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Curfew Arrests, Police Attacks Motivate Calls for Reform

police in riot gear
Police line up on Monument Avenue on June 1. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

While protests continue in Richmond, advocates are speaking out about a mass arrest of demonstrators on Sunday, May 31. Detainees were held on buses for hours and one said they were the target of anti-Muslim slurs while in custody. 

Protesters’ Arrests, Detainment Conditions and Police Conduct

Police arrested more than 230 people for violating an 8 p.m. city-wide curfew implemented by Governor Ralph Northam earlier that Sunday. 

One of the people arrested that night, Dominic Vizdos, said he and a group of protesters were marching downtown when police threw tear gas canisters into the crowd. When they attempted to take shelter from the fumes and figure out a way home, he said a police officer came up to them.

“We asked if we had safe passage to get home since we were violating the curfew. And he said, yes,” Vizdos said. “A cop car guided us down the street and they told us to make a turn. And when we turned, we were met by cops in riot gear.”

Jack Brooks was also arrested that night, confirmed Vizdos’ account and described what happened next. 

“I remember them coming out and doing the, like, get on the ground and everybody pointed their weapons at us. And then, we got put into the zip tie handcuffs,” Brooks said. 

Of the eight arrestees who shared their experiences with VPM, all recounted the same events. Kat McNeal said a police van shuttled them to the city jail after the arrest. 

“I can only really describe that trip as a rough ride. [Police behind the wheel] were starting and stopping abruptly, revving the engine, hitting curbs, and I believe taking sharp turns with the intent of jostling us around in the back,” McNeal said. “There were no restraints of any kind. It was just sort of, brace your feet on the floor — your hands are of course secured behind your back — and try not to fall.”

Once they arrived, arrestees were loaded onto charter buses where they waited to be processed. 

Treatment in the jail is another concern. Jack Brooks is Muslim and wears a hijab, which a female deputy instructed them to remove. [Editor’s note: Brooks is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns.]

“I was like, look, I'm comfortable taking it off for a search, but I don't want to be basically undressed in public. And she goes, ‘Well, this isn't in public, this is the jail,’” Brooks said. “At that point I realized my options were to cooperate and be humiliated for the purpose of being humiliated, or spend a minimum 18-24 hours in a cell where no one knew where I was.”

In an email response to VPM’s request for comment, Sheriff Antoinette Irving said the hijab was, “Removed for search and security reasons.” 

Brooks said they didn’t get to put it back on until they left the jail.

“As I was leaving, she was like, you can go ahead and wear your towel,” Brooks said. 

Legal Defenses: A Lack of Information and Officers Misleading Protesters

Corinna Lain is a law professor at the University of Richmond. She said there may not be grounds for discrimination in Brooks’ case because law enforcement has wide discretion to implement any measures they deem necessary to maintain safety in the jail. 

“The freedom to practice religion is not absolute. And what the courts have looked at is often, you know, did this state action target someone because of that because of their religion,” Lain said. 

But Lain says protesters who say they were given false directions by police could use what’s called the doctrine of reasonable reliance as a defense to have their cases dismissed. 

“You can make a claim as part of your defense at trial that you reasonably relied on a person of authority,” Lain said. “Now that's not going to get rid of [all cases], but it's going to get rid of [those] who say ‘The police told me to go this way. I went this way and then I got arrested for it.’” 

Attorney Sara Gaborik is with the RVA Legal Collaborative, a group offering free representation to anyone arrested during the past weeks’ protests. She said in past cases of curfew violations and protest arrests, people were usually taken into custody and immediately released with summonses — but this time was different.

“This wasn't the normal process. Folks were put onto buses, they were held for an extended period of time, they were booked into the jail just as if they were being booked on any other type of serious crime and many were not released for over 12 hours,” Gaborik said. 

(Video: Wendy Goodman Humble/VPM News)

Violating the governor’s curfew carried the penalty of a Class 1 Misdemeanor — punishable by a $2,500 fine and the possibility of serving up to a year in jail. But the state Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin waived the latter.

“By waiving jail time, what she also did was get rid of the right to attorney,” Lain said. 

McEachin released a statement saying she wanted to, “Relieve defendants of the fear of incarceration,” and that those who request a court-appointed attorney would get one. But Gaborik is skeptical. 

“I don't know if this means that the jail time would have to still be potentially on the table or how they're going to work it, because there's a statute in place, as to when someone becomes eligible for court appointed counsel,” Gaborik said. “Judges aren't in a position to give legal advice — they're not supposed to.”

Gaborik, who represents some of the arrestees, said the RVA Legal Collaborative is working to schedule all protest-related arraignments for the same day in September. She added that their line of defense will vary for each case, but that one of the focuses will be on the lack of notice about the curfew.

“If you weren't watching TV, if you weren't on social media — if you had taken a break from that, or if you didn't have resources for those things how would you have this information?” Gaborik said. “It's not as if they took to the sky and wrote curfew at 8:00 p.m..”

Another target of defense is where the arrests took place. 

“This was very much in a particular area where people were arrested and — the downtown area. There don't appear to be any arrests on the Southside or the northern part of Richmond,” Gaborik said. “When you have selective enforcement of the curfew, it certainly diminishes the government’s argument that this was a valid and proper arrest.”

The General Assembly and Criminal Justice Reform 

Advocates see this moment as an opportunity to tackle long standing criminal justice reform when the General Assembly reconvenes this summer for a special session. 

Issues they’re targeting include banning chokeholds, and making changes to qualified immunity, which currently protects officers from legal action — except in cases of extreme injury or death.

“The only way to hold police officers accountable is if there's going to be some sort of monetary or employment damage to them,” Gaborik said. “Right now, there really isn't anything that's being done to police the police.”

Several protesters are also taking legal action against police tear gas and pepper spray attacks — including a federal class action lawsuit filed on Tuesday. It seeks monetary damages for violating demonstrators’ constitutional rights during a June 1 protest.

Police attacks have also escalated. Over the last few days, videos have circulated of officers shooting rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades directly at demonstrators. Police Chief William Smith has since resigned, but community members said they want to see more done — like holding individual officers accountable for their misconduct.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Colette McEachin. It has been updated.

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