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Richmond fathers discuss the pandemic, the protests and the world they hope their kids grow up in

This year, Father’s Day is like no other.

After months of living in lockdown because of the coronavirus, the country erupted with civil unrest in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. There have been marches, calls for racial equality and the removal of Confederate statues in Richmond.

Antonio Redd brought his daughter, Amaris Gabrielle, 5, and son, Ace Garvey, 2, to a Black Lives Matter car rally in Shockoe Bottom a few weeks ago to see the marches firsthand. His daughter had a lot of questions and wondered why they were there.

“I said, ‘The reason why we’re here is a Black man was killed by the police again, and it wasn’t right.’ She knows that Black and brown people have had to struggle and people look at them very differently,” Redd said.

We talked to several African American dads who’ve had an impact in the Richmond community to hear their thoughts on George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the difficult conversations they’ve had to have with their children in the past few weeks.

Darryl Watts, basketball coach at Armstrong High School, father of Michiah, 22, and Ashlie, 20

Darryl Watts has been the basketball coach at Armstrong High School for 18 years and coached thousands of kids. Until last year, he also worked through parks and recreation with young boys in the public housing communities at Fairfield and Mosby courts.

“I have a thousand sons. I get phone calls all the time. I tell them, ‘Even though I don’t coach you anymore, I can still coach you in life,’” Watts said. “I always smile when I get those texts on my birthday or Father’s Day. I look at my girls and thank them for sharing me with so many people.”

Earlier this month, Watts helped organize a rally for equality with other coaches in the Richmond area. The rally drew 300 to 400 people at the Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue who peacefully marched to the Robert E. Lee statue.

“[The march] wasn’t for us, but for the next generation. I want my grandkids to feel good about their interactions with the police. For the world to be a better place where all people are treated fairly,” he said.

The most important thing lately, he said, is teaching his players how to interact with the police. How to behave when they’re pulled over. To turn on the light, to keep their hands on the wheel, to move slowly when reaching for the glove box.

“I’ve had guns pointed at me. I could easily be George Floyd,” Watts said. “I try to tell them what that interaction should look like so they can go home, so their life isn’t in danger,” Watts said.

“The George Floyd [killing] is eye-opening for a lot of Americans. They don’t know these things happen. A 55-year-old white man can’t relate to my experiences because he’s never had a gun pointed at him by police or had police stop him to ask him where he’s going and why.”

“I had a real good conversation with one of my players not too long ago. He didn’t see the point of the protests. I had to make him understand that if your voice is not heard, you don’t exist. If you expect change, you have to demand change. That’s the reason for the protests.”

Lester Johnson, owner of Mama J’s, father of Lena, age 3

Yolanda Johnson  

Lester Johnson and his daughter, Lena, age 3.

Lester Johnson has been dealing with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic closing his doors and then the pressure of the protests. While his restaurant, Mama J’s in Jackson Ward, hasn’t been damaged, he said, “It’s a stressful time.”

He’s worried about the health and safety of his staff, his customers and his family, including his mother, Mama J, who is 73 years old.

“I’m not in any rush to reopen,” he said. “I’m not sold that we’re done with this yet. Money isn’t that important to me to lose a loved one or my customers or my staff.”

He watched the video of Floyd’s death, and, like many, the image is seared on his memory.

“It’s tragic, to sit there and watch a man lose his life over nine minutes. For the most part, everybody who looked at it felt the same way about it. Part of America’s problem is that it’s tried to avoid that conversation for so long. That’s where the frustration came in. George Floyd is a catalyst. This is something that’s been percolating in our society for a long time,” Johnson said.

“I hope that with everything going on, the world is a better place than it feels like it is right now. Some good things are coming out of the frustration and pain,” he said. For his daughter, he said, “I hope the world she grows up in is a more loving world than the one we currently live in. And that people will show more empathy toward their fellow men and women. I hope that the world is a better place for her.”

