Richmond police declared an unlawful assembly on Wednesday night for the fourth time this week, resulting in four arrests.

Hundreds of protesters gathered at the Robert E. Lee monument were ordered to disperse just before 11:30 p.m. when police declared an unlawful assembly.

After chanting at police, most of the protesters left the area and went on an hours-long march that disbanded shortly before 4 a.m. Police believe some committed vandalism.

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, complained in an email Thursday that, “The Governor’s decision to enforce the unconstitutional restrictions on use of the public forum at the Lee Monument has allowed police to call protest ‘trespass’ and turned trespass into ‘riot.’”

“Forcing people off the Lee Monument grounds into the streets is a strategy that invites rather than deescalates the potential for violence,” she added.

Demonstrations have been banned at the monument during nighttime hours and, for the second night in a row, police cleared a protest gathering there, citing trespassing violations at 11:25 p.m. Wednesday. Once the roughly 300 participants moved into the surrounding street, some started throwing rocks at police, authorities said. That’s when an unlawful assembly was declared, according to the Richmond Police Department, who put out a statement early Thursday morning.

Gastañaga contends that an assembly does not violate the unlawful assembly law simply because it is in violation of a regulation of questionable validity. “Under our laws, government must have credible, objective evidence that there is a clear and present danger of violence before anyone can restrain speech by declaring an assembly ‘unlawful’ and trigger arrests for anyone’s continued presence,” she wrote.

“If police had simply monitored events at the Lee Monument last evening and responded to actual criminal conduct when it occurred and where it occurred rather than forcing hundreds of people off the monument property and into our streets, everyone would have been safer,” she said.

Corinne Geller, spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, wrote in an email that as the protesters were leaving the Lee monument grounds, one of them was illegally blinding the state troopers with a laser.

“After repeatedly doing this with the laser light, one sponge munition was deployed by state police in the direction of that individual,” according to Geller.

The sponge-tipped round is a standard non-lethal, low-hazard munition used by law enforcement for safe crowd dispersal, according to state police. No rubber bullets were deployed by state police overnight, said Geller. Geller and a spokesman for the Richmond Police Department said neither organization has rubber bullets.

She wrote that after leaving the Lee monument grounds, about a dozen protesters staged on North Allen Avenue, south of the monument. State police remained on site along with a Virginia Department of General Services crew cleaning up the trash left on the grounds.

According to Geller, “That same individual remained on scene and, again, began illegally blinding the troopers with his laser. A second sponge munition was deployed by state police in the direction of that individual. He stopped the illegal action at that point.”

Those were the only two munitions deployed by the Virginia State Police overnight, according to Geller.

No chemical irritants were used, according to police.

Of the four people arrested, two were charged with felonies: one for pointing a laser at a law enforcement aircraft and another for assaulting a law enforcement officer who was struck in the face by a shield carried by a protester, police said.

The two Richmond men arrested for alleged felonies were identified by police as Jonathan Wolverton, 21, charged with interfering with aircraft, and Mychael Montgomery, 25, charged with assault on a law enforcement officer.

Police said Thursday that they are also investigating several acts of vandalism, which they say occurred during Wednesday night’s protests as demonstrators were moving away from the Lee monument.

After the crowd was dispersed around the Lee monument, police said many protesters headed west where the “major vandalism” occurred to two businesses, one in the 2000 block of West Broad Street and the other in the 1900 block of West Main Street.

“Surveillance video and eyewitness reports document the vandalism and will be used by the detectives to identify which protestors were responsible for the damage,” said a statement from the police department Thursday.

fgreen@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6340

Staff writers Zach Joachim and Lily Betts contributed to this report.

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