RICHMOND, Va. -- On the first day of a special session of the Virginia General Assembly to address COVID-19 fallout and racial justice reforms, groups from across the political spectrum marched through downtown Richmond, saying they are closely watching the actions of state lawmakers in the days and weeks to come.
Originally, Governor Ralph Northam planned to call the special session to address budget concerns and financial hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But ongoing protests over the treatment of Black men and women by police and systemic racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota expanded the scope of the session.
A large group of local organizers and protests marched from the Capitol to the Siegel Center, where the House of Delegates is meeting to better practice social distancing, calling on state leaders to “fund Black futures.”
Familiar chants from social justice protests in Richmond echoed directly next to where state lawmakers were at work.
Among the issues protests groups continue to demand statewide: citizen lead review boards for police misconduct with subpoena power, “Marcus alerts” for mental health crisis situations, and increased accountability for police departments.
“We need a bill that mandates that all localities create and enforce independent civilian review boards with subpoena power because we do not trust the police to police themselves. We do not trust our elected officials to hold or police departments accountable,” said Princess Blanding, the sister of Marcus-David Peters, who was shot and killed by a Richmond Police officer during a mental health crisis in 2018.
Virginia Democrats control both chambers of the General Assembly, and have promised to pass legislation dealing with statewide policing reforms and criminal justice policies. During a press conference addressing a bill to end qualified immunity for police officers, House Democrats said their agenda is based off calls from the streets.
“When all is said and done, this package is something we will be proud of and will keep Virginians safer, and make sure there is trust between communities and law enforcement,” said Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfolk). “I think we can all agree that we don’t want a situation like what happened to George Floyd to happen here in Virginia, and that’s why we’re taking these steps in this special session.”
“There are strange bed fellows out here on the streets for different issues. But we’re really focused on what has been demanded from the streets as far as reform,” said Del. Cia Price (D-Newport News).
Virginia Republicans do not have the votes to completely block measures supported by the Democratic majority. Senator Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) said a lack of leadership by Virginia Democrats recently has lead to a loss of order in Virginia cities.
“If you drive around our Capitol city, it’s a disgrace,” Sen. DeSteph said. “I’m a little disgusted by how they’ve handled things. We’ve got a chance to fix that but we don’t have the votes to support it. So we’ll see what we can stop today, and kind of go from there.”
“I think we should refund our police not defund our police. We need to give them more money, better training, and higher more officers,” he said.
Tuesday morning before session began, armed militia groups marched and gathered near the Siegel Center, chanting things like: “this house, our house!” and “all the rights to all the people!”
Some members of the groups said they disagree with the approach taken by protesters and some of the issues being pushed, but support the right of every American to express their views.
“We all show up here because we do not want the future that they want. We are out here to show them that we will defend our peace,” one man said while a group kneeled next to a woman who had come to hold her own “sit-in for peace.”
A group of VCU students came to counter-protest the armed groups, saying they feel the aim of marching with weapons was intimidation.
“We can’t do anything school-wise because people are out here with guns of war,” said Kelsi Lenart
“Of course they don’t want it to change because they’ve been in charge and able to intimidate people into doing their biding for so long,” said Sakina Ahmad.
Most of the work done by state lawmakers Tuesday were procedural to launch their work moving forward. House Democrats and Republicans engaged in a heated debate that extended for hours over whether or not members could vote virtually. The Senate of Virginia will meet at the Science Museum during the special session.
Because of the social distancing guidelines and virtual meetings, the special session could last several weeks.
Governor Northam also announced a $2.7 billion budget shortfall because of Covid-19 closures. Northam is suggesting cuts to his administrations priorities, like pay raises for teachers and state employees
Ultimately, House and Senate budget negotiators will have a say in the final cuts to the two-year state budget.