KJ Cook, community outreach coordinator in the office of the attorney general, father of Kyra, 6 months old

BOB BROWN 

KJ Cook poses with his 6-month-old daughter, Kyra inside the family home in Midlothian, VA Friday, June 19, 2020.

In 2015, 12-year-old Amiya Moses was killed by a stray bullet while playing on the sidewalk in her North Side neighborhood. KJ Cook, a 36-year-old outreach coordinator, attended the same middle school Amiya did, Henderson Middle School, and felt a connection.

“I remember going to that middle school. I remember some of my fellow students being killed and wondering who’s going to be next? Could it be me? I remember feeling helpless,” he said.

He created a scholarship program honoring Amiya Moses for high school seniors who want to major in criminal justice in college.

“I wanted to help someone,” Cook said. “I want to show them there is more to life, more to aspire.”

As a new dad, he’s been watching the marches for Black Lives Matter and hopes that “we’re in a moment of great change.” What he would most like to see is changes in the school system.

“I went to Richmond Public Schools. It’s not the kids’ fault that they live in an impoverished neighborhood while other kids live in a ZIP code that sends them to a school with way more resources. If you’re equipping one group of people and not another, it’s unfair. These kids are going to schools with leaking ceilings, with no heat, no air conditioning, those are just the basics. That’s an unfair burden on those kids.”

Cook grew up in Fairfield Court with a single parent and now works in Gilpin Court, trying to reduce gang violence. The biggest challenge, he said, is trying to keep kids interested in school.

“They’re being pushed through, they’re not being educated. Getting them to school is a struggle. If they don’t like basketball or football, there are not a lot of resources for them. If they’re a kid who likes music, there’s nothing for them. They don’t have luxuries. Some of the rec teams didn’t have the resources for uniforms and couldn’t play,” he said.

His biggest dream is that RPS will change the zoning laws in the future.

“I don’t know if it’s just me wishing on a star, but I hope RPS drops the school ZIP code,” he said. “So that kids can have a choice where they go to school. Some of the brightest kids are not being engaged. If they get the same level playing field [as their white counterparts], you’d see so much potential coming from these kids. If they can see the world, get past their neighborhood, get past surviving and helping their parents pay the rent, I think you’d see a world of difference in the inner city of Richmond.”

Stephen Lewis, assistant athletic director at St. Christopher’s, father of daughter Ryan, 10

ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/TIMES-DISPATCH  

Stephen Lewis said he’s using the moment to teach his daughter Ryan about race relations.

As an assistant athletic director at St. Christopher’s, a private boys’ school in Richmond, Stephen Lewis works with more white athletes than Black. In the weeks since the Black Lives Matter marches started, he’s been trying to help educate his players on racial disparities.

“I’m in a unique position,” Lewis said. “From what I’m hearing right now, they don’t understand what’s going on or why it’s going on. I can help by talking to my guys, making sure they understand and have empathy for teammates who are minorities.”

He also tries to delicately teach his daughter about what’s happening.

“Right now, I’m trying to educate my daughter. She is a breath of fresh air. When she comes into the room, you know she’s there. She’s one of the happiest people you’ll meet. She’s a leader. At her school, all her buddies look up to her. She doesn’t understand race relations. I’m trying to educate her about what’s going on, why it’s going on, why people don’t like people who look like us. She’s only 10, and these are difficult conversations. But I’m raising her to treat everybody the way you want to be treated. As long as you do that, things will work out well for you.”

He spoke with his team about a teammate who lives in the East End and has a 30-minute drive to school and another player who lives in Windsor Farms two minutes away.

“How many cops will the student from Windsor Farms see on their way to school versus the student coming from the East End? It’s helping them see what other people have to go through and what their lives are like.”

“[Racism] is a systemic situation. It’s been going on for over 400 years. We can’t think that everything will change in a heartbeat. My thing here in Richmond is to help change things that can be changed within our communities.”

Antonio Redd, health specialist for Richmond City Public Schools and associate minister at Second Baptist Church West End Richmond, father of Amaris Gabrielle, 5, and Ace Garvey, 2

Antonio Redd  

Antonio Redd with his children Ace Garvey, 2 (front), and Amaris Gabrielle, 5, said he teaches the value of equality.

