A vigil was held Friday at Virginia Commonwealth University to honor a graduate of the school who was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer last month and to protest the university’s response.
About 40 people gathered at the VCU Compass, a central meeting place on campus near the school library. More than 100 students, alumni, groups and others associated with the university have signed an open letter to school officials that asks them to acknowledge the death of Marcus-David Peters — a 2016 graduate with cum laude honors who was a resident assistant at VCU — and condemn his killing.
Peters was naked and unarmed when he was shot along Interstate 95/64 after lunging at officer Michael Nyantakyi, who first unsuccessfully deployed a Taser on Peters. He died at VCU Medical Center.
“We, the VCU and Richmond community, find ourselves so disheartened and ashamed by the lack of response from VCU in regards to the unjust killing of Marcus-David Peters by a local Richmond police officer,” says the letter to VCU officials. “The university’s silence on the death of such a high-achieving student has been deafening. It has been a stark contrast to the values being expressed by this administration. VCU can no longer improve or save Marcus-David Peters’ life, but we can still can make his death meaningful.”
On Friday, VCU spokesman Michael Porter noted that the school released a statement May 22 on the Facebook page for VCU Residential Life and Housing. The statement said Peters was “well-known and respected as a student leader in the VCU community.”
The encounter between Peters and the officer was caught on Nyantakyi’s body-worn camera and showed Peters having what his family, and the officer, called a mental health crisis. The 24-year-old Henrico County man taught high school in Essex County.
The letter, which was delivered to 12 different VCU departments, one of the authors said, made two demands of the administration:
- to “release a statement acknowledging the loss of Marcus-David Peters, a valuable member of the VCU and Richmond community”; and
- to decry the use of force that killed Peters.
The letter gave an 18-day deadline — for the “18 seconds to make a decision that ultimately ended the life of Marcus-David Peters” — from the receipt of the letter for a response. The deadline expired Friday.
Porter said officials met with students a few weeks ago and that staff members from Student Affairs and Diversity and Inclusion “have had additional contact with the students.”
Khudai Tanveer, one of the student organizers, said VCU administrators had been communicating with the group and were discussing policy changes in light of Peters’ death. But President Michael Rao’s absences from these talks was noticeable, she said.
“VCU stated in multiple ways they would not be meeting [our] demand,” Tanveer told the crowd that gathered Friday. “They have asked and said that they are making moves, that there will be policy changes, and we will hold them to that. This is another way of us showing that we are here, we aren’t going way, and we want these changes. We know that they can do better, that they have to do better.”
After the short vigil, the group marched to Rao’s office, chanting: “Who do you value? Who do you serve? VCU, you’ve not said a word!”
Marchers left several banners — one said “Silence is violence” — on the steps and bushes in front of Rao’s office.