An anonymous protester tells the story of how they got arrested at Marcus-David Peters Circle, and reveals the essentially random and arbitrary nature of police enforcement throughout Richmond’s summer of protest.
It never hurts to show up with a case of beer, so I stopped at Lombardy Kroger on my way to the Circle and picked up some Blue Moons and a box of popsicles — both in response to the festive mood dancing through the air. That morning, the mayor had announced the resignation of our ten-day-old police chief, and while many understood the dense sociopolitical tactics implied with the decision, most celebrated the occasion as well. A Friday night at the top of summer will always carry with it feelings of excitement and reward.
I pulled my bike up to the normal spot at Marcus-David Peters Circle and recognized a few familiar faces in the soft afterglow of dusk’s light. The sun was just setting, leaving only about 30 minutes until full darkness and the cover that comes with it. At that moment, the sky shimmered with raspberry-lemonade tones and watermelon-marshmallow clouds. Around the turn of the Circle, a free concert was underway, made possible with just a microphone, a generator, and a few amps. We doodled with spray-paint or attempted freestyle tricks on our fixed-gear bikes as we sipped beers and mused on the day.
We were all rocking on the obvious cookout vibe, but we were tentative as well; we weren’t completely relaxed. We’ve seen things at the Circle turn from lax to chaos before, in only a second and for no reason at all, and we know it can happen again. When you’re facing an enemy that has full control over the definitions of combat and legality, it’s OK to feel nervous.
For the moment though, it’s good vibes and sunshine. And while our conversations dance around the protests, the police, police brutality, human rights, the mistakes of the generations before us, and our determination to fix those mistakes, mostly we just talk about Richmond. It’s hard to explain Richmond to someone who hasn’t stayed here for any amount of time. Richmond is like an oasis that’s also a black hole. Richmond is the place you’re trying to get out of, and also the place you can’t wait to be back in. Richmond is the place you think you deserve. Richmond is where a lot of us feel most at home, but it’s a home that needs sweeping renovations.
As we expounded on the failures and accomplishments of the capital city, more and more of our friends arrived, skidding to stops at the periphery of our claimed area and increasing our settlement size. It’s easy to dominate a space when everyone arrives with a bicycle, and in our group it’s pretty much a necessity to show up with some wheels. Besides a general interest in protesting the state, bicycles have been the strongest common factor throughout the ragtag group of friends that I’ve been meeting with near-daily since the brutal murder of George Floyd at the end of May.
Some of these friends, like Zach (our stoic, de facto captain of the group who seems to know everyone in town) and Twist (our resident artist and Big Wheel extraordinaire), I’ve known for a while and originally met because we were biking in the same parts of town. But others, like Maria (badass girl with a Wide Bars/Big Heart combo) or Rory (no fixie yet, just a road bike, but well-loved for his reputation of generosity and hilarious braggadociousness), I’ve only spent real time with since the protests began. All in all, there’s about 12 of us that have formed a little posse of itinerant protesters. Every summer brings with it something new, but something about the revolution marching down the streets had this summer feeling particularly seismic. And something about all that “newness” in the air made me feel like a kid again.
Soon, a few men in assault rifles and military vests approached us, seeming threatened by their own lack of acceptance and camaraderie, reflected against our group of laughing friends.
“Is this your tent? This tent’s gotta go!” one man began, unwilling to exchange pleasantries.
“It’s not our tent but we don’t think it should go,” a few people responded. “That tent is covering a free community library.”
“Well, when the cops get here this is going to make them upset, and they’re going to come in here and destroy it anyway,” the man said. “So I’m just saying y’all should take it down before I come back with a few other guys with rifles and take it down myself…. because we don’t want the cops to come!”
“You can do whatever you want, man, but we’re not going to take down some tent that isn’t ours just because you think the cops might come,” said our friend Marco, who’s always good for a giant smile and a fat joint. “And also, that whole theory doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.” He punctuated this last part with a tip of his head and a swig of his beer.
The man grumbled to himself and walked away, returning ten minutes later with his aforementioned rifled goons, as well as a lady that doesn’t really seem to fit in with them.
“This lady owns the library so we’re getting her to take it down,” the man said, directing his speech towards our group for no apparent reason other than to start a conflict. He was clearly oblivious to how antithetical his aggressive, commandeering attitude was to the entire idea of the community space that is Marcus-David Peters Circle… or maybe he was just an asshole. Regardless, he was a blatant intimidator, and unless we’re talking about Number 3 (RIP), there’s just no room for that inside the Circle.
We ignored whatever the guy was trying to serve to us and kicked back, but soon he was back again with an even larger group, now forcefully encouraging everyone to exit the interior of the Circle, under the assurance that “the cops can’t touch us if we aren’t in the Circle.” It’s hard to say no to a group of men with large guns in their hands, so the group was largely succeeding in their attempts to push people out of the area. Our group, though still not completely understanding or agreeing with the logic of the move, followed suit, packing up our blankets, beers, and popsicles.
Not five minutes after the entire populace of the Circle had been cleared out of the area surrounded by graffiti-covered barriers, officers in riot gear began to arrive, just as the man earlier had “predicted.” Predicted! *Hmpf*! Predicted, or called down? Because I reckon it’s a hell of a lot easier to predict the future when you’ve got a direct line to the chain of command. I also reckon that the only person who would come up and complain about the tent covering up a free library would be someone who knew that the cops were coming that night, whether they had a reason to or not.
And, of course, there was no reason that any amount of police officers, let alone 50+ outfitted in full riot gear, should have appeared that night. No reason for a city to sic a militarized pack of baton-wielding goons on its own people. No reason why the citizens of Richmond could not have just been left to be: listening to music, drinking beers, talking with friends. These were the crimes we committed before being attacked that night.
