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Sep 2, 20

Portsmouth, VA: Months After a Confederate Monument Was Brought Down, Police Are Slapping Protesters With Felonies

Report about ongoing repression of Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Portsmouth, Virginia, following the toppling of a Confederate statue in June of 2020.

On August 17, 2020, the Portsmouth Police Department issued warrants for the arrests of fourteen members of the Tidewater community. Local activists, multiple NAACP members, two public defenders, a school board member, as well as a Virginia Senator find themselves facing felony charges over damage to a Confederate monument in Portsmouth, Virginia that occurred during a protest two months prior.

Similar protests in Richmond, VA resulted in protesters taking down two statues. On the heels of these action, members of the Portsmouth NAACP covered their local Confederate monument in sheets and plastic bags on the night of June 9th. At that time, the activists were under the watchful eye of the police with the tepid blessing of Chief Angela Greene, who was herself present at the scene both that night and the following morning, according to members of the NAACP.  The next day, the statues were found uncovered around 6 am and NAACP members returned to recover the monument.  Portsmouth NAACP President James Boyd and Vice President Louie Gibbs were then arrested and charged with trespassing after attempting to re-cover the statues.

The statues had been uncovered around 6am by a white man claiming to be a descendant of the Confederate men depicted. It is worth noting that the statues themselves were cast from generic molds, and an identical copy to one of the statues resides in Indiana. The Confederate monument began construction in 1876 and was not fully completed until 1893. It was erected by the Portsmouth chapter of the Ladies Memorial Aid Association, which is a group dedicated to memorializing Confederate soldiers and propagating the “Lost Cause” narrative of the South. The monument stands in a very prominent spot in downtown Portsmouth, which has been noted as the historic location of a slave whipping post.

In response to the unwarranted arrests, the monument was vandalized with spray paint on June 10th and a large group of protesters converged around the statue later in the day in response to a call for a “Remove The Stain” rally by the Coalition of Black Americans (COBA). By the evening, the atmosphere was abuzz.

State Sen. Louise Lucas was recorded telling Portsmouth police officers that, “They’re gonna put some paint on this thing and y’all cannot arrest them,” and the result was a very subdued police presence that evening. Indeed, the atmosphere felt more like a much-needed community block party than a protest. A brass band joined the crowd circling the monument, and energy was high. A table with stacks of pizza boxes flanked the sidewalk next to the monument and a DJ pumped out beats whenever the band needed a break. Yellow paint had been flung on most of the 35ft monument, and by sunset, layers of spray paint covered the concrete men with familiar phrases: “No justice, No peace,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Fuck Amerikkka,”“George Floyd,” and “Breonna Taylor,” some of which were also heard being chanted throughout the evening. Crowds cheered as sledgehammers slowly chipped away and eventually knocked off the heads of the symbolic Confederate men, one by one.

The celebration turned to horrific tragedy as one protester was severely injured when a toppling statue fell on him. The crowd parted, and took a knee out of respect for well over five minutes of silence as Chris Green was attended to, carried out on a makeshift stretcher, and taken to a hospital. The community rallied immediately in support for his medical costs. As of August 20th, over $55K of a $60K goal has been raised for Chris’s medical and rehab costs.

Months after the protest, seemingly out of nowhere, Portsmouth police issued warrants for Sen. Louise Lucas, 4 NAACP leaders, 3 public defenders and 6 other protesters. At the press conference on August 17th, Police Chief Angela Greene framed the issue as if those protesters had a hand in Chris Green’s accident. However, Chris Green’s family did not press charges at the time of the injury and has been thankful for the financial and emotional community support, as noted in the updates of Chris Green’s GoFundme, organized by an anonymous group of activists in the 757.

Leaders at both state and national levels have been weighing in on the possible political motivations for PPD’s aggressive oppression through use of both arcane and common felony charges. The ACLU stated that the charges were a blatant overreach of the police’s power since the police went straight to the magistrate rather than being approved by the local prosecutor’s office. Sen. Lucas’s attorney said of the police’s aggression against Lucas and others, “Consequently they’re doing what they always do which is weaponize the criminal justice system against black leadership and…we’re gonna fight it vehemently…”

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam also expressed his suspicions in a tweet on August 17th. “It’s deeply troubling that on the verge of Virginia passing long-overdue police reform, the first Black woman to serve as our Senate Pro Tempore is suddenly facing highly unusual charges,” wrote Northam.

Indeed, the timing of these warrants has almost unanimously been seen as political retaliation against Black community leaders. The warrant for Sen. Lucas was served the day before she was set to vote on several police reform bills she sponsored in a special Senate session, referenced in the tweets by Gov. Northam. The two felony charges against Sen. Lucas would forbid her from participating or voting in the special hearing.

Political motivations aside, much less coverage has been given to the remaining individuals not in leadership positions but still facing life-shattering state repression. Injury to a public monument is a class 6 felony and could mean up to 5 years in prison or 12 months jail time and a $2500 fine. Local activist groups jumped into action as Police Chief Angela Green started listing the names of individuals with warrants. Local nonprofit Humanities Behind Bars coordinated the delivery of bail. The original 14 defendants have voluntarily turned themselves in and have been released at this time. A fundraiser made by local activists for the legal costs raised almost $2,200 in the first 16 hours of news breaking but donations since have slowed to a crawl. Additionally, on August 31st, local news Wavy 10 reported that police have served another individual with the same class 6 felony charge and are looking to serve 4 more alleged protesters, bringing the total number of defendants to 19. The estimated legal and other costs associated to support the now 11 defendants not in public positions could exceed $110,000.

You can donate to the GoFundme here.

With love and solidarity,
Your local 757 activists

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