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City erupts

Death of George Floyd in Minneapolis prompts plans for reform by Mayor Stoney and Gov. Northam, including removal of Confederate statues on Monument Avenue

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 6/4/2020, 6 p.m.
The statues of Confederate traitors are headed for removal from Monument Avenue — ending their long reign as white supremacist ...
Tear gas clouds the air around the Monument Avenue statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Monday evening when Richmond Police scattered hundreds of peaceful protesters by releasing tear gas and shooting pepper spray about 30 minutes before the 8 p.m. curfew was to go into effect. The Confederate statues are headed for removal under plans announced Wednesday. Photo by Regina H. Boone

On Monday night, up to 5,000 people gathered at the Lee statue to continue their calls for justice and change in the wake of the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed man who was placed on his stomach, hands cuffed behind his back, in a Minneapolis street by a white police officer who kept his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes.

Despite the protest being peaceful and at least 30 minutes left before an 8 p.m. curfew went into effect, Richmond Police officers without warning began firing tear gas into the crowd and pepper spraying those who did not disperse.

Adding insult to injury, the Richmond Police initially released a statement to justify the action that turned out to be false. That statement claimed that some officers engaged with violent protesters and were separated from the rest of the police force and the gassing was aimed at halting any conflict — a statement that people present told the Free Press had no basis in fact.

Just a few hours later, Chief Smith acknowledged that officers who had fired the tear gas had taken action in violation of department policy and would face discipline.

Mayor Stoney apologized in a tweet and also urged those affected by the tear gas and pepper spray to come to City Hall on Tuesday so he could personally apologize.

Facing a crowd of up to 1,600 people that sprawled across Marshall Street into the plaza of the city Social Services building, the mayor sought to apologize on Tuesday, though he was often shouted down by the crowd.

Mayor Stoney gives a fist-bump to a protester in the crowd Tuesday evening after walking with the throng from the state Capitol to the Lee statue on Monument Avenue.

Mayor Stoney gives a fist-bump to a protester in the crowd Tuesday evening after walking with the throng from the state Capitol to the Lee statue on Monument Avenue.

“It should not have happened,” Mayor Stoney told the crowd, adding that as a 39-year-old black man, he feels the same pain many do from Mr. Floyd’s death. The mayor said the city and its police department violated its contract with protesters — that if they kept the demonstrations peaceful, the police would not intervene or disrupt the event.

“We violated that contract,” he said.

Mayor Stoney was moved when 8-year-old Raigen Tucker, who was among those tear-gassed, was lifted on shoulders and told the mayor, “I’m scared.” Raigen’s mother, Latisha Carson, added that her daughter is afraid police are “going to shoot tear gas at us.”

While little was settled, the mayor ended up walking Tuesday evening with protesters from the State Capital to the Lee monument. He was joined by Councilman Jones and Henrico Delegate Lamont Bagby, chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

Lt. Gov. Justin E. Fairfax also participated, as did Richmond state Sens. Ghazala F. Hashmi and Jennifer L. McClellan, who all stayed after the mayor left to a chorus of boos before the 8 p.m. curfew went into effect.

Mayor Stoney used the moment to begin outlining the reforms on Wednesday.

“Yesterday, I marched with Richmond for Richmond,” the mayor stated in the release. “George Floyd’s death may have happened in Minneapolis, but the shockwaves are bringing very valid pain to the surface in our city.

“Last night,” he continued, “Richmond told me to channel our city’s pain into reform. We have so much work to do to build an equitable city. That entails reforms to address racist systems, combating this public health crisis, addressing health inequities, and remaining committed to my administration’s priorities to lift people up, including affordable housing, strong public education systems, economic empowerment and fast and reliable public transportation.”