Antonio Redd, a 35-year-old health specialist and father of two, has been a leader in the fight for answers in the death of Marcus-David Peters, a Black man killed in a confrontation with city police during a mental health crisis in 2018.

“It’s unfortunate that two years later, somebody else had to die for our initial demands to even be recognized and heard,” he said. He has been working with a coalition of the family of Peters and community organizers to get Marcus-David Peters’ case reopened and to create a “Marcus Alert System,” which would mandate that mental health professionals be the first responders in a mental health crisis. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney recently said he would support the Marcus Alert.

“After two years of work, someone else had to die for [the mayor] to even consider it. It’s the same with the statues coming down. Someone else had to die before we even considered the possibility of bringing those statues down,” Redd said.

“I want my daughter to know how beautiful she is, but also the obstacles she might face growing up,” Redd said. “I want her to know that she has to work really, really hard because of the skin she lives in. My son, too. I want them to know, at a young age, the importance of being involved in the movement and the fight for justice and equality and in dismantling racism. I want them to see me involved, to see their mother involved, to recognize when something isn’t right and to fight to make it right.”


Virginia
Republicans to decide Warner opponent Tuesday as Virginians vote in congressional primaries

Republicans in Virginia will nominate a candidate Tuesday to run against heavily favored U.S. Sen. Mark Warner in a primary overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic.

In the Richmond area, a Democratic challenger takes on Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th, and two Democrats vie for the right to challenge Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st, whose district includes Hanover County.

Tuesday’s elections, with eight primaries across the state, are the second in Virginia since the start of the pandemic, with more than 1,500 people in Virginia having died from COVID-19.

Polling places will look much different than they did under normal circumstances, with election workers outfitted in personal protective equipment and fewer people actually at the polls, given a statewide push to have voters cast absentee ballots.

While the May contests were municipal elections, on Tuesday voters will pick congressional nominees. Among other contests of note, former Rep. Scott Taylor, who lost his 2nd District seat to Democrat Elaine Luria in 2018, embarks on a comeback attempt. He faces Ben Loyola and Jarome Bell for the GOP nomination in a district based in Virginia Beach.

In the sprawling 5th District, which extends from Fauquier County through Charlottesville and Danville and to the North Carolina border, four Democrats — R.D. Huffstetler, Cameron Webb, Claire Russo and John Lesinski — are seeking their party’s nomination. The winner will take on Republican Bob Good, who ousted Rep. Denver Riggleman in a GOP convention.

The largest primary scheduled for Tuesday is a statewide contest for who will run against Warner in November.

Alissa Baldwin, a Nottoway County teacher who lives in Victoria in Lunenburg County; Daniel Gade, an Army veteran turned American University professor and Alexandria resident; and Army reservist Thomas Speciale, a Woodbridge resident, are all hoping to become the first Republican to carry the state in a general election since Bob McDonnell led a GOP sweep for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in 2009.

Voters in Virginia do not register by party affiliation, meaning any registered voter can cast a ballot in the Senate primary. However, voters must choose whether to cast ballots in Democratic contests or Republican contests. For instance, a voter may not vote in both the GOP U.S. Senate primary and a Democratic primary for a U.S. House nomination.

The primaries were initially scheduled for June 9, but Gov. Ralph Northam ordered in April that they be pushed back two weeks because of COVID-19’s spread. The chief executive sought to move the May municipal elections, in which more than 100 localities decided on new leaders, to November, but the legislature rejected that proposal.

The May elections went smoothly across the state and provided a preview for what voters and officials will expect Tuesday.

“It’s obviously a very different year,” said Virginia Elections Commissioner Chris Piper.

The agency has given personal protective equipment, including gloves, masks, face shields and hand sanitizer, to local election officers. It has also distributed single-use pens and folders, which officials also instituted during last month’s elections.

Piper said election officers cannot require people to wear masks while they vote, but the state is recommending it.

