Authorities arrested 233 people in Richmond overnight Sunday and into Monday during protests that carried on for the third straight night and past an 8 p.m. curfew imposed on Sunday.
At a news conference in front of City Hall on Monday, Police Chief William Smith said those arrested were mostly from outside the city and engaged in looting or vandalizing property, rather than peacefully protesting.
But that contradicts accounts from attorneys and those arrested, who were at the Richmond City Justice Center most of Monday waiting for release.
When asked to address some of the inconsistencies, Smith said in an email late Monday, as a fourth night of protests was underway, that the information he provided Monday morning “was based on very preliminary data.”
“We will provide full transparency as soon as we can,” the chief said. “I am aware of several questionable incidents and we are investigating those and will also release the findings of those investigations.”
Earlier, Smith said the information he provided at the news conference was based on “a lot more intelligence about what’s been going on over the last three days.” He said he’d gotten information from the local FBI office, and that the event had air support and surveillance to support the arrests.
“Our enforcement of the curfew was directed solely at those that were involved in violence and destruction of our city,” Smith said.
Two men said in phone interviews they had not been a part of any demonstrations overnight, but were at a friend’s house and were walking home when they were detained, cuffed with zip ties and transported to the jail. There, they were held for hours only to be released on summonses for a Class 1 misdemeanor for violating the curfew, which is punishable by up to one year in prison and/or a fine of up to $2,500.
“We didn’t really realize it was going to be that serious,” said Stephen Delong, 23, who lives in Richmond but is from another part of the state. They were walking home attempting to avoid the bulk of the protest when they turned the corner and saw a squad of police in riot gear. “They were just picking up people left and right.”
Delong was with a friend who didn’t want to give his name but corroborated Delong’s account. The friend is an active VCU student, as were many of the 90-some people attorney Charlie Schmidt talked to outside the jail.
“This narrative that it’s out-of-town violent agitators is just false,” said Schmidt, explaining that many of those he interviewed as they were released either live or go to school here in Richmond or the surrounding counties. “They’re not being very forthcoming with who is out there, and what does it matter. The whole false narrative is really dismissive of the issues that are going on.”
Schmidt, a local attorney who provided legal aid outside the jail, along with Matthew Perry, co-director of the Richmond Community Bail Fund, said they heard people as they were released say they had been kept handcuffed for the duration of their detention and were corralled into tight spaces with very little social distancing or COVID-related precautions.
Delong and his friend called their treatment at the jail unsanitary and inhumane. They were given water bottles to share, but being cuffed, they couldn’t hold the bottles themselves so Richmond City sheriff’s deputies had to feed them “like hamsters in a cage,” Delong said.
They were provided little food, and one bathroom for all 233 people. Sheriff Antionette V. Irving did not respond to messages Monday for comment on the conditions.
Schmidt, who was at the jail for more than 14 hours Monday, said the deputies seemed “on edge ... they seemed to be really caught off guard.” He said at about 7 p.m. that he was still waiting for clients to be released.
It particularly unnerved him because he said he was expecting more of the same Monday night into Tuesday. As Schmidt left the jail Monday evening, he said he saw two additional prison buses arrive — two were already present Sunday night — to provide more seating and mobile processing space.
“As time progressed, things started getting worse and worse,” Delong said. He was released around 3 p.m. Monday — about 15 hours after his arrest. “It got intense. People were tired, thirsty, hungry. They were mad, sad.”
Schmidt and Perry said the people they spoke to were traumatized by their experience.
Having set up a community hotline, Perry’s organization received 62 names of people were arrested throughout the night. As of Monday evening, the organization has not provided bail for anyone being released, as no one has been released on a secured bond, according to Perry.
In the early afternoon on Monday, about 30 people had gathered in the parking lot outside the jail. Several of them said they were waiting for protesters to be released, and had brought supplies including cigarettes, tissues, cases of bottled water, coffee, soda and doughnuts.
Suddenly, a fistfight involving four people broke out and was stopped by sheriff’s deputies. It was unclear if the people involved in the fight were among those awaiting the release of protesters from the jail. Deputies told them to vacate the premises and park across the street.
In addition to charges of curfew violation, Chief Smith said arrests included charges for commercial burglary, vandalism and firearm charges. Twenty-three guns were seized, including six stolen from a pawnshop that was looted overnight.
Everyone Schmidt spoke with was issued a summons for a curfew violation, he said. Summonses for misdemeanors can, and should, he added, be issued by officers at the scene without arresting the person, Schmidt said. State law allows for three exceptions: the person is a harm to themselves, there is a belief that they not show up for court, or for fear that they will continue to violate the law, Schmidt said.
Typically at protests, police often set up a staging area to process people who are charged, said Schmidt, who previously worked for 10 years with the ACLU as a legal observer at many protests including in Charlottesville in 2017. Arrests of this number are unheard of, in his experience.
Schmidt said people were pulled from their cars as they tried to go home.
Smith said 16 cars were stopped and towed, which he said were providing “vehicle-born support” to the “violent protesters.” Three of the cars were from out of state — North Carolina, Rhode Island and Colorado. Eleven were from outside the city of Richmond but were from Virginia. Two cars were registered in Richmond.
Smith denied any use of force in the arrests, though he did say officers used tear gas against protesters and that a reporter was knocked down by an officer.
“The chief’s definition of ‘force’ and ours appear to be different,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, in a statement. “Video available of policing last evening shows that rather than interact with people, warn them that they were violating the curfew, issue summonses for the violation and take people into custody only if they continued to violate the law, the police chose to tear gas people as a means to round them up, then forced them to lie on the ground while being handcuffed prior to being taken into custody and transported to a jail where they face possible infection with COVID-19.
“In addition, there is video that appears to show police randomly pepper spraying people on the street and, in one instance, on their balcony, without warning. Finally, video shows at least one reporter standing away from any police action being told that they had to leave the area for ‘security’ reasons. Richmond Police have used that tactic to keep the public from “seeing” what should be public behavior before; that’s not acceptable and should not be permitted by department policy.”
Later on Monday, Smith said he was “aware of several questionable incidents” and that police were investigating. Smith said he’d release those findings.
Earlier, Smith said the only complaint he had received involved a reporter from Virginia Public Media who was tackled, which Smith called “unintentional.” Mayor Levar Stoney had initiated the complaint after the reporter, Roberto Roldan, tweeted about it.
“The Virginia Press Association condemns the use of force by some law enforcement officers against several journalists covering the Richmond protests this past weekend,” the association said in a statement. “The role of reporters in covering demonstrations is essential to informing the public about what is happening in their communities.
“The First Amendment protects newsgathering and prohibits the government from using police power to interfere with press freedoms. When reporters clearly identify themselves as members of the press, they should be afforded all the protections guaranteed them by the U.S. Constitution.”
The Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project, which was created after a Richmond officer killed Marcus-David Peters in 2017, has since been asking for a civilian review board to investigate complaints against police. Before these recent protests began, they had set up a hotline asking for tips about officer misconduct. A spokesman said their calls have picked up significantly since Friday.
The protests were in response to last week’s killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Similar protests have sparked around the country.
Sunday’s gathering in Richmond began peacefully, as they have each night since Friday, but extended well beyond Stoney’s curfew that began at 8 p.m. Sunday and lasted through 6 a.m. Monday. The curfew has been in effect nightly since Sunday and is in effect until 6 a.m. Wednesday.
Also on Monday, Richmond police said a man who was shot during Saturday night’s protests no longer has life-threatening injuries.