An image of George Floyd is projected on a screen in front of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue Tuesday July 28, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Change.org and the George Floyd Foundation officially launched "A Monumental Change: The George Floyd Hologram Memorial Project" in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
An image of George Floyd is projected on a screen in front of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue Tuesday July 28, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Change.org and the George Floyd Foundation officially launched "A Monumental Change: The George Floyd Hologram Memorial Project" in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Over the last month, items were banned and activities blocked at Marcus-David Peters Circle. But nobody will say who created these new rules.

RICHMOND-The Virginia Capitol Police are enforcing new rules at Marcus-David Peters Circle in Richmond. The problem is that nobody will say who came up with them.

Capitol Police disseminated these rules last month. They prohibit everything from community fundraisers to homemade posters in the Circle. A flyer handed out by Capitol Police in November prohibits the use of playing audio or visual in the Circle. Prohibited items on also include tents, tables, and staging according to the flyer.

The flyer also prohibits solicitation, sales, collections, and fundraisers in the Circle. The flyer also prohibits flying drones, unleashing pets, and using fossil fuel powered generators. A ban on open-air burning is also on the flyer.

In addition, the flyer bans climbing the statue in the Circle. A ban on affixing banners, flags, posters, or other objects to the statue is also on the flyer.

This is an issue due to how the Circle has been transformed over the last six months. In many ways, it serves as the unofficial headquarters of Richmond’s Black liberation movement.

A Crackdown on Community Care

Dozens of posters, banners decorate the Robert E. Lee Monument today. Memorials to victims of police brutality surround the monument.

People visit the Circle every day. Some swing by to sit on the steps of the statue and take photos. Most of the time though, organizers provide community care to people in need. These organizers include Rashawn Dawkins and his wife Bubbles. They run ‘The Kitchen,’ which feeds the houseless every day at the Circle.

Dawkins and Bubbles are at the Circle every day. ‘The Kitchen’ is usually located under a tent, including tables and chairs for people to use while they eat. Cooking for the hungry requires heat, so they rely on controlled frames or generators. Virginia’s new social distancing rules prohibit in-person gatherings of more than 10 people. We explored how that rule might become a tool for police to suppress black liberation in this story.

Music is often played in the Circle, with projections cast onto the statue. Black entrepreneurs also sell Black liberation-related artwork and clothing there. Community organizers say that by singling out ongoing activities at the Circle, the Capitol Police are targeting efforts to support black liberation.

They also say police in Richmond have been harassing organizers in the Circle for months. This was happening even before new rules came out.

“They came out there, broke everything down, took everything. People came back out, donated new stuff to it, and they came out and took it again,” said Pops Holmes, a black liberation protester who visits the Circle almost every day.

Who has the authority to invent new rules?

Capitol Police Public Information Officer Joseph Macenka confirmed that it was members of the Capitol Police who disseminated these new rules in the Circle on November 12.

The rules only apply to the Circle, according to Macenka. He said they were only posted there.

“They were posted at the Circle only, yes,” Macenka said.

However, the Capitol Police don’t have the authority to create or enforce rules of their own design. Capitol Police Captain Tony Gulotta confirmed that other government bodies design the rules enforced by the department.

“It does come from another body,” said Gulotta.

The Joint Rules Committee oversees the Capitol Police. This body is composed of eight members of the Virginia House of Delegates. Its chair is House of Delegates Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn.

None of the committee members responded to questions about if they told the Capitol Police to enforce these new rules.

Gulotta did not answer questions about where they received instructions from to enforce these new rules.

The Joint Rules Committee has not met since the General Assembly recessed in October. The session ended a month before Capitol Police disseminated the new rules. The Commonwealth owns all the properties that the Capitol Police patrol.

Macenka said they will continue to enforce the rules.

“We will continue to govern the area with an eye towards public safety,” said Macenka.

Public safety concerns

Capitol Police officials say they’ve had a number of complaints in recent months, related to the Circle.

