Protest leaders fear police will use new restrictions to suppress local voices.
RICHMOND- Kalia Harris believes Virginia’s new COVID-19 restrictions will cause more problems for protesters.
“I’m sure the police will continue to use this to criminalize people in public space,” the Black liberation movement leader said. “Anytime the police are given another reason to harass and suppress, they do.”
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order increasing COVID-19 restrictions across the Commonwealth on Friday. These restrictions include a ban on gatherings of 25 or more people. However, this ban does not apply to schools, churches, restaurants, gyms, or retail businesses.
“COVID-19 is surging across the country, and while cases are not rising in Virginia as rapidly as in some other states, I do not intend to wait until they are. We are acting now to prevent this health crisis from getting worse,” said Gov. Northam. “Everyone is tired of this pandemic and restrictions on our lives. I’m tired, and I know you are tired too. But as we saw earlier this year, these mitigation measures work. I am confident that we can come together as one Commonwealth to get this virus under control and save lives.”
Cases of COVID-19 in Virginia have been steadily rising since the pandemic began in March. The Commonwealth is currently experiencing a surge in cases of the virus. On Nov. 11, Virginia’s number of reported cases in one day peaked at 2,677.
Law enforcement has historically and very recently used its power to target vulnerable populations, especially Black and brown communities. According to Black liberation activists, there is no reason to think this executive order will not also be enforced inequitably.
“I’m sure they will use this to suppress protests. I think the question will be who they are enforcing it for. Because we’ve seen the anti-masker people and literal white supremacists embark upon the city and they’re practically being protected by the police, and not being held to account for not wearing masks or really any of the COVID-19 precautions that have come from protesting,” Harris said.
Harris is referring to a number of recent events. On the Sunday before the election, a “Trump Train” came into Richmond and clashed with protesters at Marcus-David Peters Circle. Then on election night, a similar incident took place. Richmond police only pulled over the protesters.
A joint report by Northeastern University, Harvard University, Rutgers University, and Northwestern University published in August showed no significant correlation between the percentage of the population that said they participated in Black liberation protests and the percentage of the population who contracted the virus during that period.
A study released by Stanford University in October concluded that 18 Trump rallies resulted in more than 30,000 cases of COVID-19. According to the study, this likely led to more than 700 deaths. That’s due to a lack of precautions, such as the refusal to wear masks.
Inequitable Impact of COVID-19
For Black liberation leaders in Richmond, the impact of the virus extends far beyond those participating in protests.
“It may affect our movement, but it’s, more importantly, going to affect people in our communities who are not aware of what these changes are or how they’re being enforced,” Harris said. “Whether or not it was the direct intention of the governor and his administration, I think there will be consequences both to our movement and also just our communities in general.”
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 disproportionately affects communities of color.
This is due to the many systemic inequities, including lack of access to health care, that impact people of color.
Black liberation supporters have been weighing the risk of getting the virus with their right to protest against police brutality.
“It’s petrifying, really, to know that we still have to do this liberation work. Because we’re not free. And knowing that there’s so much danger every time we go out there, I think that’s something that people really do think about and weigh every time they leave their homes,” said Harris. “The virus is terrifying but so is police murder and this continued starving of our communities.”
Police Pose an Increased Risk of Contraction
Protesters in Richmond also face an increased risk of contracting the virus due to their proximity to Richmond police.
On Nov. 12, the police department reported 37 cases of COVID among its employees.
The Richmond police department did not respond in time for publication to questions related to its official mask policy. However, protesters and others frequently document Richmond police not wearing masks when responding to protests.
The Richmond city budget allocated approximately $100 million dollars to its police department this year.
Investing in Solutions
The executive order signed by the governor makes not wearing a mask in retail businesses a Class 1 misdemeanor. The governor did not allocate any additional funding to support communities impacted by the virus through his executive order.
“Of course, Gov. Northam could have done a bunch of other things other than give us these vague rules,” said Harris. “He could have decided to close the schools, to set the precedent for child care. But rather than doing that, he and his administration have decided to just put more rules in place that are ultimately going to have to be enforced by the police.”
Leaders of the movement say the responsibility for reducing the virus’s spread should not only be on individuals.
“We know that the limitations of individuals are not necessarily what we need to be focused on when it comes to handling the virus. Yes, that is important, but also we should be thinking about ways we can incentivize people to be able to stay home. Such as not having the police murder black people, so we don’t have to be out in the streets to protest and demand that our rights are heard,” said Black liberation movement leader Naomi Issac.
Richmond Police’s Previous Abuse of Powers
This summer the city and the police department took action to prevent protesters from gathering.
In June, the city gave its police the authority to declare gatherings of “three or more persons” an unlawful assembly. The police used this power to tear gas, beat, shoot, and arrest peaceful protesters who do not disassemble.
Richmond also instituted a curfew for several days in June. Again, law enforcement in Richmond used this power to harass and persecute not only protesters, but also bystanders.
“We were immediately met with these restrictions on our liberties and it goes right back to the Virginia slave code,” said Issac. “Slaves were not allowed to gather in large groups on their plantations because the masters, the elite, were afraid that they would rise up and create havoc and disrupt the status quo. And that’s exactly what’s happening again right now. They’re afraid that with more mobilization, people will rise up and they will disrupt the status quo. And that is a direct threat to their power.”
Despite the restrictions, Black liberation organizers say they’re not planning on pausing demonstrations due to the executive order.
“We can’t really suppress what’s happening, the actions. We can’t say you can come, but you can. Because that’s not advocacy for Black lives, or people who have some type of care for Black lives,” said Lawrence West, leader of BLM RVA. “We want people to attend and be a part of anything happening or any actions that we’re a part of.”
Part of the movement has already moved online, primarily to Twitter. Due to the new order, some organizers are attempting to adapt their advocacy to reach audiences remotely.
“We have to get creative in new ways to continue to help advance the community. Doing stuff online, doing stuff outside in the community,” said the co-founder of the 381 Movement Justice Peebles.
Those interested in remotely supporting the Black liberation movement in Richmond can follow, join, or donate to the organizations below:
How can I get involved?
- Race Capitol, an independent media platform interrogating racial narratives in Richmond. Movement leaders Chelsea Higgs Wise, Naomi Issac, and Kalia Harris host this podcast.
- MAD RVA, a mutual aid and disaster relief network that supports Richmonders suffering as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Lil Rad Library, a radical library providing supporters at Marcus-David Peters Circle with free literature.
- Richmond Indigenous Society, which has partnered with the movement to protest the oppression of Black and Indigenous communities.
- Jackson Ward Youth Peace Team, an educational and mutual aid organization teaching and supporting youth in the Jackson Ward.
- Peter’s Place RVA, a Richmond organization providing housing, resources, and trauma-informed care to LGBTQ individuals seeking recovery support.
- Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project, a grassroots organization providing funding and practical support for abortion services. The project also advocates for reproductive justice.