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Virginia Legislative Black Caucus calls for wide-ranging police reform, urges 'immediate action'

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus on Wednesday released a wide-ranging list of legislative proposals to reform the state’s law enforcement system, urging “a bold swing” toward racial equity and social justice in the state.

The proposals, which will be introduced during a special session this summer, include greater accountability and transparency from law enforcement agencies, and the reallocation of funding from law enforcement budgets to community services.

The 23-member caucus, chaired by Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, is also urging fellow lawmakers to amp up the legislature’s approach to systemic racism in Virginia. The caucus is calling for a declaration of racism as a public health crisis in Virginia, and a plan to address racial disparities across policy areas.

“The Commonwealth is past the point for studies on policing and law enforcement — immediate action must be taken to eliminate law enforcement abuse, prevent and punish racist behaviors, weed out institutional discrimination, and increase accountability at all levels of law enforcement,” caucus leaders wrote in a statement.

The list of proposals comes amid heightened tensions between law enforcement and protesters in Richmond, where 26 consecutive days of demonstrations have occurred, some resulting in violent clashes.

On Tuesday, Gov. Ralph Northam signaled that he backed a stronger law enforcement response to protests that violate the law or police guidelines.

“After three weeks, it is no longer clear what the goals are or a path to achieve them,” Northam said during a briefing with reporters. “Clearly, Richmond needs a different path forward. These nightly conflicts cannot continue indefinitely.”

Northam has also expressed support of police reform, and on Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the administration said: “Governor Northam is proud to stand with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus in their push for systemic criminal justice and police reform, and looks forward to reviewing specific legislation.”

The ACLU of Virginia and a coalition of 14 local activist groups this week issued lists of demands for local and state officials. Many of those demands are included in the caucus’ legislative plan.

The caucus is proposing to require that all police departments create civilian review boards to examine police misconduct, and that those boards have subpoena power, a key demand from both groups. The caucus is also proposing to require independent investigations for all police-involved shootings and deaths, a demand from the ACLU of Virginia.

In an interview, Bagby said the plan is a combination of proposals caucus members have been working on for years and even decades, and “fresh ideas” born out of recent community debate.

“We don’t want to say we’re taking advantage of the moment, but we want to be prepared for the moment, because we’ve never seen a moment like this,” Bagby said.

He added that the caucus is engaged in ongoing discussions with leaders in the House and Senate to figure out how much can be accomplished during the special session, and will need to wait until the regular session in January.

“It was very important for us to put this list out because people are hungry to see what we actually plan to do, and what we’ve been pushing,” Bagby said. “We’re looking at a more equitable Virginia that works for everyone, and a justice system that is not only fair and equitable, but also not strained. We’re over-policing and overcharging. ... When you look at a proactive not reactive approach, you can see the opportunities we have to bank on people.”

Spokesmen for the House and Senate GOP caucuses said lawmakers are still reviewing the documents and waiting specific legislation.

The caucus is also backing legislation to limit the use of sovereign immunity, a part of state law, to shield individual police officers and their governing bodies from civil liability for violations of constitutional rights. The caucus also supports expanding the avenues by which police officers can lose their certifications to hold their jobs, and expanding the use of body-worn cameras.

The caucus is backing legislation to end no-knock warrants, a proposal born out of the killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville, Ky., police.

The caucus is broadly pitching a set of proposals to “replace law enforcement’s role in certain areas with trained specialists.” They include measures to implement the “Marcus Alert,” which would require that mental health professionals be the first-responders in the case of a suspected or confirmed mental health crisis. Police would serve as their backup.

The caucus is also proposing to reduce the presence of law enforcement in schools by replacing them with mental health professionals.

Clashes in Richmond between police and protesters have seen the Richmond Police Department — working in conjunction with the Virginia State Police — deploy tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets to deter demonstrators or disperse crowds.

On Wednesday, the Black Caucus said it planned to introduce legislation to restrict “the use of tear gas and militarization tactics and weapons against civilians.”

The caucus also plans to introduce legislation that would make it a hate crime to make a false 911 call based on a person’s race.

On the topic of criminal justice reform, the caucus is planning to introduce legislation to reinstate parole in the state — the topic of an ongoing study the General Assembly sponsored earlier this year.