“There’s an inherent right to vote,” Piper said. “We can certainly set up the polling place and ensure the safety of all the voters and the election officers by enforcing social distancing. However, the right to vote is an inherent one.”

Tuesday is the last election in the state with a photo ID requirement after Democrats in the General Assembly passed legislation removing the mandate. That measure takes effect July 1.

Polls open at 6 a.m. and will close at 7 p.m. Election results could be reported later Tuesday night than normal, Piper said, because of the surge in absentee ballots, though local registrars have been encouraged to pre-process absentee ballots ahead of Tuesday.

Senate GOP

A civics teacher, a Bronze Star recipient and an Army reservist are looking to unseat Warner. All three are seeking elected office for the first time.

In interviews last month, Gade and Speciale said they see their bids as extensions of their military service while Baldwin said she hopes to restore her three favorite words in the U.S. Constitution, “We the People,” back into the mainstream. Baldwin would be the first female U.S. senator from Virginia.

Gade, a Bronze Star recipient whose right leg was amputated after he was wounded in Iraq, has raised substantially more money than Baldwin or Speciale, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The 45-year-old has reported a total of $661,713 raised, compared with $88,626 for Speciale and $8,414 for Baldwin, as of June 3. Warner has raised $9.8 million.

Warner, who served as governor from 2002 to 2006, is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. In 2014, he narrowly beat Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who went on to run for governor in 2017.

Warner is seen as the favorite in the election, in part, due to his advantages in name recognition and his fundraising ability. Virginia Democrats have also seen an advantage in presidential election years, with larger voter turnout. Democrats have made substantial gains in the state since President Donald Trump’s 2016 election.

Warner is unopposed for the Democratic nomination.

1st District

Two Democrats are running to challenge Wittman, a six-time incumbent, in November.

The district covers parts of Prince William County at its northern point, the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck, and Hanover County in the Richmond area.

Qasim Rashid, who last year lost to state Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George, and Lavangelene “Vangie” Williams, a strategic analyst for a federal contractor, are seeking the nomination. Williams lost to Wittman in the 2018 general election.

The mother of six won the party’s nomination in 2018 with 40% of the vote against two opponents. In the general election, however, Wittman beat her by roughly 10 percentage points. If elected, Williams, a King George resident, would be the first woman of color elected to Congress from Virginia, according to her campaign.

Rashid is fresh off a November loss to Stuart in an election that saw the state Senate flip from Republican to Democratic control. The Pakistani immigrant who lives in Stafford has authored three books. He has more than doubled Williams in fundraising, according to VPAP, with $391,877 raised compared with $134,304 for Williams.

Wittman, who is unopposed for the Republican nomination, has garnered $976,479 in support.

4th District

After running unopposed for the Democratic nomination in 2018, McEachin, D-4th, faces a challenger this year.

Cazel Levine, of Chesterfield County, would be the first woman to represent the 4th District. She worked for 10 years for the U.S. Department of Defense and has worked with the Department of the Interior, according to her campaign.

The 4th District includes the cities of Richmond and Petersburg, as well as southern Chesterfield and eastern Henrico County. The district extends south to the state line and east to Chesapeake.

Levine has raised $21,712 to run against McEachin, according to VPAP. McEachin was first elected to the Virginia legislature in 1995 before being elected to Congress in 2016. He has raised $551,602, according to VPAP.

Republicans in the district are set to hold a convention June 27 to decide on their nominee. Leon Benjamin, the senior pastor at New Life Harvest Church in Richmond, is the lone candidate seeking the nomination, according to VPAP.


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Local
Reclaiming spaces: Portraits of pain, love and liberation at the Lee monument

Three weeks ago, coats of spray paint had yet to completely coat the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee monument.

At the time, the removal of locally controlled Confederate monuments was still illegal in Virginia, pending legislation set to take effect July 1, and Lee’s statue — a representation of oppression and racism — stood tall along the avenue’s mile-long stretch.

