RICHMOND — Late-night clashes between police and protesters led to more than three dozen arrests in Richmond this week, including 15 Thursday night when protesters apparently picketed outside the home of the city's top prosecutor.
On Friday, the ACLU of Virginia filed a lawsuit against the City, the police department and Virginia State Police alleging the agencies' use of tear gas and other force overnight Monday violated organizers' constitutional rights to free speech, assembly and protest.
Police declared unlawful assemblies in the city every night between Sunday and Wednesday and broke up the protest in a residential area on Thursday.
Protesters have most often clustered around the Lee monument and areas of downtown Richmond, but some have targeted the homes of elected leaders. Those arrested Thursday for picketing and other charges were in a Huguenot neighborhood, reportedly at the home of Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin.
McEachin said in an email that she couldn't comment on the protests because she is "a potential witness." Police were not commenting Friday on whether the protest was at McEachin’s home.
A week before, a crowd of 200 or more protesters gathered outside Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s downtown apartment building, shouted for him to come out and tagged the building with graffiti. Some entered the building's lobby.
Police and protesters have reported injuries from this week's encounters, in which authorities have used tear gas and other projectiles. Police say they've been hit with rocks, bricks and other objects. The tear gas deployed to remove protesters from Monument Avenue and City Hall this week led to calls from two city council members and a group of doctors for police to stop using it.
The ACLU in its lawsuit is representing a group of youth organizers who are part of the Virginia Student Power Network. The complaint addresses the sit-in in front of City Hall on Monday night, which was attended by 150 people who intended to stay overnight and teach those in attendance about police violence and community advocacy. At around 12:42 a.m., police declared an unlawful assembly and fired tear gas, flash bangs and other projectiles. In a news release, Richmond police said protesters threw rocks and other objects but made no mention of their use of force. They arrested a dozen people.
It's the second lawsuit filed this month over police tactics. Five people who attended a June 1 protest where Richmond police officers deployed tear gas at the Robert E. Lee monument more than 20 minutes before a mandated curfew have sued a group of unnamed police officers for their actions.
The City of Richmond and Richmond and state police declined to comment, citing that they do not release public statements on ongoing or pending lawsuits.
The ACLU is seeking a declaration from the court that police have been acting unlawfully and ask the court to prohibit police from “engaging in activities that violate protesters’ constitutional rights.”
“When these young people tried to educate their community about racism in Richmond and how to dismantle it, police stormed in and turned their positive space into a war zone,” said Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia. “City leaders have a responsibility to protect our constitutional rights, instead they have encouraged the escalation of violence by police against protesters.”
Taylor Maloney, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University who is named in the affidavit, said the suit takes a stand against the “unchecked violent and outright malicious behavior exhibited by the Richmond police.”
“I want space for us to mourn and be angry at the system we didn’t ask to live in,” Maloney said.
Protesters, the ACLU and others have called on McEachin to drop all charges related to the protests. The ACLU said Thursday that the strategy of forcing people away from the monuments invites violence when the focus should be on deescalating. Since the demonstrations began in Richmond on May 29 in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, police have arrested more than 250 people in Richmond.
Earlier this month Stoney told McEachin he believed that charges of violating a curfew order against peaceful protesters should be dropped.
McEachin has said that each case will be considered and resolved appropriately based on the evidence.
"The Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ Office does not respond to demands from individuals or groups," she said in an email Friday. "Our duty is to respond to the law and facts of each case."
A video from the protest scene Thursday night shows about a dozen police officers in riot gear ordering a small number of protesters to get in their cars and leave.
Police charged Dometrius Holden, a 23-year-old white man from Winston-Salem, N.C., and Gabrielle Heinlein, a 27-year-old white woman from Pembroke, with felony assault on a law enforcement officer.
Eleven other protesters arrested Thursday night face misdemeanor charges for illegal picketing. One person, a 25-year-old resident of Mechanicsville, was charged with trespassing, and a 24-year-old resident of Whitesville, W.Va. was charged with obstructing justice. Police noted that the Mechanicsville resident had a loaded firearm in his his vehicle and a separate loaded magazine in his pocket. He was not charged with any firearms offense.
Of the 15 arrested, 11 were charged with picketing; one for obstructing justice; one for trespassing; and two for assaulting a law enforcement officer. Most of those charged were released on summonses, said police.
Police spokeswoman Amy Vu reported that one officer was injured and treated at a local hospital.
Police on June 19 warned that they would start declaring some of the protests unlawful assemblies if they become "violent, dangerous or disruptive." Two nights later, on Sunday, they'd use that authority and intervene after protesters tied ropes around the J.E.B Stuart statue in an effort to topple it. Police pushed the crowd back as a helicopter hung overhead. The following night, police confronted protesters after midnight at the encampment around City Hall. Videos showed protesters fleeing from tear gas and other projectiles as a cloud of white smoke filled the block.
Police declared unlawful assembly on Monument Avenue on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, arresting four on Wednesday.
Earlier Thursday night, about 75 people had gathered at the Lee statue about an hour after sunset. By midnight, 50 remained, defying a 2017 ordinance that had been unenforced until Monday.
State officials on Monday announced that authorities would enforce rules already on the books barring gatherings on the monument's grounds from sunset to sunrise.
New Virginia Majority, a group that has helped organize protests in Richmond, released a statement of solidarity with Virginia Student Power Network on Friday afternoon after the lawsuit was announced, noting an escalation of police violence against protesters.
“A boiling point has been reached, and people from all walks of life are starting to demand an immediate stop to police violence and real policy solutions from our leaders,” stated Tram Nguyen, NVM co-executive director. “As a lifelong Richmonder, I’m heartened to see that young Black people are leading the way, and using their voices to protest violence and senseless killings. We should follow their lead."