Richmond mayor joins demonstrators after being shouted down
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney marched with racial justice demonstrators Tuesday, hours after an angry crowd shouted him down as he apologized for police lobbing tear gas at a peaceful group of protesters.
During a tense meeting outside City Hall Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of people outraged by the use of tear gas on nonaggressive protesters called on Stoney to fire the officers involved. Some also called for Stoney and police Chief William Smith to resign.
Stoney said it was wrong and unacceptable to use tear gas on peaceful demonstrators and promised that disciplinary action will be taken against the officers. He also agreed to walk with the protesters Tuesday evening from the Capitol to the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
That statue and some other Confederate monuments in Richmond were defaced by protesters during earlier demonstrations. It was also where police used tear gas on protesters Monday before the start of a 8 p.m. curfew.
Monday was the fourth night of protests in Richmond over the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground with his knee on his neck for more than eight minutes as he pleaded for air.
On Tuesday evening, Stoney was among a group of marchers walking peacefully down Broad Street. Several photos and videos showed him walking with different people, wearing a blue mask with red and white patterns on it. A picture posted to his Twitter page showed him walking arm-in-arm with the protesters.
The marchers were scheduled to head toward the Lee statue on Monument Avenue. A tweet posted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch showed Stoney leaving the protest as some people said to him, “Please stay with us. Please. We need you to do better.”
Video posted to social media of the Monday night incident showed a line of police launching tear gas toward a group of protesters, who appeared to be yards away from the officers and peacefully gathered on the grass near the Lee statue.
Clouds of white gas surrounded demonstrators as they scattered, and one video appeared to show an officer chasing and spraying a protester.
“Every peaceful protester should be allowed to protest, that is your right. That’s the bottom line, and we violated that,” Stoney told the crowd at City Hall.
Smith also apologized and also took a knee briefly after being invited to do so by a woman in the crowd.
“I apologize for the mistakes that we have made,” Smith said.
The meeting, which lasted over an hour, ended when Stoney and Smith walked back inside City Hall.
The tear gas was used on a group of protesters gathered near the Lee statue during the fourth night of protests over the killing of Floyd, a handcuffed black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on his neck for more than eight minutes as he pleaded for air. The officer has been charged with murder.
The Richmond Police Department initially defended its use of tear gas shortly before an 8 p.m. curfew, tweeting that some officers “were cut off by violent protesters” and the tear gas “was necessary to get them to safety.”
About two hours later, the department retreated from that position after Smith reviewed video of the incident. In a tweet, the department apologized “for this unwarranted action.” The tweet said the officers who used the tear gas “have been pulled from the field” and will be disciplined “because their actions were outside dept protocols and directions given.”
Stoney also apologized on Twitter and invited protesters to the meeting outside City Hall on Tuesday.
The police department did not say how many officers were involved or what kind of discipline they would face.
Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, said the incident could damage Stoney politically. The Democrat is widely seen as a potential candidate for governor in 2021.
“Mayor Stoney had a much brighter political future 48 hours ago,” Farnsworth said. “The challenge for the mayor going forward is to restore confidence in his leadership of Richmond that has been undermined by developments this week.”
Farnsworth said Stoney’s decision to meet with angry protesters was a “painful, but necessary” step.
“Obviously, it would have been better if things had gone down differently on Monday, but given what happened, the mayor is wise to make aggressive efforts at trying to limit the damage to the community,” he said.