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Protesters demand Family Dollar take responsibility for Alecia Nelson’s arrest

People stand with signs
Protesters gather outside of the Westover Hills Family Dollar store, where Alecia Nelson was violently arrested last week. (Photo: Connor Scribner/VPM News)

Despite freezing temperatures and light snowfall Saturday, protesters gathered outside a Family Dollar store in Richmond to protest the corporation’s role in the violent arrest of Alecia Nelson.

A video of a Richmond Police officer kneeling on Nelson's back while she screamed “I can’t breathe” went viral last week.

The incident happened at the Family Dollar location on Westover Hills Boulevard on March 7, and according to witnesses in the video, began when the supervisor of the store called the police on Nelson for allegedly shoplifting. The video shows the officer, identified by The Roanoke Times as Graham Lang, violently detaining Nelson before shoving two bystanders, one of whom was filming the incident.

The protest Saturday was hosted by the Black Power Movement and The Black Panther Party of Richmond, two local activist organizations which work to combat racial inequality in the justice system. Pops Holmes is a member of Black Power Movement. He says his organization is seeking justice for what happened to Nelson, a local substitute teacher, from not only the police, but from the Family Dollar supervisor and the Family Dollar corporation. 

“We're trying to bring awareness to Family Dollar that if you're going to be in our community, making money off our people, then you need to treat us with dignity and respect and stop treating us like criminals and thieves,” Holmes said.

The area of Richmond where that Family Dollar is located does not have an affordable grocery store. There is a boutique convenience store down the street from that location, but like the dollar store they don’t carry fresh vegetables, meaning that there isn’t anywhere for residents of the Westover and Forest Hill areas to access healthy foods reliably. Several of the surrounding neighborhoods are classified as food deserts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Protesters including General Malik say that means that the Black, low-income residents of these areas have no choice but to shop at a business that discriminates against them.

“This is the only store that's in walking distance for the Black community,” Malik said.

According to the independent investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica, in 2020 there were more than 16,000 Dollar Generals and almost 8,000 Family Dollars in the U.S. That’s more than the total number of Walmarts and McDonalds in the country combined. The ProPublica investigation found that these stores are heavily concentrated in poor areas, both urban and rural. Last year, the parent company of Family Dollar, Dollar Tree, sold $26.3 billion worth of goods, profiting nearly $8 billion.

The protest on Saturday was peaceful, though Family Dollar did lock its doors before protesters could enter the building. A handful of customers not associated with the protest attempted to enter the building, but store management did not open the door for them.

The store’s choice to lock its doors also meant that their employees and customers were trapped inside. After a few hours, two Richmond Police officers approached the group, saying they were there to escort the people inside to their vehicles.

Capt. Jason Hudson, who works for RPD’s Office of Professional Accountability, told protesters that his department is still investigating Nelson’s arrest. He said because the case is an active investigation, he could not answer questions about the status of the officer involved or about any previous complaints against him. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported last week that Lang is still on active duty.

Nelson filed a formal complaint against Lang alleging assault and excessive force. She was arrested following the incident last week and charged with a felony for assaulting Lang. However, she was not charged with shoplifting, the crime Nelson was originally accused of.

“They never charged her with shoplifting. They charged her with felony assault against law enforcement when he was the one who initiated everything,” Holmes said. “That you chose that level of violence for shoplifting reminds me of Derek Chauvin choosing that level of violence for a $20 bill when he killed George Floyd.”

Nelson didn’t attend the protest this weekend, but organizers said she’s supportive of their efforts to hold Family Dollar accountable. Family Dollar’s corporate offices did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Pops Holmes as the leader of Black Power Movement. He is just a member. We have updated the story and apologize for the error.