The Black Lives Matter movement is and should be led by Black people; my role as a middle-aged white man is to listen, learn, and use my privileges to support. Ten days ago, I visited Richmond to record BLM stories by the Lee statue as it and Lee’s legacy are carted off to their proper resting place in the dustbin of history. It was an honor to witness the people in my hometown, long a bastion of oppression, recount feelings of liberation and hope.
But amidst the joy, there were ominous testimonies from two Richmonders. A Black man warned of the KKK, gunshots, and fear. “From daytime to nighttime, it’s two different worlds,” he said. A white woman shook with trauma as she recounted her own nauseating baptism in police brutality several nights earlier.
I believed these stories, but as a person with my unjust racial and gender privileges, I had never witnessed such things. I don’t know what the right thing is for me to do in this movement, so I went to Richmond at night this past week to witness. What I saw – and I would not use these words if they were not accurate – was a horrific orgy of extralegal violence, arbitrary arrest, assault and battery on peaceful protesters, and official deceit to justify it, all recorded on video.
You don’t have to believe me. You can see it with your own eyes.
WARNING: GRAPHIC VIDEOS BELOW
June 23, 2020, 1:30 AM: Attack on Nonviolent Protesters at Richmond City Hall
The Marcus-David Peters Plaza (Lee Circle) has become the center of Richmond’s BLM protests and organizing. On June 22, Virginia State Police, Richmond Police, Capitol Police and Virginia DGS announced “important public safety changes” that closed the Circle from sunset to sunrise. The protesters complied, went to Richmond City Hall to stage a teach-in and named the area Reclamation Square. They used traffic barriers to block off the 900 block of Marshall Street, North of City Hall, an illegal but nonviolent action on public property.
Approximately 100 police officers from Virginia State and Richmond Police showed up at 12:30 AM. They marched to the corner of Marshall and 10th at 12:45 AM and held formation in riot gear for approximately 45 minutes. During this time, a loudspeaker repeatedly announced that the protest “had been declared an unlawful assembly” and that “failure to disperse will result in arrest and the use of chemical agents.” The protesters did not move and did not engage in any violence. Nevertheless, at 1:27 AM, Richmond and Virginia State Police brutally attacked them.
Part 1: Gassing
The woman in front of the camera at the beginning is a member of the press. We are observing the street protesters from a plaza. Police storm the plaza and launch gas and pepper spray at the nonviolent protesters on the street. You can see the protesters retreating and several gas canisters are thrown back at the police. At the end of this clip a protester holding an umbrella is shot with a tear gas canister.
Part 2: Assaults
Then it turns nightmarish. The police start running and grabbing people who are trying to get away as clouds of gas rise to envelop the City Seal on City Hall.
Part 3: Screaming Victims
It becomes a horror scene. You can hear blood-curdling screams from victims. The light has changed as if there’s a fire. I try to film the screams and the police come at me though I’m far away from the protests. White privilege kept me safe while others were brutalized for their political views. It went from peaceful to this in less than three minutes.
How did the Richmond Times-Dispatch summarize the events? “A Dozen Arrested Early Tuesday at Richmond City Hall Protest.” And Governor Northam, whose state mansion sits a couple blocks from here and whose police were mostly responsible for the police violence? “Mostly these demonstrations have been peaceful, but here in Richmond we continue to see nightly conflicts between demonstrators and our police. After three weeks it is no longer clear what the goals are or a path to achieve them. Clearly Richmond needs a different path forward. These nightly conflicts cannot continue indefinitely.”
June 26, 2020, 11 PM: Lee Circle Cleared Followed by Attacks, Arbitrary Arrest, Assault, Official Lies
American citizens have the constitutional right to peacefully protest and engage in political speech. The freedom to criticize government officials is the cornerstone of the First Amendment.
The dubious police orders and shows of force continued every day at Lee statue so that peaceful protesters would leave what is, frankly, a public park. Even still, the orders met no resistance. Virginia Capitol Police publicly acknowledged that “police arrived at the Lee monument at 10 p.m. Friday, and all 100-plus people inside immediately left.” The protesters met the police demands.