“We were responding to a number of complaints from neighbors. We’ve been having a number of difficulties there as far as people setting fires on a regular basis and in general not adhering to the rules,” Macenka said.

Macenka said that all the rules listed in the flyer are for protecting public safety in the Circle.

“We’ve had a number of ambulance calls there over the spring, summer and fall from people injuring themselves from climbing up onto the monument and falling down,” said Macenka. “We have been telling people not to leave things there overnight. [In November], we found such things as flammable accelerants that were being stored in cans in tents. We found beds on the property, things like that. It creates an unsafe environment.”

On the other hand, hundreds of black liberation protesters and bystanders have repeatedly sustained serious injuries after being tear gassed, beaten, and shot at with rubber bullets by Capitol Police in the Circle. The environment when Capitol Police opened fire on protesters was unsafe.

A protester this summer at the Williams Carter Wickham statue in Monroe Park did require an ambulance. However, there are no news reports about an ambulances being called to the Circle.

Representatives of the Capitol Police did not answer questions about how posters, banners, flags, audio and video equipment, tables, drones, generators, fundraisers, or collections pose a risk to the public’s safety.

Saving the Community from a Coat Drive

On the same day Capitol Police handed out these rules, they used them to tear down a coat drive for the houseless.

The coat drive took place at the same time that the Richmond Indigenous Society planned a celebration at the Circle. When they arrived, they found police officers confronting people having the coat drive in ‘The Kitchen’.

“We walked into this really odd situation where, you can just imagine, there are three people they’re confronting and the people are just sitting in the tent, just ‘The Kitchen’ people, trying to do a coat drive,” said Richmond Indigenous Society organizer Lauren Wark.

Wark said about 20 Capitol Police  surrounded the tent. They told organizers in ‘The Kitchen’ to turn off a controlled flame they were using to prepare food. The organizers turned off the flame, but Wark says the police continued to escalate the scene.

“They consented, they were like ‘okay we’ll turn it off if you don’t want us to have it.’ But then it escalated to (the police) just taking all of their things, making them take down their tent and everything. And then they put it in this truck. The police heaved it, they took all of their setup, all of their belongings for this coat drive and what they need to sustain themselves when they’re having things at MDP Circle,” Wark said.

The society also set up a few tables and heated and disseminated food for their event. Nobody bothered them, unlike the coat drive by Black organizers that got destroyed.

According to Wark, it’s clear these new rules aren’t enforced the same for everyone.

“The Circle, the whole point of it is it’s just about community and offering things to the community. They were literally having a coat drive. That’s as harmless as it gets, literally, to aid the community,” Wark said. “Nobody’s harming anything, there’s no one in danger, and it just makes it really obvious that the police are obsessed with controlling that situation and keeping it back.”

How you can help

Community care organizers at the Circle need supplies for the houseless. Bring donations such as blankets, water bottles, and food to the Circle during the day to donate. To support ‘The Kitchen,’ you can send money to their Venmo account @redyray. You can also ask members of the Joint Rules Committee to step in and change these new rules.

Here’s the numbers to their Capitol and district offices.

  • Eileen Filler-Corn: (Capitol) 804-698-1041, (district) 571-249-3453
  • Charniele Herring: (Capitol) 804-698-1046, (district) 703-606-9705
  • Michael Mullin: (Capitol) 804-698-1093, (district) 757-525-9526
  • Marcus Simon (Capitol) 804-698-1053, (district)  571-327-0053
  • Lamont Bagby (Capitol) 804-698-1074, (district) 804-698-1074
  • Todd Gilbert (Capitol)  804-698-1015 (district) 540-459-7550
  • Terry Kilgore (Capitol) 804-698-1001 (district) 276-386-7011
  • Terry Austin (Capitol) 804-698-1019 (district) 540-254-1500

Meg Schiffres is Dogwood’s associate editor. You can reach her at megan@couriernewsroom.com.