cranking out masks as part of the battle against the coronavirus, Wajma and Axana Soltan got to thinking about their aunt in their native Afghanistan who has been contending with breast cancer.

They know how dangerous the coronavirus is for cancer patients, who are more vulnerable to such infection because of their compromised immune systems, so Wajma set about coming up with a way to further protect them.

Working in her mother’s tailoring and fashion design shop in Chesterfield County, she created a one-piece mask and cap combination for cancer patients undergoing treatment, particularly those who have lost their hair through chemotherapy.

“It just makes me happy I was able to do something to help them,” Wajma said.

The masks and mask-cap combos have been distributed around the VCU Health complex.

The mask-and-hat project is just the latest in a series of ventures organized by the Soltan sisters — Wajma is 26, Axana 23 — aimed at helping others. As teens, they founded a nonprofit organization, Enhancing Children’s Lives, despite the fact that their own lives as children were something less than enhanced.

“Both of them are the sweetest and kindest people with the biggest hearts,” said Michelle Overholt, a friend who was introduced to the sisters when she was a student at Virginia Commonwealth University. “They amaze me. I’m so proud of them for accomplishing so much in so little time. They certainly didn’t sit back and let life pass them by.”

The Soltans were 5 and 3 when their parents fled Afghanistan. Their parents — their father was an engineer and part-time teacher and their mother a teacher — lost everything in the Taliban takeover. Seeking a safe environment to raise their four children, Axana said, “They left everything behind.”

But that was only the beginning of a long, arduous journey, or as Wajma put it, “We escaped war, we escaped bombs, and there were times when we didn’t have food.”

They lived first in a refugee camp on the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, then moved into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. After nine years, the U.N. Refugee Agency resettled them in Richmond, where they had relatives. They’ve been here more than a decade.

They arrived here speaking no English but remedied that soon enough. Axana now speaks five languages and Wajma four, having adapted wherever they’ve lived. Despite the initial language difficulties, they found Richmond welcoming, and they worked to fit in.

Wajma graduated from James River High, Axana from Midlothian High. Both went on to VCU, where they earned degrees and where Axana delivered a commencement address for the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

In her 2017 commencement speech, Axana, who graduated with a degree in criminal justice, implored her classmates to “join me in my efforts to create a world that places human needs and human rights above all.”

Axana is a third-year law student at the University of the District of Columbia School of Law and hopes to become a criminal attorney.

Wajma, who has a degree in biology, aspires to be a pediatric cancer physician. She is also the author of three children’s books and is working on a novel, a story of an Afghan girl who lived under the Taliban regime.

They were inspired to start their nonprofit by the assistance they received from UNICEF and others during their time as refugees and even after they arrived in the United States.

“UNICEF helped us when we were struggling,” Wajma said, “and now we want to do what UNICEF was doing for us.”

Enhancing Children’s Lives has worked mostly in the Richmond area — providing tutoring and mentoring to youth at juvenile detention centers, hosting programs at homeless shelters and serving as volunteers for Richmond’s International Rescue Committee to provide emergency aid to refugees.

Among its global efforts, the organization has established a library for girls in Afghanistan to increase literacy among women and provided academic scholarships to children in Haiti.

Their friend Neha Patel, who first met Wajma in a chemistry class at VCU, has found her to be “determined in any task she undertakes.

“I remember how adamant she was about studying without taking breaks,” said Patel, who later met and worked with Axana, whom she describes as “fully committed to public service.”

Christopher Bennett also met Wajma in a class at VCU, and the sisters enlisted his help as they raised money to purchase backpacks for students at Richmond’s Carver Elementary.

“What I admire about these sisters is that they are always looking for a way to help the Richmond community,” said Bennett, now an ECL board member. “While they expanded their work globally, I admire that they started locally and how much they love the Richmond community and continue to give back to their own community.”

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Wajma began making the face masks, which evolved into the mask-and-hat combination for cancer patients.

Where did the sewing come from?

Her mom, Maliah.

During their hard times as refugees, Maliah learned to sew, and Wajma learned from her.

After arriving in the United States, Maliah used her sewing skills to start a business, Lucy’s Divine Creations, a boutique where she is now more of a fashion designer than a seamstress, though she does alterations. Their father, Soltan, also works in the business.