The caucus is also supporting the legalization of marijuana. During the regular 2020 session of the General Assembly, Democrats opted to decriminalize marijuana, declining to fully legalize the substance. In the House, that bill was introduced by Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, who is a member of the Black Caucus.

“The people have taken to the streets for weeks to raise their voices in protest to demand drastic change,” the caucus said in a statement. “This moment is calling on leaders to combat institutional racism and societal discrimination that exists in the criminal justice system, economic structures, housing, education, in health care, mental health, in environmental policy, and many other areas.”

Crowd gathers at Lee monument hours after Richmond police declared unlawful assembly

Hours after police dispersed peaceful demonstrators from the grounds of the Robert E. Lee statue, about 300 protesters returned Wednesday evening vowing to defy this week’s announcement that police would enforce closure of the space at sunset.

The atmosphere early Wednesday evening looked much the same as the peaceful nights preceding it: Families gathered, free food was handed out, children tossed a football among themselves. A woman played a cello.

Ladirah Jackson, a Black woman, was there with her 11-month old son, Christopher Jr.

“It’s a risk,” Jackson said, acknowledging past events at the circle, “but I wanted to be here. It’s history.”

Richmond has seen nearly four weeks of demonstrations over police brutality and systemic racism, spurred by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Authorities in Richmond declared unlawful assemblies at different sites Sunday night, early Tuesday morning and early Wednesday morning.

Richmond police declared an unlawful assembly at the Lee monument at 2:39 a.m. Wednesday and cleared the area at 2:46 a.m., according to an RPD Twitter post.

Because the statue sits on state property, Capitol Police led the response, in conjunction with Virginia State Police and RPD, to the unlawful assembly, which Capitol Police public information officer Joe Macenka said was declared because the area is closed between sunset and sunrise.

According to Virginia state law, an unlawful assembly may be declared whenever “three or more persons assembled share the common intent to advance some lawful or unlawful purpose by the commission of an act or acts of unlawful force or violence likely to jeopardize seriously public safety, peace or order.” The assembly “actually tends to inspire persons of ordinary courage with well-grounded fear of serious and immediate breaches of public safety, peace or order.”

Macenka did not specify why the unlawful assembly declaration came at 2:39 a.m., as opposed to hours earlier or anytime after sunset.

“Capitol Police do not discuss operational specifics with the media,” he said.

Unlike early Tuesday morning, when state and city police officers released chemical irritants into a crowd at City Hall, the roughly 50 remaining protesters at the monument were dispersed without use of force.

Macenka said that those inside the circle dispersed “immediately and without issue” after being told their presence amounted to an illegal assembly.

“Nearly all of the officers walked up to the circle from various directions, and those inside the circle walked away into the night,” Macenka said.

Crews from the Department of General Services then cleared the area around the monument — which demonstrators now refer to as Marcus-David Peters Circle.

Peters, an Essex County biology teacher and Virginia Commonwealth University honors graduate, was naked, unarmed and experiencing a mental health crisis when he was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer in 2018. The shooting was deemed justified by the city’s former police chief and prosecutor at the time, because Peters threatened to kill the officer as he charged him.

Macenka referred questions about “the garbage that those inside the circle left behind” to the Department of General Services, which said items retrieved from the monument grounds will be kept until the end of the week, while the department works with owners to return them. Those whose items were retrieved by DGS may call (804) 786-3311 to begin the return process.

New regulations for gatherings at the Lee monument were put into place in 2017.

Following the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville in August 2017, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe temporarily barred gatherings at the Lee statue on Monument Avenue. He then imposed emergency regulations in November 2017, which became permanent last year.

The regulations prohibit tents, tables, scaffolding or staging on the monument grounds as well as “banners, flags, posters or other objects” from being placed or affixed to the monument.

State officials on Monday announced that authorities would enforce rules already on the books barring gatherings on the monument’s grounds from sunset to sunrise. For the second consecutive night Tuesday, demonstrators remained at the monument for hours after sunset.

Those present at the monument remained undisturbed by law enforcement until early Wednesday morning, when more than 100 state and city police officers descended on the area to clear the monument, The Commonwealth Times reports.

