On Sunday night, Richmond police used a detained protester as a bargaining chip to encourage the protest to disperse. The incident was part of a multi-night wave of police violence that led to the chief’s resignation.
When protesters marched to the Richmond Police Headquarters on Grace Street Sunday night, a situation unfolded that left one activist arrested in police custody without medical attention for hours. The activist’s freedom was used as a bargaining chip by RPD, who demanded protesters leave the scene before she could be released or treated for the burns on her skin caused by police mace.
RVA Magazine has gathered first-hand accounts from protesters on the scene to recall the night’s events.
When protesters arrived at the Grace Street precinct on the evening of June 14, they were met with a wall of RPD officers surrounding the building. Officers created and protected an invisible line between demonstrators and the police parking garage.
The group of protesters moved to a different side of the building, congregating in a parking lot and on the sidewalk directly across from 200 W Grace Street, which faces the building’s front entrance.
Around 10:30 p.m., officers deployed mace on the crowd.
“I did get pepper sprayed,” an anonymous protester said. “An activist was forcefully taken out of our crowd by RPD, and she was used as a bargaining tool for RPD. The pepper spray was [used] to keep us back; from getting her out of their grip and helping her.”
Officers attempted to negotiate with the crowd after the activist was taken into custody. Showing protestors a picture he took of her on his cellphone, an officer told the crowd that if they left, she would be released. Officers also informed protesters that she had been moved to the Richmond City jail.
“As protesters, none of us condoned negotiation,” activist and RVA26 member Julea Seliavski said. RVA26 is a local group organizing after the protest arrest events in Richmond on May 31, 2020.
“The officers wanted us to essentially ‘let them take her to city jail by clearing a path in the parking lot.’ This was a tactic for them to split us up, because their car didn’t need to be in the parking lot to get her there.”
Seliavski and fellow activists were concerned that if they complied with police demands, the protester would not be released, regardless of what they’d been promised by police. “We all knew the second she’s [at the city jail], she’s getting strip searched, she’s getting fingerprinted, she’s going to experience more trauma,” Selivaski said. “She’s not going to have food or water, she’s going to have trouble getting her lawyer.”
According to Seliavski, she demanded that officers release the activist in custody. “We were trying to fight for her to hopefully not go to the city jail,” she said. “If that happened, we were standing our ground against what did happen to her.”
After entering the precinct and returning to the crowd, the Sergeant informed protesters that the activist had already been taken to the city jail. Seliavski informed the Sergeant they would be staying there, peacefully protesting, because their demands had not been met.
“We’re going to show that we do not tolerate this kind of violent behavior from police, and we’re going to stand our ground as peaceful protesters — showing that we do have the right to be there. We do have the right to assemble, even though they called it an unlawful assembly,” Seliavski said. “We have the right to freedom of speech.”
After negotiations over the detained protester’s release broke down, an altercation occurred between police and protesters, which may have been touched off by one protester throwing a cone. The police responded by tear-gassing the crowd, which stood its ground and remained in position until around 5:30am on Monday morning.
When the activist was finally released on Monday morning, she had spent the entire night in police custody without treatment.
“They made her sit with tear gas and mace on her skin all throughout the night,” said fellow activist Rashaa Langston, who had direct contact with the activist after she was arrested. “We had to pour solution on her body right there in the parking lot, because she was still in pain.”
According to a RPD press release, police are charging the activist in custody with two felonies: “felony assault on a law enforcement officer and conspiracy to incite a riot.” No video evidence or first-hand account of the events released so far shows either of these alleged actions occurring.
“They are trying to scare her with 15 years over her head if she doesn’t stop doing what she’s doing — organizing,” Langston said. “If she doesn’t comply with them.”
In the early hours of Monday morning, tear gas was used on the remaining crowd, and again during Monday night’s protests.
“A ton of force from RPD and for what? We were peaceful,” said the protester arrested Sunday night. “The brutality was beyond uncalled for.”
Richmond City Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch was at the protest on Sunday night. According to an interview with WWBT NBC 12, Lynch was responding in part to concerns from constituents about the arrest of the anonymous protester, and arrived only minutes before the crowd was tear-gassed by police.
“It was not warranted at all,” Lynch told WWBT. “And I actually looked across the picket line and I said ‘What are you all doing? Why are you doing this? Why?’”
By Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Levar Stoney announced that he had asked for, and received, Richmond Police Chief William Smith’s resignation. Though Stoney’s announcement of Smith’s resignation did not mention the incidents between police and protesters that had taken place over the previous few nights, it was widely seen as a factor, as was an earlier incident in which Richmond police tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed a peaceful crowd gathered at the Robert E. Lee Monument.
“Richmond is ready for a new approach to public safety,” Stoney said during the announcement.
Written by Alexandra Zernik, Caley Sturgill, and Marilyn Drew Necci. Top Photo by Domico Phillips. Photos in this article do not depict the incident described.