A Night of Unrest in Richmond, as Protests Erupt Over George Floyd's Death
9:00 a.m. Sunday Update: Protests continued Saturday night into early Sunday morning. A march toward police headquarters on Grace St. ended with what appears to be police firing rubber bullets. A nearby residents uploaded a video of the incident to YouTube.
Throughout the night, Confederate monuments were tagged with anti-white supremacy graffiti, and the Daughters of the Confederacy building on Arthur Ashe Boulevard was set on fire. A Snapchat video depicts masked people using burning flags to catch the exterior of the building on fire.
Police and fire fighters responded and extinguished the flames. Shops on Broad Street, including a CVS Pharmacy at the intersection of Arthur Ashe Boulevard, were vandalized. Protesters and police squared off near Broad and Lombardy later, with protesters erecting a barricade they set on fire. Multiple reports that police cleared the area with rubber bullets or other crowd control projectiles, tear gas and mace.
We plan to continue following this developing news by talking with activists, police and fire, and elected officials Sunday. Our staff is also working to bring resources to the community in the coming days by doing interviews on experiencing collective trauma.
5:35 p.m. Saturday Update: GRTC is suspending all service from 8 p.m. Saturday through Sunday night. A release from the company said no passengers or employees were injured during the protests overnight, during which a bus was set on fire. GRTC’s CEO Julie Timm said she is “especially grateful” for the driver who “managed a terrifying situation as safely and calmly as possible.” GRTC plans to begin Monday morning service normally but cautions there may be service delays or changes.
Original story below:
A protest in Richmond over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis Police custody, turned violent overnight Friday. Witnesses on scene reported a police cruiser and public bus were set on fire, and police in riot gear dispersed tear gas.
Demonstrators initially met at Monroe Park by Virginia Commonwealth University and moved towards the state Capitol. Outside the U.S. Court of Appeals below the Capitol, the demonstrators were heard chanting “hands up, don’t shoot,” according to a reporter from the Richmond Times Dispatch.
Capitol Square is closed Saturday after state buildings were vandalized. According to the Department of General Services and the Division of Capitol Police, a window was broken in the Barbara Johns Building, which houses the Attorney General’s office. Virginia Capitol Visitor’s Entrance on Bank Street and other state buildings were graffitied with spray paint. Authorities are monitoring to determine when to reopen the grounds. A spokesperson for DGS said they do not currently have an estimate on how much it will cost to fix the damages.
Hundreds then walked to Richmond Police Department’s headquarters on West Grace Street. Protestors set fire to a cruiser and the building was graffitied. A law enforcement source told VPM that officers sprayed tear gas to disperse the group. VPM has reached out to Richmond Police for more information.
Earlier in the day, Richmond Police Chief William Smith said he was “outraged” by the death of Floyd, describing it as “egregious and unnecessary” in a statement released on social media.
Floyd died earlier this week. A video shows an officer putting his knee on Floyd’s neck during an arrest. The 46-year-old man can be heard saying “I can’t breathe.” The officer involved, Derek Chauvin, was fired from the Minneapolis Police Department. He was arrested and charged Friday with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Chief Smith said Floyd’s death “reinforces just how far we still have to go as a nation in law enforcement to replace that fear, mistrust and bias felt among many in the communities we serve with relationships built on transparency, accountability, equity and inclusion.”
GRTC also delayed service until 9 a.m. Saturday after a bus was set fire overnight. Storefronts were also damaged around the city.
At a COVID-19 testing event Saturday morning, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney told VPM that he’s asking “bad actors” who damaged Black-owned businesses and public buses to stay home. But the mayor says he understands the pain people feel around Floyd’s death and supports peaceful protests.
Community organizer Jasmine Leeward tied the action last night to multigenerational trauma and a long history of racist oppression.
“I’m still processing everything from last night, and I just keep thinking about April 3, 1865, when the Confederate Army burned the city to the ground. That’s the history we’re living on right now,” Leeward said.
