RICHMOND, Va. -- A group of protesters has filed a lawsuit against the City of Richmond, Richmond Police, and Virginia State Police claiming their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly were violated.
The protesters claim police were wrong to declare an unlawful assembly the night of June 22 as protesters met outside Richmond City Hall for what they described as a "teach-in."
"At approximately 12 a.m., Tuesday, June 23, officers arrived at City Hall to deal with the occupation, which had been growing in size for several hours. Protesters were distributing fliers which indicated they planned to stay in place long-term," a Richmond Police spokesperson said the day after the protest. "Approximately 40 minutes after the officers arrived, the first Unlawful Assembly announcement was broadcast to the crowd and then repeated several times. The announcement was also posted on Twitter. After another 45 minutes had passed, officers began arresting those who had not dispersed."
Protesters said they gathered that night outside City Hall to "learn more about police brutality and racial inequality, hear from community advocates and participate in workshops." The lawsuit claimed police had no reason to declare an unlawful assembly and then use tear gas, pepper spray, flash grenades, and rubber bullets to disperse the group.
“Since the tragic murder of George Floyd and the protests against police violence that have followed, state and local police operating in Richmond have shown a pattern of violence toward protesters who speak out against systemic and anti-Black racism,” Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia, said. “When these young people tried to educate their community about racism in Richmond and how to dismantle it, police stormed in and turned their positive space into a war zone."
A police spokesperson said the department issued the unlawful assembly because protesters were blocking the public right of way to through traffic.
"Protesters threw traffic cones, barricades and concrete trash cans into the street, used vehicles to block off the street and set up tents in front of the entrance doors. The protesters also threw rocks and other objects at the officers," the Richmond Police spokesperson said hours after the protest.
Twelve people were arrested and charged with violating the state's unlawful assembly laws. All 12 of those arrested were processed at the jail and released from custody, police said.
“Black students and youth have been leading the movement for racial justice in Richmond. It’s imperative that the police’s excessive use of force and military-grade crowd control weapons are immediately curbed.” Ibby Han, director of Virginia Student Power Network (VSPN) said.
The VSPN is one of the groups that filed the lawsuit in the Circuit Court for the City of Richmond on June 26. The ACLU of Virginia's legal team is supporting the group's effort.
CBS 6 has reached out to Richmond Police ans Virginia State Police for a specific comment about the lawsuit. Both organizations say they do not comment on pending litigation.