“That’s what we love about this country,” Axana said. “It‘s the land of opportunity if you work hard and be true to yourself and be of service to others.

“We are living the American dream.”


Business
Some Richmond businesses boarded up and spray painted 'Black Lives Matter' in response to protests. Others found ways to give to the cause.

Over the past week and a half, corporations across the nation have announced plans to donate to social justice organizations in light of the unrest caused by killing of George Floyd.

But while major corporations are making massive donations, many Richmond-area small businesses are doing their part to contribute to the movement locally.

If social media are any indication, in the days immediately after the first wave of local demonstrations that kicked off in Richmond on Friday, May 29, hundreds of Richmond businesses began donating to social justice organizations.

Last week alone, nearly a dozen local business owners helped the Richmond Black Restaurant Experience — an organization dedicated to promoting Richmond’s black-owned restaurants — exceed its $15,000 fundraising goal.

The goal was met on June 2; a week later, the GoFundMe reached $32,316. The funds will be used to provide micro-grants to 35 of Richmond’s black-owned restaurants to help them recover from the economic losses during the pandemic.

In 2016, the average wealth of white families was five times that of black counterparts, according to the Urban Institute, a nonprofit that researches the impact of policy on communities. Lower wealth levels can also contribute to less capital and resources in owning a business.

Among the Richmond Black Restaurant Experience’s many supporters is Hardywood Park Craft Brewery. The Richmond-based brewery signed on to partake in the Black Is Beautiful Initiative, which invites breweries around the country to sell Texas-based Weathered Souls Brewing Company’s Black Is Beautiful stout and donate the beer’s proceeds to local organizations combating police brutality and supporting protesters.

Hardywood went with the Richmond Black Restaurant Experience. Having only recently signed on to participate in the initiative, it expects the beer to become available for sale in July and to net $2,000 to $3,000 in donations.

But restaurants were also among those doing the giving — and the contributions made by the local business community extended far beyond food.

Jackson Ward lunch spot Salt & Forge contributed $1,250 to Richmond for All and $1,200 to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy nonprofit that aims to combat bigotry and injustice, last Tuesday. The total donation of $2,450 represented every dollar the restaurant earned that day, meaning labor and food costs were paid out-of-pocket by owner David Hahn.

Last week, Chop Suey Books committed to matching $1,000 in donations to Mutual Aid Disaster Relief Richmond, also known as MAD RVA — a goal that it reached within 2½ hours. Customers kept alerting the bookstore about their donations even after the goal was met and into the next day.

MAD RVA offers funds, food and medicine to Richmonders affected by COVID-19 job losses or quarantine requirements.

This was none of these businesses’ first foray into humanitarianism.

Since it opened 19 years ago, Chop Suey Books has frequently partnered with community organizations, and the proceeds from the one-dollar books that are ever-present outside the shop always go to local causes.

Salt & Forge, too, has made outreach a regular part of its business model; as recently as last month, the restaurant donated 25% of a day’s sales to Richmond Animal Care and Control. Additionally, its “Give a Biscuit” campaign, in which outside entities fund the donation of biscuit sandwiches to health care workers, has been ongoing since early May.

But the current movement opposing police brutality, which has inspired nightly marches in Richmond since May 29, has left a particularly powerful impact on some business owners.

Hahn has traditionally held to a philosophy of separating business and politics — he believes that corporations should not be able to contribute money to political campaigns and causes.

But as he watched demonstrators take to the streets two weekends ago from his apartment above Salt & Forge, he knew he had to do something.

“This is the first time I’ve put the brand out there and said, as a brand, this is a cause we’re going to support,” said Hahn, who further emphasized his belief that police brutality against black people is a human rights issue, not a political one, which is part of what impelled him to contribute.

For Ward Tefft, owner of Chop Suey Books, inspiration came not only from the protests themselves but also from the community’s response to them as he watched fellow business owners throughout the city board up their storefronts, spray-painting “Black Lives Matter” and George Floyd’s name across the plywood.

While Tefft understood his fellow store owners’ impulses to protect their property, he wanted to make sure that his store instead sent a message of solidarity.