On Sunday night police had descended on Stuart Circle just before 9:30 p.m. to intercede after protesters tied ropes around the J.E.B. Stuart statue, a tribute to the Confederate general near the heart of Richmond, in an effort to bring it down.

Officers in riot gear shouted down people yelling “F--- the police,” declaring the gathering an unlawful assembly and threatening to deploy chemical agents.

On Wednesday morning, a group present on the Lee monument grounds who asked to remain anonymous said they returned to set up their tents after law enforcement dispersed. The individuals said they were among the small group of protesters at the monument when an unlawful assembly was declared.

They estimated fewer than 15 individuals were in the grassy circle in the early hours of the morning, when a large number of officers arrived on scene in riot gear, threatening use of chemical agents if demonstrators didn’t leave.

They see the increasingly militarized police presence, unlawful assembly declarations and ordinance restricting activity at the monument simply as “creative ways” to curb demonstrators’ First Amendment rights.

The group has been staked out at the monument nearly every day, they said, to pass out snacks and water bottles.

On Wednesday evening, Ikeisha Taylor was out with her young children and nephew in the circle around the Lee monument and echoed the importance of them being present for this moment.

“This is history. … I’m proud we’re coming together. It took too long, but everyone is finally coming together,” Taylor said.

She added that, even if the monument becomes too dangerous or gets shut down as the central gathering spot, “we, the people, will just go somewhere else.”

Chelston Howell-Freeman, a protester who has frequented the space the last few weeks, said he’s willing to endanger himself in order to exercise his First Amendment rights.

Despite the welcoming environment Wednesday evening, as sunset approached, the hum of an overhead drone and intermittent revving of motorcycles illuminated an underlying tension percolating through the circle.

A man selling Black Lives Matter pins asked nobody in particular: “Are they gonna come and arrest us tonight?”

South Carolina beaches fill, but COVID-19 takes no vacation

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — The elevator doors opened, and inside were 10 people crammed into a space no bigger than a closet, none of them wearing a mask.

In bathing suits, they walked out of the hotel, across the pool deck and into the sand in what is fast becoming South Carolina’s hot spot for COVID-19 — Myrtle Beach. People in this resort city are leaving their cares — and sometimes their face coverings — at home after months of worry as hotels, restaurants and beaches reopen.

Mark Johnson said he doesn’t like wearing a mask when he’s at work delivering doughnuts to grocery stores around Charlotte, N.C. “Just wash your hands and use common sense,” Johnson said as he sat on a chair in the sand, a can of beer in his cup holder.

The coronavirus has not taken a vacation. When hotels were allowed to start taking reservations again on May 15, there had been 283 COVID-19 cases in Horry County, which includes Myrtle Beach. By June 22, that number had climbed to more than 2,000, and infections had doubled in nine days.

And those numbers include only people who live in the county. The figures do not count anyone who tests positive after taking COVID-19 home along with a souvenir hermit crab or an airbrushed T-shirt. Business leaders estimate 20 million people visit the area each year, 60 times Horry County’s population of about 330,000.

It was unclear how many visitors could be expected in 2020. In April, just 3% of hotel rooms, condominiums and campsites in Horry County were rented, according to research from Coastal Carolina University. By mid-June, occupancy rates rebounded to 74%, only slightly less than the typical 81% at this point in the summer, the college reported.

Health officials in at least five West Virginia counties determined through contact tracing that trips to Myrtle Beach likely led to infections. They recommend finding safer destinations or self-quarantining for two weeks after a trip.

“Please be careful. And please think real hard about getting tested when you get home,” West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice told people who visited Myrtle Beach. “If you would opt to go to one of our state parks or do something in this great place in West Virginia, we’d rather you do that.”

Areas in Virginia also are tracking infections back to the South Carolina coast.

“Myrtle Beach seems to be a hot spot,” said Dr. Molly O’Dell with the Virginia Department of Health, who is leading the pandemic response for the Roanoke and Alleghany Health Districts.

Twenty-seven people in the four-county area have tested positive for the virus in the past two weeks after returning home from the popular South Carolina tourist spot, O’Dell said Tuesday. Five more cases were listed as probable.

