RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — “Who brings flash bombs to a fucking sleepover?” shouted protesters, according to local student journalists, as Richmond police hurled tear gas and other crowd-dispersal tools into the Virginia Student Power Network’s late night teach-in in the street in front of Richmond’s city hall.
Only minutes before, the student groups were talking about Angela Davis and W.E.B. Du Bois as dozens of officers in riot gear gathered to the east. As protesters settled in with a projector screen and a flick, a loudspeaker erupted: “This is been deemed an unlawful assembly. Please disperse. Failure to disperse will result in arrest and/or exposure to chemical agents.”
Video shows a haze of poison gas as students scrambled, screaming obscenities at the approaching, militarized officers of the law. A statement from Richmond police reported 12 arrests. Police reported one officer was hit in the arm by a “hickory stick” and treated for injuries on site.
The breakup of the protest happened around 1 a.m. Monday, June 22, about 3 weeks into the town’s Black Lives Matter protests, which erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
But activists, now armed with lawyers from the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, are asking a Richmond City Circuit Judge to block the use of chemical agents as well as the controversial anti-riot law that has been a benchmark of the cop’s efforts to break the nightly demonstrations.
“Being black, I was taught to be respectful [to police], but not because they were here to help,” said Taylor Maloney, a 19-year-old college student and organizer with the Virginia Student Power Network.
Maloney is acting as a witness in the case. She has attended and organized protests in the city since the first Friday that saw the city explode in a mix of anti-police anger and property damage. Destructive protests that first weekend opened the door to an aggressive police response Sunday night. And Monday, while protesters sat peacefully at the foot of a monument dedicated to Confederate General Robert E. Lee, they were tear gassed again.
The city is facing a lawsuit in federal court for that blunder, and the police response had mellowed in the weeks since, but the teach-in at city hall saw a return to aggressive tactics which Maloney says are only harming people and giving them more of a reason to stand up.
“It’s one thing for people to say ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ it’s another to put your physical body between you and your community,” she said.
While emotions have run high since the demonstrations began, the teach-in outburst helped focus Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director for the state’s ACLU chapter. She said she’d been looking for a way to support protesters in light of the city’s brutal response, and the extended use of the unlawful assembly law opened that door.
“These students were sitting down, eating hot dogs and watching a move, when the police moved in, screamed ‘unlawful assembly’ and started tear gassing everybody,” she said in a phone interview following the filing of the complaint.
Gastañaga said the state’s use of the 70-year-old law, they argue, is breaking up an otherwise legal exercise of the student group’s First Amendment rights.
“The law says there has to be a clear and imminent threat of violence,” she said. “And it didn’t look like there was one that night.”
Specifics in the complaint point to a tweet sent out ahead of the tear gassing to buff the protester’s argument.
“The RPD’s own official Twitter account asserted the unlawful elements of the assembly included only ‘sit-ins, sit-downs, blocking traffic, blocking entrances or exits of buildings that impact public safety or infrastructure,’” ACLU attorney Eden Heilman wrote.
“This plainly does not constitute an unlawful assembly under the Virginia statute, let alone rise to the required ‘clear and present danger of violent conduct’ threshold permitting the declaration of an unlawful assembly.”
The complaint asks for the city and state police to stop using the law, as well as end the use of tear gas and to find the student’s rights were violated.
In a statement sent to Courthouse News, a Richmond Police spokesman said their policy is to not to comment on pending lawsuits.
William Smith, the former chief of Richmond Police is among those named as defendants in the case. He’s since resigned following the initial peaceful protest that was tear gassed earlier in the month.
Maloney doesn’t seem too concerned about what the courts think – while she hopes they’ll find in the student group’s favor, her attitude has changed since all this began. Even though she’s been protesting with BLM since she was 14-years-old, she’s still finding new ways to feel safe with the people around her, and with those she wasn’t raised to respect out of fear.
“I have a different outlook now,” she said. “The care I’ve been given by my fellow protesters, organizers and community members right now is more safe to me than being in an over policed area of Richmond.”
The protesters are also seeking an immediate injunction blocking the use of the unlawful assembly law as early as Friday night. ACLU lawyers were waiting at the courthouse but haven’t heard back as of press time.