“Instead of putting money into building a wall up out of fear, we wanted to take the money and give it to something local that would help people,” he said of himself and other business owners who elected not to board up their shops.

Chop Suey Books ultimately banded with three businesses — Bygones, World of Mirth and Richmond Re-Cycles — to match donations to MAD RVA.

Of course, now is a harder time than most for businesses to give — the effects of COVID-19 have been shuttering businesses across America, either temporarily or permanently, since March.

But when Tefft decided that Chop Suey Books was going to contribute to MAD RVA, he did not approach that decision from an economic angle; he knew without question that it was something he needed to do.

“There are other parts of the business where I’ve been watching the bottom line,” Tefft said. “But [donating] was just: ‘No, this is what we’re doing.”

Additionally, Hahn notes that, even as difficult as the pandemic has been on businesses, it has been even harder for nonprofits, which often rely on large, in-person events and galas as their primary sources of funds.

As such, donating to local and national organizations has become even more of a priority for him in the past few months.

***

Money is not the only thing businesses can contribute to local organizations. Having two of their locations temporarily closed since March, there is little that Lamplighter Coffee Roasters can offer in terms of funds. But it has nevertheless made a significant contribution to Mutual Aid Disaster Relief Richmond, serving as a space for volunteers to pack orders.

MAD RVA has two primary programs. First, it delivers groceries, medication, cleaning supplies and other items to people who may not be able to access these goods otherwise. It also funds $125 mini-grants, primarily to marginalized Richmonders, which can be used for anything and for which the application is purposefully low-barrier.

Monetary donations made to MAD RVA, like those matched by Chop Suey Books last week, go toward purchasing goods and funding the mini-grants. But a home base where groceries can be stored and orders can be packed make the organization’s approximately 200 weekly deliveries possible.

Set up in what was formerly the main café area of Lamplighter Coffee Roasters’ Scott’s Addition location is MAD RVA’s makeshift storehouse, which Lamplighter’s wholesale manager, Alan Smith, describes as looking almost like a grocery store.

When the café closed due to COVID-19, Lamplighter offered the space for free to the MAD RVA volunteers, who had previously been working out of a friend’s garage.

“We, as a small business trying to pay people well, don’t have a lot of money left over. But providing space, and coffee for the volunteers to drink, is really what we have to offer,” Smith said. “Getting more creative about what you can provide is really the only way forward.”

“It’s been a really incredible show of trust and a really incredible show of excitement [about MAD RVA],” said Ayanna Ogaldez, a black activist who works with MAD RVA, of the partnership between the mutual aid organization and Lamplighter.

Smith noted that even those who can and do give money should not consider donating as a stand-in for taking action and educating oneself.

“If you’re just going to throw money at a problem, you’re basically outsourcing the responsibility for the solution,” he said. “If you’re committed to progress, the number one thing you have to do is be willing to put in the research time.”

***

Though many businesses in Richmond have a long-standing history of giving back to their community, others are just now taking the first steps into philanthropic work. To those businesses, social entrepreneur Kelli Lemon advises an inexorable first step: Listen.

“You have to really know why you are stating, ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Lemon said. “You’ve got to know why you’re getting in this, and if you’re going to get in this, you’ve got to get into it for the long haul.”

It is a consistent plea among activists and business owners with a history of community engagement: Keep going. Continued and sustainable solidarity and support is the only way to ensure the current movement does not lose steam.

“Maybe this is the first time people have made donations to local organizations, to small organizations — there’s no shame in that,” Tefft said. “It’s just, continue. Realize that this is not a momentary thing.”

Kalia Harris, a black activist and co-host of the Race Capitol podcast who works with MAD RVA, sees this historic moment as an opportunity for businesses, big and small, to go beyond making donations and “[think] of how they can [be] hubs of resources in their communities.”

This means, in addition to giving back to the community, making sure that their workers are paid well enough that they do not need to utilize the resources that organizations like MAD RVA provide.

“It really does bring up a larger conversation of: What [are] businesses’ duties to community when it comes to mutual aid?” Harris asked.

***

For Eric McKay and Patrick Murtaugh, the co-founders of Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, the power of small businesses lies in their ability to make connections, both with their audiences and with other businesses.

