RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Police in Virginia’s capital arrested protesters and detained journalists during weekend demonstrations that saw windows smashed and a city truck set ablaze.
Spread over two nights, the protests mark a return to civil unrest and police crackdowns not seen since the early days of Black Lives Matters demonstrations in Richmond that have been almost nightly for the past month and a half.
Saturday night was notable due to a mysterious and unattributed flier that said, “No good cops, no bad protesters” along with a promise to “fuck shit up.”
The demonstration started at the centrally located Monroe Park and marched toward the city’s police headquarters, where, according to those present, police quickly used non-lethal tools to disperse the crowd.
“Things were peaceful up until the police station,” said local activist and journalist Kristopher Goad, who has spent almost every night at local protests since they began after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. He and other organizers had expressed concern over the flier’s call for violence as demonstrations had been peaceful over the last few weeks.
Goad blamed the shift in tone on the presence of members of the Boogaloo Boys, a far-right extremist movement that has been linked to white supremacy. While much of Richmond’s protests have been loosely organized, Saturday’s event stood out for new and confusing marching patterns that further discouraged usual protesters from getting involved.
“The lack of formal leadership allowed the loudest voices to get to the front,” Goad said in a phone interview. “As the march went on, people found out who was leading and people were not happy with that.”
After the dustup at the police station, protesters took the streets. Before long, chaos ensued through the city’s centrally located college campus, Virginia Commonwealth University.
In a statement, Richmond police said an unlawful assembly was declared around 11 p.m. Saturday after several hundred “loosely organized” people moved through the city “setting fires, breaking windows, tagging buildings and sidewalks, and blocking traffic.”
They reported six arrests while the school reported about $100,000 in property damage.
“We had a feeling something was amiss,” Richmond Police Chief Gerald M. Smith said of the flier and protest in a press conference Sunday morning.
He called some members of the crowd “rioters” after they set a city dump truck on fire. Still, he thanked the local leadership of Richmond’s Black Lives Matter group for not participating in the demonstration after noticing the out-of-place tone of the flier.
“Our standard for protests in Richmond is that all groups walk away safe,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said following Smith’s speech. “That’s not what happened last night.”
Stoney said he also believed white supremacists co-opted the event and pushed it to descend into chaos.
“Their mission is simple: to undermine the peaceful protests we’ve seen,” he said.
Sunday night, by contrast, reportedly began with a stronger show of force by Richmond police.
Goad, joined by fellow activist and journalist Molly Conger, approached Monroe Park around 10 p.m. only to be immediately greeted by an SUV full of police officers.
“We saw a lot of blue lights and thought we should leave, but before we had the chance to leave I was on the ground,” Goad said. “At no point were we told we couldn’t be in the park. At the time of our arrest we weren’t in the park.”
Video shot by Goad shows his attempts to communicate with police were stifled when they tackled him to the ground.
Here is video of my arrest. Which again, the police did not have probable cause to arrest. pic.twitter.com/Gx4aTlXC6R
— Goad Gatsby (@GoadGatsby) July 27, 2020
Another video from the Richmond Times-Dispatch shows a vehicle pulling to a quick stop in front of a church, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, where police were already detaining protesters.
Screams can be heard in the background as Times-Dispatch reporter Zach Joachim is told to leave the park or be arrested.
Police just ambushed protesters at Monroe Park. Some protesters were tackled. It happened fast, just as I arrived on scene, I got as much as I could. I heard police saying “if they’re in the park, grab them. @RTDNEWS pic.twitter.com/ZM4DFODIWe
— Zach Joachim (@ZachJoachim) July 27, 2020
In a request for comment on the police activity, Times-Dispatch Managing Editor Mike Szvetitz said he’d let Joachim’s reporting speak for itself.
While Joachim was allowed to leave the scene, Andrew Ringle, executive editor of the college newspaper The Commonwealth Times, was less lucky.
According to tweets posted by Ringle, he was detained, searched and photographed by police before being released.
“Officers were clearing the area, but before I could get to the street I was grabbed and put in handcuffs,” he tweeted. “They released me on the grounds that I do not return to the park tonight.”
I was just detained by Richmond Police officers while trying to leave Monroe Park. Officers were clearing the area, but before I could get to the street I was grabbed and put in handcuffs. They released me on the grounds that I do not return to the park tonight. Last vid I took: pic.twitter.com/IjkQbsYaLa
— Andrew Ringle (@aeringle) July 27, 2020
At a press conference Monday afternoon, Chief Smith said a total of 16 people were arrested over the weekend. As for people being detained on the sidewalk, the chief said those who were arrested were charged with trespassing for “congregating” in the park.
“They knew they were violating the law,” he said.
Goad and Conger were among those who spent at least some of their night at the city jail.
Goad was released less than two hours after being processed. He said he was quickly brought before a magistrate and while police tried to charge him with trespassing, the judge dismissed the charge after an officer failed to prove there were clearly marked “no trespassing” signs in the area.
Conger, who was arrested within feet of Goad, was charged with trespassing and not released until Monday morning.
City data shows the sidewalk where both were arrested is not part of the park grounds.
In a tweet responding to Goad’s video, the ACLU of Virginia condemned his arrest.
“Taking photos and videos of things visible in public spaces is a constitutional right, including filming the police on a public sidewalk,” the civil rights group tweeted.