But Richmonders protesting police violence have reclaimed the space in the former capital of the Confederacy, building on a movement that calls for defunding police departments and reinvesting money into Black communities. A sign now unofficially renames the location as “Marcus-David Peters Circle” after the high school teacher killed by a Richmond police officer in 2018. Graffiti lines the barricades and the statue’s steps and walls in a sea of condemnations against police brutality.

As residents await the official takedown of the Lee statue, which Gov. Ralph Northam declared would be removed before being held off by an injunction, the site continues to be one of public gatherings that never before existed.

Here are a few stories about the people who show up.

The family of Serge Maboneza

Living in a white neighborhood, Serge Maboneza said it took a minute for his daughter to realize that she’s beautiful. At 4 years old, her favorite shows are mostly white characters and her friends are blonde and pale.

But Maboneza persists.

“She’s the most beautiful girl in the world and she knows now,” he said. “It’s my responsibility as a dad to make her understand that you can be Black and you’re still beautiful.”

As Keza twirled in her flower-printed dress and danced with her brother at the base of the monument Saturday, Maboneza’s eyes darted to the cars circling around. He’s heard of the possibility of counterprotesters; he’s seen the videos of police tear-gassing crowds and fires being lit on Richmond’s streets.

He didn’t want them to witness that and feel fear.

“I thought let’s bring them over here so they can see … everybody putting their hands together and fighting for a reason. I want them to believe in something and fight for something,” Maboneza said. “I’m hoping that their lives will be different.”

SABRINA MORENO/TIMES-DISPATCH  

Stephanie Jackson, Angel Pervall and Raymond Loney joined the crowd around the Lee monument. “We know this pain,” says Pervall, whose brother, Marco Loney, was killed by a police officer in 1995.

The family of Marco Loney

At the age of 9, Angel Pervall’s brother was ripped from her life by a bullet. His hands were above his head, facing away from the Richmond police officer in 1995 who shot him in the back. The family was told police thought he had a weapon. He didn’t. Officers weren’t charged.

It’s a story they’ve heard over the years with different faces and names: Rayshard Brooks, Michael Brown, Marcus-David Peters. For 25 years, the Marco Loney family has experienced a trauma that will never subside, Pervall said. The family came to the monument to add his name to the pictures already surrounding the monument.

“Marco Antoine Loney is a part of this movement,” she said, looking toward the monument. “We just want everybody to know that this is not anything new. … We know this pain.”

We’re a George Floyd family, she said.

ZACH JOACHIM/TIMES-DISPATCH  

This is Jay, Lewis and BB. They’re carrying guns and walkie-talkies, and say they’re here as “peacekeepers.” “We are not aggressing anybody, we’re not looking for a fight,” BB said.”We will not provoke. If we are threatened we will act.”

Jay, BB and Lewis

They carry assault rifles and wear bulletproof jackets. They have bandannas over their faces and don camouflage or black clothing. To many, they may appear ominous. But to them, they are keepers of the peace.

If you were at the Lee statue Saturday, or if you’ve been to any high-traffic areas frequented by protesters this month, you’ve probably noticed these individuals patrolling the peripheries of demonstrations.

Jay, BB and Lewis were three of about 10 “peacekeepers” strolling around the statue Saturday. They asked that their full names not be used in the interest of their safety.

The trio said they’ve received threats from white supremacists. They spoke while seated on the barricade surrounding the statue, their eyes scanning the scene around them.

“Somebody has got to keep us safe,” said Lewis, noting that he and other peacekeepers do not trust the police to have protesters’ best interests in mind.

“We’ve got to be our own police.”

BB spoke through a black bandanna, intermittently pausing to turn his head to the side and communicate through a walkie-talkie. He said Saturday was particularly anxious compared to other days of protest because there were unsettling rumors that groups meaning harm to peaceful demonstrators were in town.

“It’s a sinister intent; we’ve been occupying this space for weeks and now they want to march,” he said, referring to groups who seek to keep Richmond’s Confederate monuments in place.