This philosophy has been exemplified in their work for years, most notably by their yearly HeART and Soul Brewfest, Virginia’s only craft beer festival dedicated to black culture.

“Eric and Patrick have always been very instrumental in making sure that the voices of women and of black people [are] heard within the beer community,” explained Lemon, who produces the festival.

She is the one who advised the pair to give the proceeds of the Black Is Beautiful beer to the Richmond Black Restaurant Experience, pointing out that they already had extensive partnerships with the organization and with the black culinary industry in Richmond.

As they join more than 250 other breweries participating in the Black Is Beautiful Initiative, including fellow Richmond brewpub The Answer, McKay and Murtaugh hope to expand the initiative’s reach through local partnerships.

The plan is to donate batches of the stout to restaurants in Richmond, which will then be asked to donate a portion of the proceeds.

This connection with their customers also means that the stories they tell and the messages they send hold quite a bit of weight.

“We’re a small business, so any monetary contribution we can make isn’t going to compare to large corporations,” Murtaugh said. “But we do have a following, so hopefully the impact that we can have is gaining awareness.”


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Government-politics
RPS to discuss relationship with RPD for school resource officers at Monday board meeting

Two members of the Richmond School Board are driving a discussion about the school system’s relationship with the Richmond Police Department, with one calling for the eventual removal of school resource officers, a step taken by the Charlottesville School Board on Thursday and by the Minneapolis School Board earlier this month.

The full Richmond School Board will discuss the divisive issue during Monday’s meeting.

The conversation started in Richmond during a School Board meeting on June 1, the same night the city’s police department deployed tear gas on nonviolent protesters 23 minutes before the 8 p.m. curfew set in place by Mayor Levar Stoney.

Cassie Powell and Brionna Nomi of the Legal Aid Justice Center urged the School Board to follow the lead of Minneapolis.

“In our city, the Richmond Police Department has ... demonstrated its refusal to enact reforms to protect people of color,” they said in a joint statement. “The RPD data shows that young blacks are disproportionately detained in the city, and that blacks were more than 2.7 times more likely to be perceived by police as suspects than whites.”

In an interview, Powell, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren program, said RPS needs more school counselors and social workers who can replace the duties of the officers.

“Richmond Public Schools does not have a lot of money to fund those positions,” she said.

And the police department, not the school system, pays the resource officers, except when they work overtime at events. The overtime cost about $45,000 last year, said Superintendent Jason Kamras, who said he supports having the conversation about the necessity for police in schools.

Kamras said he has been listening to his high school advisory board, where there has been a diversity of opinions on having the officers present in the buildings.

Some of the students said having SROs, along with metal detectors and daily backpack searches at some schools, makes them feel like they are in prison. Others said those things make them feel safer.

“It’s critical that we listen to our students,” Kamras said. “There could be additional counselors with specialized training and support who can respond to acute situations.

“We should look at all of those models.”

Powell and Nomi’s comments caught the attention of School Board member Scott Barlow, who said he witnessed “disturbing” behavior by police while he attended protests.

Protests in Richmond had gotten violent, as they had across the country, so police dressed in militarized riot gear. They had also deployed tear gas and used pepper spray against a member of the press.

Barlow said police shot rubber bullets at him even though he was watching the protests from a side street off Broad Street. He wasn’t hit, he said, but the bullets flew about 3 feet from his head. That’s part of the reason he called for a discussion about police in schools for the board’s June 15 meeting.

“I knew there was looting and stuff going on. But the significant majority of protesters were carrying signs and chanting and demonstrating their First Amendment rights,” he said. “I saw a lot of anger and frustration about what we’ve been witnessing for a generation.”

“While I was watching and recording some of the protests ... well away from those who were violently demonstrating, the police turned their lights at us and began firing rubber bullets at us followed by a canister of tear gas,” he said about the May 30 incident in a Facebook video. “Perhaps this is a manifestation of the privilege in my life, but I was embarrassed.

“I thought I had done something wrong by being at the protest at all. At the time, I was only armed with a cellphone camera.”

He said that with a realization that he lives with privilege as a white man with a law degree, it should come as no surprise that if the police will target him, they will target young black people as well.

When he heard about the June 1 deployment of tear gas well before the curfew, he said it became even more clear that community dialogue and action by policymakers were necessary to achieve real police reform.

