Police, others stymied by outside agitators at demonstrations

George O. Copeland Jr. and Jeremy M. Lazarus | 7/30/2020, 6 p.m.
Are “outside agitators” and white supremacists infiltrating the Black Lives Matter protests against racial injustice and police brutality?
Richmond Police stand guard on Grace street near police headquarters as a dump truck set ablaze by rioters burns behind them last saturday. Photo by Sandra Sellars

Are “outside agitators” and white supremacists infiltrating the Black Lives Matter protests against racial injustice and police brutality?

Such claims are re-emerging following a renewal of destructive activity in recent days that resulted in smashed windows, a burned city dump truck and at least 23 people arrested on a wide range of charges.

The outburst that began last Saturday was the first in 24 days after an unspoken truce went into effect between police and demonstrators, with police stopping the use of tear gas and protesters ending their damage to property.

On both Saturday and Sunday nights, gatherings of people dressed in black began after dark in Monroe Park and continued into the early morning of the next day.

The most serious clash came Saturday night, when about 1,000 people faced off with city police officers and State Police troopers dressed in riot gear. Tear gas ultimately was used after rioters began throwing rocks and other hard objects at the line of officers and set a dump truck ablaze, police said.

The riotous behavior that continued Sunday into early Monday morning appears to have died down, leaving police and others reaching for explanations.

“We want peace to radiate throughout this city,” said community activist James E. “J.J.” Minor III in a phone conversation Tuesday after he took part in condemning “white supremacists” for being responsible.

Mr. Minor is president of the Richmond Branch NAACP. But he said he wasn’t representing the organization when he joined his mother, Richmond Delegate Delores L. McQuinn, Charles Willis of the United Communities Against Crime and others at a news conference Tuesday on Libby Hill to point the finger of blame at “the white supremacists that have entered Richmond” for the violence.

Their comments partly echoed statements from Richmond Police Chief Gerald M. Smith, who said Monday that extremists had infiltrated the protests to subvert their goals and message. He said that white supremacists, as well as leftist extremists called anti-fascists or Antifa, were engaged in the weekend activities.

He pointed to a poster circulated on social media that he said was “designed to bring violence and disruption to Richmond” as evidence of this and led to the Richmond Police Department’s first use of tear gas since at least June 29.

Similar claims of outside agents were made in the past by Chief Smith’s predecessor, former Richmond Police Chief Will Smith, and more recently by residents who have criticized how the city police ap- proached the protests and offered contrasting accounts of the weekend’s events.

“Richmond Police detained and arrested several members of the press, including independent storytellers who’ve been covering the protests since they first started, as well as protesters at random,” said Jasmine Leeward, co-founder of Richmond For All.

“However, reports of a white supremacist shooting his gun at protesters didn’t lead to a single arrest by the city,” Ms. Leeward noted. “Instead, Richmond police have justified their actions by using law and order language that values property over Black lives.”

Property damage was significant, including the loss of a city dump truck that was set ablaze in front of the Richmond Police Headquarters where it was positioned to block traffic.