As onlookers cheered the removal of a Confederate statue from Richmond’s Monument Avenue on Wednesday, hundreds rallied downtown to protest a wave of eviction cases backlogged during a court-issued moratorium that expired Sunday.
Demonstrators outraged by the prospect of people ending up homeless as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on marched from the John Marshall Courts Building to the Executive Mansion and back chanting, “Fight, fight, fight! Housing is a right!” and “Eviction is violence.”
The protest of yet another systemic inequity that disproportionately affects people of color ended with deputies deploying pepper spray on demonstrators and detaining three people, witnesses said. A window was smashed sometime during the incident just after 1:15 p.m.
The Richmond Sheriff’s Office, whose deputies staff the courthouse, said Wednesday evening that two people who were arrested were released on bond. The sheriff’s office would not confirm the number of total arrests or answer questions about the incident at press time, saying it remains under investigation.
In the hours before, activists and community members focused on the urgency they feel about evictions being allowed to continue in the middle of a pandemic-induced economic recession. In the week ending June 20, nearly 25,300 initial jobless claims were filed, bringing the total number of continued claims to over 375,000, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.
“As a Black woman, it’s hard to see people from my community threatened with homelessness and poverty because they can’t pay rent during the worst pandemic in a century,” said 20-year-old VCU student Taylor Maloney. “Black lives matter not just when we’re dead in the streets, but also when we’re alive.”
Maurice Robinson, an attendance liaison officer for Richmond Public Schools, said he’s concerned about the families of students struggling to keep their homes.
“It’s inhumane for us to have people on the street,” he said. “I deal with it on a daily basis trying to keep families and students housed.”
There are 3,800 pending eviction cases in Richmond and the counties of Henrico and Chesterfield, according to an RVA Eviction Lab study conducted by VCU researchers from the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. Statewide, more than 12,000 households face eviction, according to Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration.
Richmond already had the second-highest eviction rate in the country from 2000 to 2016, according to research from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. The release of the Princeton Eviction Lab report in 2018 prompted some state reforms.
Richmond-area households under the threat of eviction owe an average of about $1,200, and 30% of renters in Virginia have no confidence or “slight” confidence that they will be able to pay rent for July, according to the RVA Eviction Lab study, which found many pending cases are for properties in the city’s north and south sides.
Carolina Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant who lives with her three children in South Side, said she and others have recently lost their jobs because of the pandemic and are struggling to find work to replace that lost income.
“It’s not just going to be one family. A lot of families are affected,” she said in Spanish. “We came here to fight, to get ahead with our kids. I don’t want us and others to end up on the street.”
At the start of Wednesday’s rally, Omari Al-Qadaffi, a housing activist and organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, said people should fight against the notion that housing is not a human right. “We would never say that about food or water, but for some reason we’ve allowed corporatists and people that want to make money off others have us believe that it’s OK to evict people, to put entire households on the street,” he said.
Though the protest remained relatively calm during the march through downtown, things escalated shortly after demonstrators returned to the courthouse.
Attendees described seeing a few people go to sit down in the courthouse, which is a public building, before deputies intervened shortly after 1 p.m.
Breanne Armbrust, an executive director with a Richmond nonprofit that serves Fulton, said she saw authorities tackle one organizer to the ground. She said that at one point, an officer pressed their knee onto his clavicle while he was not resisting.
“It was completely unprovoked,” Armbrust said.
Organizer Naomi Isaac said authorities told the crowd, which included children and people with disabilities, that they could not enter because people were forcing their way in.
“I find this incredibly insidious,” Isaac said. “Especially when our elected officials are congratulating themselves for taking down monuments to white supremacy on Monument Avenue while replicating those same monuments to white supremacy at the courthouse against people who are fighting against [evictions] and fighting against the way that’s affected Black people for generations.”
The event, coordinated by Legal Aid organizers and social justice groups such Richmond Strike and New Virginia Majority, comes 34 days into a wave of activism against racial injustice and police brutality prompted by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
The nearly three-month pause on eviction cases expired this week; the Supreme Court of Virginia had honored Gov. Ralph Northam’s request for an extension while the state set up a $50 million rent and mortgage relief program with funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Eligible households must show an inability to pay rent or mortgage and have a gross income at or below 80% of the area’s median income. For a family of four in Richmond, that’s $71,500, according to the Virginia Housing Development Authority. The rent or mortgage payment must also be at or below 150% of Fair Market Rent, which is determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
While the governor has asked local district court judges to consider implementing moratoriums in their jurisdictions, activists said the governor should have asked Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Lemons to extend the moratorium again so that people can become aware that relief funds are available. The governor announced the state’s program Thursday, six days before monthly rent came due.
In a phone interview a few hours after the end of the rally, a legal advocate for people facing eviction said he hopes what happened at the courthouse does not overshadow the message of the protest.
“I would hope courts overlook the unfortunate destruction and focus on what’s important,” said Martin Wegbreit, director of litigation for the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.
Wegbreit said there has been no notice that judges in Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield and Henrico are keeping eviction hearings paused. A Henrico General District deputy clerk confirmed that eviction cases resumed this week. Chesterfield County and Richmond General District Court clerks could not be reached for comment.
Staff writer Sabrina Moreno contributed to this report.