Leeward did not coordinate the demonstrations Friday night.
She helped organize a virtual panel Friday night with other Richmond activists, to discuss systemic reforms beyond policing in the city. She said she thought some of the protesters were inspired by the conversation.
“The mobilization we saw wasn’t necessarily inevitable, but we’ve been watching people rise up in country after country, democracy after democracy,” Leeward said. “We need to not expect people to stay in their homes forever, to stay silent forever.”
When asked about property damage at protests, both local and nationwide, Leeward said, “It’s absurd to me - I’m still processing this - but I would rather see a car burn than a man die.”
“I want to know how many people died last night. You can buy another car. You can buy another bus. You can not resurrect people,” Leeward said. “I believe human life is more valuable than anything else, and to people concerned about property damage, I would say, that’s what happens when you watch someone put their knee on someone’s neck and kill them as if they’re a roach. You get cars burned - but you don’t get another person putting their knee on someone’s neck.”
The panel that preceded the protest was held in honor of Marcus-David Peters, a high school biology teacher who was shot and killed by Richmond Police in 2018. Family members said Peters was having a mental health crisis at the time. He was naked and unarmed when he was shot by a police officer who attempted to intervene before backup arrived. An investigation into the shooting concluded when the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney declared it was a “justifiable homicide.”
Over the past two years, Leeward said more people have learned about Peters’ death and want to see action taken. While she wasn’t an organizer of the protest, she told VPM it was the natural result of “what happens when you have infrastructure and actual consistent organizing, people doing hard work, in between Black people dying. We have been doing the work to actually build coalitions.”
City Councilwoman Ellen Robertson represents Richmond’s 6th district, which encompasses much of the area that protestors gathered overnight Friday.
In an interview with VPM, Robertson said she plans to ask the mayor to help form a commission focused on racism, human rights and social justice for people of color. The commission she said would aim to “right the laws and practices” “for restoration of equality and equity.”
“I think if we don't give people a voice and an opportunity to express themselves -- where they can see solutions being had and being put in place and carried out to protect the rights of all human beings -- what happens is violence,” she said. “It leads to violence. It always leads to violence.”
Others say more action could be taken at the polls to bring change to systemic problems in the community.
“I need everyone to come out and let's start putting people in office that will vote for humanity to be elevated and this nonsense will stop. Because there is a system by which white supremacy just infuses and informs every area of politics,” City Councilman Michael Jones (District 9) told VPM.
Chelsea Higgs Wise, another activist who helped organize the Friday night policing reform discussion with Leeward, said elected officials expressions of sympathy were just "fluff," contrasting their public support for Floyd with a lack of statements after Peters was killed.
“It’ll be interesting to see everybody speak out now about George Floyd, when they couldn’t speak about what happened two years ago,” when Peters was killed, Higgs Wise said. She said in Stoney's official statement on Floyd, "[He] said it’s not just one city, and he’s right. So what’s he going to do about the city he governs?”
Higgs Wise said she worried focus will shift to the protests, and property damage, and detract from the conversation about police reform, “Just like Killer Mike [a rapper and activist] and the organizers in Minneapolis, we've been calling for a civilian review board. We've been doing that for two years," Higgs Wise said. She said they've been trying to work with the mayor, chief of police, and city council's public safety committee.
Like other Black activists in Richmond, Higgs Wise said she was still processing the protest last night. But she blamed inaction by city leaders after Peters was killed for how the protest unfolded. “If City Council had acted 2 years ago, we might have seen something different in Richmond’s streets last night," Higgs Wise said. "And we would have heard from our city council, mayor, and police chief earlier than yesterday. Where have they been all week?”
This is a developing story. Stay with VPM News for more updates.
*Whittney Evans, Sara McCloskey, Roberto Roldan, and David Streever contributed to this report.
Editor's Note: The state Capitol Visitor's Entrance was vandalized, but windows were not broken. The story has been updated with the correct details.