Police used tear gas and other less-lethal projectiles in the early hours of Tuesday morning to break up an encampment of about 60 protesters who had gathered around City Hall.
They arrested 12 people who refused to leave the area demonstrators had dubbed “Reclamation Square” after police declared an “unlawful assembly” at around 12:42 a.m., several hours after the gathering began.
But Richmond police did not respond to repeated requests for comment Tuesday or to answer questions about their use of force. Instead, in a news release, Richmond police said protesters threw rocks and other things at them. The statement made no mention of the tear gas and what appeared to be rubber bullets and flash bangs that videos show authorities using on protesters even as they retreated.
On Twitter, the Richmond Police Department said early Tuesday that it was declaring the demonstration unlawful because of “sit-ins, sit-downs, blocking traffic, blocking entrances or exits of buildings that impact public safety or infrastructure.”
“Protesters threw traffic cones, barricades and concrete trash cans into the street, used vehicles to block off the street and set up tents in front of the entrance doors. The protestors also threw rocks and other objects at the officers,” according to a release from the Richmond Police Department on Tuesday.
It was unclear, however, when the alleged rock and object throwing took place — before or after police started clearing the area. Police did not respond to requests for clarification Tuesday.
Videos of the police action shared on social media appear to show a projectile shot toward a protester at close range and a female demonstrator tackled by a police officer while she was attempting to shield herself with an umbrella.
Breanne Armbrust, who arrived at the demonstration around 8 p.m., said there was no sign of police for hours. She said some of the protesters had used their cars to block the intersection around 11:45 p.m. to prevent anyone from driving into the area where they were gathered. Police SUVs arrived shortly thereafter, she said, but officers were wearing typical uniforms — not riot gear.
It wasn’t until roughly 12:30 a.m. that Virginia State Police officers clad in riot gear arrived.
“Not one person was prepared or expecting there was going to be an incident with police,” Armbrust said.
At the time, civilians, two of whom were using wheelchairs, were sitting at a nearby GRTC bus stop, but Armbrust said that officers did not alert the bystanders of their intent to use chemical agents.
After arriving, officers present attempted to make an announcement while pointing strobe lights at demonstrators. Amid the flashing lights, Armbrust said that she and others present could not comprehend what was being announced. Officers began firing tear gas canisters — oftentimes at a close range — around 1 a.m., causing protesters to disperse quickly, Armbrust said.
“I’ve been protesting for a long time and I’ve never seen what I’ve been seeing,” said Armbrust, who is the director of a nonprofit organization in the city. “There was just complete chaos that was happening.”
Police have used tear gas on numerous demonstrations since they began in Richmond on May 29, including around the Lee statue on June 1 that resulted in an apology from the mayor.
Between 1 and 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, officers released several waves of tear gas on demonstrators, she said, also using rubber bullets and pepper balls to disperse the crowd. Since she joined the protests May 29, Armbrust said she has never seen “the volume of tear gas” deployed as it was Tuesday.
But, she has on several occasions observed tear gas launched at demonstrators attempting to leave.
“In all of these instances, that includes the very first night of protests, the police continue to shoot and fire as people are running away,” Armbrust said.
She said she knows someone who was injured by a rubber bullet and is in the hospital.
City Councilman Michael Jones said Tuesday on Twitter that he plans to introduce legislation to ban flash bangs, tear gas and rubber bullets in Richmond. Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch said she supports the measure. Jones said innocent civilians and peaceful protesters “should not have militaristic weapons deployed on them.”
And a group of Richmond-area physicians denounced police use of pepper spray and other chemical agents amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The irritants used to disperse protesters induce coughing and heavy breathing, and often force those affected to remove face coverings — all actions that send virus particles into the air.
In an email to RPD, the physicians urged law enforcement to use chemical irritants only “as a last resort and with sufficient warning to all individuals present.”
In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Ralph Northam stated that demonstrations in Virginia have been largely peaceful, but that nightly clashes between protesters and police “cannot continue.”
“As you saw last night in Richmond, and unlawful assembly was called. People refused to leave,” he said. “When people break the law, we can’t condone that.”
All of those arrested early Tuesday were charged with unlawful assembly. One person was also served with a pending embezzlement charge and another was charged with four counts of assaulting a police officer.