What happened next?
Part 1: Opening Salvo, Then Firing on the Wounded
At roughly 10:25 PM, officers were using paintball guns to take potshots at protesters far outside of Lee circle. The many dozens of people who were not protesting but were lining the streets enjoying what had been a beautiful Friday evening. Thirty seconds later, police launched an unprovoked attack with tear gas, Skat Shells, and flash bangs. The recording can only pick up so much noise, but you can see the ground shake in this residential neighborhood filled with families and elderly people. You can notice white people standing on the sidewalk – closer to the police and Circle, in fact, but not being attacked.
The opening salvo inevitably wounded people. You can see and hear a Black man writhing in pain being treated by medics. He gets on his feet perhaps a hundred yards away from the officers and screams and is met with more militarized violence. It is impossible – impossible – for anyone to maintain the officers are fearful and this is reasonable force. According to the Police, “all 100-plus people inside immediately left” the Circle, as requested.
What did Virginia State Police say about this incident? They blamed their own explosions and the awful injuries they caused on ‘fireworks’ from protesters, as if fireworks were both being “launched…at police” and simultaneously exploding on the ground next to the protesters a hundred yards away. The man whom we saw them wound and attack again on video? “The protester’s pyrotechnics spun out of control & struck an individual in the median.” The truth of this Virginia State Police video is that the explosions were being caused by police firing them from behind the camera, as shown in the video above.
The Virginia State Police’s gratuitous fabrication was indisputably disproven by the above and other video evidence.
Part 2: Richmond Police Exit Circle, Make Arbitrary Arrest without Cause, Assault and Gas Protesters
Richmond Police left the Circle and walked en masse about a quarter mile to the corner of Allen and Park by Bethel Assembly of God Church. They appeared to be packing up their cars to leave when one officer told another: “Grab somebody. Get ahold of somebody.” An officer sprinted about 15 yards and assaulted and arrested a man peacefully standing on the sidewalk (video from woznyphoto). Every lawyer reading this knows how egregiously illegal this is.
The officers form a ring around the innocent victim. When they lift him up you see he is dazed. A woman tries to speak with him and she is also assaulted. An officer deploys pepper spray, and dozens of people on the street start to cough during a pandemic.
This is all far away from the Lee statue – which, in any event, was evacuated peacefully about forty-five minutes ago, as the Virginia Capitol Police acknowledged. There was no declaration of unlawful assembly in this area; the Richmond Police had started their engines and were leaving. It is not remotely plausible to contend that any of these civilians are doing anything other than exercising their constitutional rights to political speech and to film police. The Richmond Police intentionally falsely arrested a man as they were leaving.
What did the Richmond Police say about this incident? An individual was arrested for “unlawful assembly and obstruction of justice” and “an RPD officer deployed pepper spray one time, due to ongoing assaults from the crowd.” Richmond Police’s official account was lying.
As of publication time the innocent man is still being held without bond pending a 9AM Monday arraignment. According to the Richmond Community Bail Fund, “We want to emphasize how unprecedented it is for people with misdemeanor unlawful assembly charges (and no priors) to be held without bond. We know because we watched every arraignment in Richmond for nearly 4 months. The courts want to intimidate protesters, plain and simple.”
The headline in the Richmond Times-Dispatch? “6 Arrested After Police Clash with Protesters at Lee Monument Friday Night.”
To declare an unlawful assembly, there must be some sort of violence or imminent threat to public order. In the court of public opinion, most people would agree that attacking police officers invites a justifiable response. All of the above is sickening even to think about. Believe it. The horror stories of the Black Lives Matter movement are true. Before this month I never would have imagined the appalling violence, abuse, deceit, illegality and organized criminal behavior of the people sworn to protect citizens. Do what you can to help.
Jeff Thomas is the author of The Virginia Way: Democracy and Power after 2016.