The Health Department is recommending that anyone who has been to Myrtle Beach — which has seen a spike in cases as more people resume their normal lifestyles — self-quarantine for 14 days.

Christy Kasler is from another state that produces many Myrtle Beach visitors — Ohio. As she sat in a chair and watched her daughter-in-law play with her 11-month-old grandson on his first trip to the beach, she said the recommendation to self-quarantine when she returns to her Nelsonville home was asking too much.

“If I get it, I could have just as easily got it back home,” Kasler said. “You can’t live your life in fear.”

Horry County isn’t South Carolina’s only hot spot. Health officials are tracking virus clusters in the Latino community around Greenville, restaurant workers in Charleston, rural churches that returned to services and large family gatherings.

When Gov. Henry McMaster effectively closed the state at the start of April, the rate of new cases flattened out. It started climbing again after reopening began in early May, and the rate keeps rising. South Carolina now has the fourth-highest new infection rate in the nation when adjusted for population, trailing just Arizona, Arkansas and Alabama.

The state sets records almost daily for the number of new cases, the percentage of positive tests and the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19.

Since reopening six weeks ago, the message from both local and state governments in South Carolina shifted from shutdowns to personal responsibility, like washing hands and wearing masks, although McMaster has said he will not require face coverings.

After giving televised COVID-19 briefings nearly every day when the virus first started to spread, McMaster and state health officials have not spoken in front of cameras for more than a week. When they do talk, they say shutting businesses again is out of the question.

“We understand that what we’re continuing to ask of everyone is not easy and that many are tired of hearing the same warnings and of taking the same daily precautions, but this virus does not take a day off,” state epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell said in a statement.

Myrtle Beach needs visitors. Instead of a shutdown, the community now fears that bad publicity could keep people away. That would be terrible news after restaurants and many hotels were closed for two months.

From February to April, more than 1 in 4 workers lost their jobs, and nearly 45,000 jobs disappeared in the Myrtle Beach area, vaulting Horry County to the top of South Carolina jobless rate, according to unemployment figures.

Some of those businesses remain closed. Others that reopened are struggling with the extra cost of cleaning, food and other supplies, and the reduction in revenue because they cannot accommodate as many customers under social-distancing rules.

“Man, at this point I’m just praying we get back to normal. I want to keep people healthy, but businesses are hurting too,” Myrtle Beach City Councilman Michael Chestnut said outside his restaurant, Big Mike’s Soul Food.

He paused and shook his head. “I’m not sure what normal is ever going to look like,” Chestnut said.

The Myrtle Beach City Council initially imposed a limit of three people per elevator when adopting rules to reopen hotels. But in a place where the oceanfront skyline is dominated by tall hotels, it was impractical to make people climb all those stairs or wait for an empty elevator, Chestnut said.

Jacko Morowitz has run a gift shop somewhere in Myrtle Beach for more than 25 years. He thought about putting a sign on the door requiring masks and asking customers to cover their mouth and nose when inside.

But he bought $100,000 of merchandise last winter for his Good Vibes Gift Shop, and the inventory just sat there for two months. He figures he can’t risk turning a single customer away by pushing masks.

Asked what might happen if suddenly people get scared of the virus and stop coming to Myrtle Beach, Morowitz blurted out “we’re” followed by an expletive.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “But that’s the best word I can use whether I get sick or everybody stays home.”

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WATCH NOW: $2.3 million renovated Maymont Nature Center to open July 2

The newly renovated Robins Nature Center at Maymont will reopen to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday, July 2.

The center has been closed since Nov. 1 to complete the $2.3 million renovation and enhancement project, the first major improvement to the center since it opened in 1999.

The reopening was originally scheduled for April 5, but postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The renovated 29,000-square-foot center is themed to the James River and includes several new additions, including:

  • River Reach, a 34-foot-tall sculpture that can be climbed and scaled, meant to mimic microscopic river organisms with rising platforms.
  • A beaver lodge that can be explored, a kayak that can be climbed into and rocks that can be hopped.
  • Baby sturgeon.
  • Digital pool touch stations, two virtual shallow pools with touch responsiveness where kids can discover wildlife and native plants.

“Guests can explore the amazing biodiversity of the James River like never before,” Krista Weatherford, Maymont’s director of programming and community engagement, said in a statement announcing the opening.