Only one person arrested was not from Richmond and all were released after they were processed at the justice center, police said. Eleven of the 12 were 30 years old or younger.
The night had started peacefully with most of the attention on the Robert E. Lee monument, where another group of protesters gathered as they have for weeks. The area around the statue has become a gathering place for protesters in Richmond.
State and city officials on Monday issued an order banning gatherings on the grounds from sunset to sunrise, citing safety.
Protesters defied that order Monday. Law enforcement officials had begun to surround the area just after sundown, but did not move to remove the crowd of more than 150 people. The crowd at the Lee monument thinned out by 11 p.m. Monday, as there were fewer than two dozen people at the statue when a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter drove by.
Tuesday morning, Virginia State Police posted signs around the statue listing the “rules and regulations” for the assemblies there. They had been torn down by 3 p.m. Tuesday. The Virginia Department of General Services said Tuesday morning that it secured the concrete barriers it erected last week around the statue.
By 7 p.m. Monday, eight tents had been set up on East Marshall between North Ninth and North 10th streets. Bikes and cars encircled the gathering. Pamphlets being handed out by the group said, “Our guiding principle is, ‘Black liberation by any means necessary.’”
The police statement says that at about midnight, “officers arrived at city hall to deal with the occupation, which had been growing in size for several hours. Protestors were distributing fliers which indicated they planned to stay in place long-term.”
“Approximately 40 minutes after the officers arrived, the first Unlawful Assembly announcement was broadcast to the crowd and then repeated several times. The announcement was also posted on Twitter. After another 45 minutes had passed, officers began arresting those who had not dispersed,” the police statement said.
Virginia State Police moved in on the encampment shortly before the announcement, according to a reporter from The Commonwealth Times. Officers reportedly deployed various chemical irritants, flash bangs and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators, who had begun their sit-in seven hours prior.
The 12 protesters arrested Tuesday are among hundreds arrested in Richmond since protests against police brutality began May 29. In response to mass arrests, a MoveOn.org petition was created to demand that Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin drop all charges against protesters, and had over 1,000 signatures as of 9 p.m. Tuesday.
McEachin did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.
The ACLU of Virginia endorsed the demand to drop charges in a Twitter post Tuesday.
Police made no mention of the use of chemical agents to force protesters away from the scene and did not immediately respond Tuesday to questions about the necessity for their use.
In a statement, Virginia State Police said: “The Virginia State Police was again present overnight in a support capacity of Richmond Police. For tactical and officer safety purposes, we do not discuss operational issues.” State police did not disclose which chemical agents or tools were used to disperse the sit-in.
One officer was injured when he was struck on the arm by a stick and treated at the scene, police said.
In addition to unlawful assembly charges, police said Jonathan A. Delk, 24, was served with a pending felony embezzlement warrant and John D. Weakley, 37, was charged with four counts of assault on a law enforcement officer.
De’Andre Quarles was among the group of people arrested early Tuesday morning outside City Hall. By Tuesday afternoon, he was among the demonstrators and directing traffic at one side of the circle around the Robert E. Lee monument.
“I got arrested last night supporting my people and I don’t see no reason to stop,” he said. “I’m planning to be here every day.”
As cars rolled around and stopped at his direction, he’d also offer free hot dogs and bottles of water, or direct them if they were looking for parking.
“It’s messed up,” he said about recent efforts by police to close public access to the monument from dusk to sunrise. “You got protesters doing everything wrong, and protesters doing everything right, and I don’t feel we should be faulted for the ones not doing things right.”
Hundreds congregated at the Lee monument Tuesday as night fell. Demonstrators grilled, played basketball and danced, and Nas blasted through a makeshift DJ setup.
But as rain slowly crept in, so did the anticipation of police. As of 9:30 p.m., no law enforcement had shown up at the Lee monument.
Around 8:15 p.m., a truck with “TRUMP 2020” and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags drove through the circle to boos. People grabbed the flags off the truck, and shortly after, burned both at the base of the monument.
As sunset neared, organizers took hold of a bullhorn.
“We’re going to hold it down,” one said, adding that they were there to be witnesses if police initiated any confrontation.
Staff writers Mel Leonor, Sabrina Moreno and Holly Prestidge contributed to this report.