In a 1,500-word opinion piece for The New York Times, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney repeated his apology to the city before a national audience for what he described as an “unintentional” use of tear gas by Richmond police on a crowd of peaceful protesters a week after the killing of George Floyd last year. It was the fifth explanation offered by the city of what happened that night, though a full report has never been released.
Police assembled in front of the peaceful protesters and fired without warning. Officers then charged toward the monument, some deploying spray canisters.
The mayor’s critics say he did not take accountability for what transpired and focused instead on removing the city’s Confederate monuments as protesters, subjected to near-nightly volleys of chemical agents, demanded police reform.
“I think it’s appropriate to be upset about that kind of narrative reduction,” said Richard Meagher, an associate professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College who studies local politics. “I can understand him wanting to tell a story about these protests that are kind of simplified and makes him the hero, but it’s hard for the people who lived through that time to accept his version of events.”
The mayor’s words, published online over the weekend, contradict reporting by the Richmond Times-Dispatch and other eyewitness accounts. Stoney declined an interview request through his press secretary Tuesday morning. Hours later, he issued a statement saying, “I think the NYT guest essay speaks for itself.”
Stoney said he’s “incredibly proud” of the actions the city undertook to remove Confederate monuments and said he’s now committed to action that will promote equity in Richmond. The mayor’s statement did not directly answer a list of questions emailed Tuesday.
Kalia Harris, a local resident and co-executive director of the Virginia Student Power Network, said Stoney’s account is “revisionist history” that obscures the role that protesters who were harmed by police played in last year’s events.
“They’re not getting the spotlight like Levar is, and they’re the people who went out with the intention to change the city,” Harris said. “You can ask almost any protester who went out at any time last year. They would have a story about the trauma they suffered.”
Here are five claims from the mayor’s opinion piece — which his political action committee emailed Monday in a request for donations — that need further context:
“It didn’t matter that the tear gas, as we later learned, had been used unintentionally.”
On June 1, about 20 minutes before an 8 p.m. curfew and without warning, Richmond police launched tear gas into the crowd of thousands, including families with children — some kneeling with their hands up, chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
The Richmond Police Department later apologized, calling it an “unwarranted action,” but not before defending the use of chemical munitions, saying some officers were in danger.
“We are sorry we had to deploy gas near the Lee Monument,” the tweet shortly after 8 p.m. said. “Some RPD officers in that area were cut off by violent protesters. The gas was necessary to get them to safety.”
Shortly before 10 p.m., RPD tweeted an apology from then-Chief William Smith, who was ousted by Stoney 15 days later.
And as demonstrators fled the chemical haze around the monument, at least one officer pursued a man with pepper spray. Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin found nothing criminal in what the officer did because the man who was doused was throwing water bottles at police after the crowd had been tear-gassed.
Neither the police department nor Stoney has provided a full accounting of what happened that night. On Monday, Richmond police declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
Stoney spokesman Jim Nolan said Tuesday that an internal investigation revealed the firing of tear gas had been “a mistake caused by miscommunication during a chaotic moment in the city that evening.” Nolan said city officials would not elaborate on what happened, citing the ongoing legal cases against the city and its police department.
Smith, the day after the gas was fired, said in an interview that people had thrown rocks at officers; those at the circle rebutted the claim. That same afternoon, he told another group that people were trying to pull down a statue, which turned out to be the statue of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, a block from the Lee monument.
“To me, it was a violation of the social contract and a breach of trust by those assigned to protect us, occurring at the worst possible time.”
The use of tear gas on June 1 was not the first time chemical munitions had been deployed during the Richmond protests, nor was it last. That was not clear in Stoney’s account.
Between May 29 and June 26, the first 29 days of the protests, Richmond police reported using force 94 times, mostly during confrontations with protesters. In 2020, the department reported over 130 incidents in which its officers used some sort of chemical irritant, according to data it posts online.
On June 13, a Richmond police SUV forced its way through a crowd of protesters who had been blocking the intersection at Monument and North Allen avenues for hours leading up to the encounter. No one was injured, but several people were knocked to the ground as the police vehicle slowly moved forward through the crowd.
The scene was recorded, and witnessed by two Times-Dispatch reporters.
Police initially said the driver was assaulted through a window, but that could have occurred only after the SUV pushed through the crowd, which then swarmed the SUV. A water bottle, thrown from the crowd, could be seen hitting the roof of the car in a video posted to Twitter.