“Everything from the virtual interactions with turtles and otters to the play spaces and fun facts will enhance appreciation of Richmond’s greatest natural resource. We’re especially eager to use all the new teaching tools to inspire curiosity in guests of all ages.”

Tickets to the Robins Nature Center are $8 for adults and youth ages 13 and older; $6 for children ages 3-12 and seniors ages 65 and older; and free for children ages 2 and under, as well as Maymont members.

Face coverings will be required of guests and recommended for any children older than 2. Capacity will be reduced to provide space for social distancing, and hand sanitizer will be available at the entry and exit. Contactless payment and use of credit/debit cards are encouraged. Surfaces inside the center will be cleaned and disinfected regularly.

The center will initially be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Tickets must be purchased online at Maymont.org/nature-center and are available in 45-minute time slots with limited capacity for entry. Maymont members will have early access during special preview days.

The Robins Nature Center is at 2201 Shields Lake Drive. More information at www.maymont.org or (804) 358-7166.

Chesterfield supervisors approve housing, retail project across from courthouse

The Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday approved a proposal to redevelop 124 acres near the courthouse despite public opposition.

Developers of the Courthouse Landing project, located at the intersection of State Route 10 and Courthouse Road, plan to build 600 housing units, a 120-room hotel, nearly 265,000 square feet of retail space and medical or dental office space on the site.

The project passed 4-1, with Supervisor Jim Ingle voting no.

Six months ago, the county Planning Commission — which advises the supervisors on pending projects — unanimously voted to recommend the denial of the project, citing concerns with traffic and the development’s proximity to the airport. Last month the panel—with new members—green-lighted the development, which planners say meets the area’s needs.

“The county has been seeking this type of development for over a decade,” said Garrett Hart, Chesterfield’s economic development director. “The Dale District doesn’t have any type of this development.”

Tampa-based Dunphy Development has called the area a “medical desert.”

Hart said the concern over traffic was justified. Before construction begins, all area infrastructure needs will be addressed, including widening Courthouse Road and modifying the intersection of Courthouse and Iron Bridge roads.

Dale District Planning Commissioner LeQuan Hylton did not respond to requests for comment.

After the commission’s initial denial, the supervisors sent the project back to the commission. Dale District Supervisor Jim Holland wrote a remand letter, requesting additional information about how the project would impact local school enrollment and road and airport traffic. When reached by phone ahead of Wednesday night’s meeting, Holland would not comment about the development project.

While Holland acknowledged the project “is a tough case,” Wednesday night, he said “this development meets all the criteria of an enhancement to Chesterfield County and an enhancement to the Dale District.”

Dunphy attorney Andy Condlin said at Wednesday’s meeting, “every single issue that has been raised has been addressed ... I think this case stands on its own.”

Condlin noted the expected yearly tax revenue from the project is $3.6 million and the project will create 1,633 construction jobs and over 550 jobs on site.

Hart expects construction to begin in 2021 with a five-year build out.

Deerfield Estates resident Kay Robertson has fought the project for over a year.

“I am mostly upset about the transparency. I send [the Board of Supervisors] emails, calls [and] they are ignoring me, and I am really upset by that. They need to listen to me.”

Changes in how the county has handled public engagement during the pandemic has sparked concerns, said county residents Mike Uzel and Phil Lohr, founders of Chesterfield Citizens United.

“Each [zoning] case should have a public meeting,” Uzel said. “How can you in any way, shape or form have a public hearing without the public being there?” Residents have been able to submit written comments ahead of all Planning Commission and Supervisors meetings.

Wednesday’s meeting marked the first in-person meeting in two months, with limited seating and a health screening. Residents were allowed to provide public comment in person Wednesday.

Robertson, who lives in walking distance to the site and is “against all” proposed housing units, said the county should save the land for a future school or administrative building.

The 600 housing units, a mix of apartments, town homes and condominiums, will hopefully attract young professionals who work within the county but live elsewhere to move in, Hart said.

Lohr and Robertson disagree with Hart’s characterization.

“Putting a gas station on the corner of Route 10 and Iron Bridge [Road] to me, that is not upscale,” Robertson said.