“I think that our School Board needs to engage in more conversation with the public on how we move forward,” Barlow said.

Kenya Gibson of the 3rd District has said she wants the school system’s relationship with police dismantled.

“As a school district, as a country, we need to revisit our approach to discipline,” she said in an interview. “I am of the concept that there are no bad kids.”

In a post on Medium, she discussed the issue further, calling for a plan to transition police out of school.

“Referrals target and harm Black and Latinx students, and students with disabilities,” she said in the post. “It is time to staff our school support personnel who are trained to support students in need and intervene safely in a crisis.”

Black students with individual plans to meet their special needs make up a significant number of students who are referred to law enforcement in Richmond Public Schools.

The issue is not unique to RPS. Black students made up 39% of students with at least one arrest but 75% of students who were arrested in schools in an Edweek analysis of federal data from 2014.

In 2015, according to data from the federal Office for Civil Rights, Virginia was tops in the nation for referring students to law enforcement.

Some of those students ended up in the care of Rodney Robinson, the 2019 National Teacher of the Year who is from Richmond. Before he went on sabbatical, he taught students in juvenile detention at the city’s Virgie Binford Education Center.

There, he says, many of his students reported getting their first criminal charge at school, most often for disorderly conduct. That’s why he believes police have no place in schools.

“They’re not trained to be in schools. They’re not trained to deal with young brains,” he said. “SROs are there because teachers and principals are overworked. SROs should be there to protect the school from school shooters.”

Cheryl Burke, another School Board member, is against getting rid of SROs completely, and it’s based on her 38 years of experience in Richmond Public Schools.

“All the years I worked in RPS, every SRO I’ve come in contact with was respectable, dedicated and most helpful,” Burke said. “I am not aware of any SROs that had to be reprimanded.”

During her time as principal at Chimborazo Elementary in Church Hill, she said she made it a point to bring police officers into the school so they could build relationships with students.

Burke talked about a time where two black students saw the officers in the school and they immediately prepared to be searched. She said the distrust some people of color have for law enforcement is exactly why officers should be in the schools.

“That’s why they need to be in the school, to show that not all police officers are bad,” said Burke, who also wants to see more counselors in schools.

“It shows a deficit in our system,” she said. “We’ve never had enough counselors or enough support persons in place. That’s why an effective principal would always keep tabs with what happened in the neighborhood before Monday mornings.”

Faith Flippo, the commander of youth and intervention services at the city’s police department, said she worries about being lumped in with police in other parts of the country. Since school has been let out, she said, the SROs have been checking on students, and that it’s about more than policing for them.

“These SROs give a darn about the kids in their schools,” Flippo said. “It breaks my heart that people aren’t understanding the value of an SRO. Most report having positive interactions more than negative.”

She also noted the many activities and community engagement programs that RPD has, including the Police Athletic League, Community Care and the LIFE program where police intervene in hopes of keeping kids out of jail. The program began in 2016 after a 2015 report showed many kids in Richmond end up in the juvenile justice system for minor infractions in school.

“We want to have the positive interactions,” she said. “You don’t do this job just to use force or cause havoc. That’s not what our calling is. We want to encourage peace; we don’t want to encourage havoc.”

Robinson said the power dynamics between a student and police officer make the rationale that officers are mentors seem hollow.

“I don’t like that argument because there’s no such thing as positive mentorship when there’s an extreme power dynamic at play,” he said. “It’s kind of a false narrative to say they can mentor the kids. Yes, they can, but if the kid is out of line, they can arrest them.”

Barlow and Gibson agree that it’s not as simple as removing officers from schools as quickly as the Minneapolis School Board did.

There has to be some form of a safety plan in place to transition them out of the schools, they said. That’s why they want to hear from the community first.

“I think it’s complex. I want to make sure that if we do move in that direction, it’s after having significant dialogue with parents, teachers and students,” Barlow said.

A spokesman for the police department declined to talk about the issue.

“This appears to be an RPS issue at the present time,” said RPD spokesman Gene Lepley. “We don’t want to overstep.”

RPS will discuss its relationship with the police department at its School Board meeting on Monday. The meeting is virtual and takes place at 5:30 p.m.