Stoney took to Twitter the next day calling for a criminal investigation by McEachin, the prosecutor, and for the officer who was driving to be placed on leave. Four days later, he backtracked. In a closed-door meeting with officers, Stoney said he saw nothing criminal in the officer’s actions.
More than 300 people were arrested during the protests last year. Two officers face charges for their actions. The mayor made no mention of the arrests or disciplinary action against police officers in his reflection for The New York Times.
“Regarding where we go from here, to ensure we deliver justice, build trust in our community and create a more equitable city, we have to focus on action,” Stoney said Tuesday, reaffirming his support for a Civilian Review Board with subpoena power.
“The only thing I could think to do, with the protesters on the steps of City Hall, was to march with them, if they’d have me. So that’s what we did.”
In a scene that Stoney depicts vividly in the Times piece, his and Smith’s apologies were shouted down by a teeming crowd on the steps of City Hall on June 2, the day after police used tear gas on a peaceful crowd.
Later that day, around 6 p.m., Stoney marched from the Capitol to the Lee statue on Monument Avenue.
Then 45 minutes before the 8 p.m. curfew he’d asked for days earlier, he left — the crowd booing him as he did, The Times-Dispatch reported.
“After all the pain these symbols had inflicted on our people, I did not want to risk a life being lost. They needed to come down.”
Stoney wrote that he moved urgently to remove the city’s Confederate monuments in July after protesters toppled several weeks earlier, creating a public safety problem. He also cited a severe head injury a man in Portsmouth suffered after protesters there took down a monument.
Chants of “take them down” were frequent during marches, during which demonstrators issued several demands. Many — including dropping all charges against every protester and releasing the names of all Richmond officers under investigation for use-of-force misconduct — went unmet.
What Stoney did not mention is that two years earlier, a commission he convened recommended removing the Jefferson Davis monument and adding signage to four other Confederate statues.
Eight months later, hamstrung by the state law that limits local authority to remove the monuments, Stoney said: “If I had the legal authority today, they would be gone.”
The General Assembly amended the law earlier in 2020, permitting localities to remove Confederate monuments on July 1. Stoney, in the Times opinion piece, said he ignored the timeline proscribed by state law by acting immediately to remove them at the start of the month, which the city attorney advised him not to do. He said he also dismissed the advice of his own legal team, which warned that he could personally face legal action.
“I am incredibly proud we took action as soon as we had the legal authority from the Commonwealth of Virginia to do so on July 1,” Stoney wrote in his statement Tuesday. “As the Times essay stated, the City Attorney had advised against it; my legal counsel had indicated that I could face legal action personally, but also argued that I had authority to exercise emergency powers during a State of Emergency to seek removal after determining the monuments presented a public safety risk in the context of the ongoing civil unrest.”
Stoney did not disclose in the Times piece that he is being investigated for his handling of a $1.8 million no-bid contract for the removal of the monuments with a company associated with one of the mayor’s campaign donors. Stoney’s administration has denied wrongdoing. An investigation by a special prosecutor is ongoing.
“We are creating a civilian review board to ensure accountability among our officers. Our new police chief embraces the idea that our goal is not policing, but public safety.”
The Times-Dispatch reported last week that in a recent letter to the City Council, Stoney had undermined the task force creating the review board.
In the April 14 letter, Stoney calls the task force “out of compliance.”
“The process currently underway lacks clear direction, leadership, and collaboration with the administration,” Stoney’s letter said. “It is in the best interest of the city that members of council, the administration, and the community work together, not in silos, to create a CRB that addresses the specific needs identified by our community. I am concerned that if we do not have a properly informed CRB, we will only further divide our community and foster distrust. We cannot afford that.”
Stoney on Tuesday praised the group’s efforts.
As for the new police chief, task force members said he wouldn’t return their phone calls until they took to Twitter to complain.
Chief Smith just reviewed video of gas being deployed by RPD officers near the Lee Monument and apologizes for this unwarranted action. These officers have been pulled from the field. They will be disciplined because their actions were outside dept protocols and directions given.— Richmond Police (@RichmondPolice) June 2, 2020
To our peaceful protestors: We are sorry we had to deploy gas near the Lee Monument. Some RPD officers in that area were cut off by violent protestors. The gas was necessary to get them to safety.— Richmond Police (@RichmondPolice) June 2, 2020