As police announced to the crowd that the surrounding area had been declared an “unlawful assembly,” tempers began to flare — on both sides. Rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades sliced through the air, as chants and screams rose from the civilians. Suddenly, the space felt like a war zone, a battle with what seemed like completely lopsided enemies. On one side stood line after line of grown men adorned in battle armor, helmets, and shields. Some held assault rifles or guns meant for firing rubber bullets and smoke canisters; all wore heavy, polished, steel-toed boots. On the other side stood men, women, children, and pets equipped with nothing more than their wallets, sunglasses, tank tops, and shorts. Some held bottles of water for extinguishing smoke, others had gloves on for tossing tear gas canisters away; all wore a sense of fear, anger, confusion, and determination on their face.
These Richmonders, who had done nothing more than to enjoy the public space of their city, would not be deterred so easily. A feeling spread through the crowd: we would not be punished unjustly tonight. If we were going to have to face the consequences of merely existing in the street, then we weren’t going down without a fight.
The ranks of G.I. Joe pretenders slowly increased their perimeter, pushing citizens further and further from the reclaimed art space at the epicenter of the Circle. Soon, we stood in the middle of Park Avenue, a block from Monument Avenue, and still we were being told to “back up” and “get out of the street,” by both Richmond Police and Virginia State Police. It seemed the boars with badges would not be content until they had claimed the whole neighborhood as their own Draconian hang-space.
When my friend Mo shined his flashlight toward a group of suspicious looking officers, he was swarmed upon by a particularly dorky looking VSP officer.
“Whoah! Hey! You got lights for this bicycle here?” the officer asked, taking strides closer and closer to us, hand on his hip.
“Two, actually!” was Mo’s response, as we all flipped our bikes around to put some space between the officers and ourselves. “You’re not gunna get us on some shit like that!” He shouted over his shoulder as we pedaled up the street towards a safer space. “Ya dumbass cop!”
With some distance between the commotion and us, we regrouped. Mo, Maria, Zach, Ryan, Rory, and I squadded up at a park only a block away.
“What even started this?”
“Oh, they’re definitely mad about the chief resigning.”
“I saw someone get hit right in the face with a rubber bullet.”
“I saw a couple kids with paint guns shooting at the cops, I think that’s what started it all.”
“I mean, the cops started it all when they showed up…”
Looking behind him, Rory said, “This car coming up is an unmarked cop car; anyone want to see where it’s going?”
“Let’s do it,” I said.
And we took off, the two of us darting after this beefy-looking tinted black SUV, keeping close but keeping our distance.
After a few blocks Rory turned to me and said, “They aren’t going anywhere interesting. Let’s head back.” We reversed course back towards the way we came.
Coming back up towards the intersection where we left the rest of our friends, I can’t say that anything felt particularly off, though it did seem a little quiet; not a simple quiet but a stifled one.
As Rory and I made our way through the shadow left in the space between two light posts, we heard, “GRAB HIM!” and a hidden mass sprang from the darkness. I watched as Rory’s bike found the space between the charging homunculus and a row of cards and skirted through it successfully, just as the same cop changed direction to tackle me off my bike (FUCK!). The goon leaped into the air as gracefully as an anemic hippopotamus, and tackled me off my bike with the ease of a drunken uncle at Thanksgiving.
“All right, big guy, you got me! You can chill out,” I said to the panting officer, who was shoving my arms into positions not familiar to them, restraining my non-resisting body with the help of three or four buddies. “I appreciate all the attention, but it’s really not necessary.”
“It’s for both of our safeties,” the stormtrooper said to me without looking at my face, instead holding his nose high with eyes darting around the perimeter like some cracked-out hound-dog.
“Oh yeah, I bet,” I said, laughing a little. “Hey man, you having any fun?”
The officer just grunted.
“Aw, c’mon man, what’s your name?”
“Officer Harris.” Still no eye contact.
“Hey, officer Harris, you having any fun out here? It’s ok to have fun; I’m having some fun. Are you having fun?”
Officer Harris shifted his weight from one foot to the other, rolled his tongue across his upper teeth, and said out of the side of his mouth, “Yeah, I’m having a little fun… but you guys are making it hard for us out here.”
“GROSSSSSSS!” I say laughing from the pit of my stomach, “Oh, Officer Harris, we’ve got real problems. I can’t believe you just said that.” And I continued to laugh as this confused cop looked down on me, still zip-tied at his feet. I was beyond affable at this point, due to the insane amount of adrenaline coursing through my bloodstream, and while the fear of this cop and his gang of buddies crossed my mind, I figured if I was in for a penny, I was in for a pound. Being arrested for protesting the police force already put me in a vulnerable position, and I figured the policeman’s image of me couldn’t be altered much in the short time we were interacting with each other. But I wanted to say one more thing before Officer Harris cast me aside as some wanton rioter.
“I hope you don’t think I’m just some white punk, some revolutionary with no cause. I’m fighting for what I believe in, protesting with love in my heart. And I sleep well every night, Officer Harris. Do you?”
“I try,” Officer Harris said with a giant sigh as he put me in a cage in the back of a van.
“Now, watch your head.”
This piece was submitted anonymously by a protester who was arrested this summer. All names have been changed. Though the protester’s case has since been dismissed, and they are no longer being prosecuted by the City of Richmond, they chose to remain anonymous to avoid further prosecution.
Note: Op-Eds are contributions from guest writers and do not reflect RVA Magazine editorial policy.
Top Photo by Domico Phillips