Other armed peacekeepers occasionally walked up to the trio, speaking under their breath, nodding their heads. The trio declined to divulge the contents of those communications, but said their brethren share the same goal — peace.

“We are not aggressing anybody; we’re not looking for a fight,” Jay said. “We will not provoke. If we are threatened, we will act.”

The peacekeepers described their state as “calm but alert.” When an armed group of Right to Bear Arms Virginia advocates entered the circle, Jay, BB, Lewis and other peacekeepers walked over to them with caution.

Hands rested in the vicinity of triggers on both sides of the exchange. But after a peacekeeper said, “We’re just making sure you’re not KKK” to the Second Amendment advocates, the groups shared an amicable chuckle.

Keia Shearn, Ashé Wilson and Devin White

Keia Shearn, Ashé Wilson and Devin White said they have all been victims of racial profiling.

And so, as they observed the spectacle of the Lee statue together for the first time Saturday, they said the experience was deeply personal.

“I wanted to get a closer look at all the lives that have been lost,” said Shearn, gesturing at the memorials to victims of police brutality that surround the monument.

“The artwork, everyone with the flags and signs, that’s all wonderful. But it’s also sad because so many lives have been lost. It’s heartbreaking as well.”

White is Shearn’s son. She said it was important to her that her child see the monument and accompanying demonstrations because they illustrate “everything people are doing for our culture, our race.”

Shearn and White are from the Richmond area. Wilson is from New York, and said he has been arrested before because of the color of his skin.

Although the past few weeks have been turbulent, he said, he was enthused to see a multitude of ethnicities represented at the statue.

“I’m glad to see a lot of different colors,” he said.

“Hopefully this makes a stamp on someone’s heart.

Based on parental concerns, the names of some children have been removed from this article.


Local
breaking
UPDATED: Armed airport police officer arrested at building overlooking Lee statue

A 38-year-old officer with the Richmond International Airport Police Department was arrested and charged with trespassing after he was taken into custody at a building overlooking the Lee monument Saturday morning.

Riley O’Shaughnessey, of Richmond, was armed with a handgun, but police said there will not be any weapons charge as the gun was being carried lawfully.

In a news release, police said officers were called around 6:30 a.m. to investigate someone spotted on the roof of an unoccupied building overlooking the Lee statue on Monument Avenue. At 7:47 a.m., officers were preparing to enter the building when O’Shaughnessey was spotted outside and taken into custody, the release said.

Just before 8 a.m., the Richmond Police Department on Twitter warned people to avoid the area. “Please avoid the area around the Lee Monument. RPD officers are currently dealing with an armed individual in the 1800 block of Monument Avenue. For your safety please stay away,” the tweet stated.

At 8:39 a.m., RPD tweeted that no shots had been fired and the building at 1805 Monument Ave. was secure. A couple of hours later, RPD tweeted the situation was resolved and “one individual is in custody.”

According to online records, the building at that address is named the Lee Medical Building and was built in 1950.

Public records indicate that O’Shaughnessey has lived at three apartments in the city’s Fan District between 2016 and this year, including one apartment in the 1600 block of Monument Avenue.

A search of Virginia court records shows that he has a few minor traffic infractions in Chesapeake and Louisa County dating to 2006.

The Capital Region Airport Commission had no immediate comment Saturday afternoon on the situation and does not comment on personnel matters, said Troy Bell, spokesman for Richmond International Airport.

Police said O’Shaughnessey was not carrying any law enforcement ID when he was arrested. Police searched the building, and nothing else was found.

“The Department would like to thank those individuals who assisted the officers by reporting the trespasser and providing valuable information at the scene,” said the police statement, adding that the incident is still being investigated.

The Lee monument has become the epicenter of three weeks of protests and gatherings in Richmond after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Friday night, upward of 500 people gathered at the monument to celebrate Juneteenth with a candlelight vigil, hosted by musician and Petersburg native Trey Songz.

Hundreds stayed at the monument well after Friday night’s peaceful event was over, and some brought tents, indicating they would stay through the night. About 100 people were there Saturday morning.