Police, others stymied by outside agitators at demonstrations

George O. Copeland Jr. and Jeremy M. Lazarus | 7/30/2020, 6 p.m.
Are “outside agitators” and white supremacists infiltrating the Black Lives Matter protests against racial injustice and police brutality?
Richmond Police stand guard on Grace street near police headquarters as a dump truck set ablaze by rioters burns behind them last saturday. Photo by Sandra Sellars

Windows in several businesses spanning the 800 to 1000 blocks of West Grace Street were smashed, as were more than 80 windows on buildings on the academic campus of Virginia Commonwealth University.

VCU President Michael Rao estimated the university suffered at least $100,000 in damage, including furniture that was destroyed.

“VCU supports free speech and stands in solidarity with those peacefully expressing messages of social justice and equity for all people,” Dr. Rao said, stating that police told him that those involved were “different” from previous protests.

However, he stated that “VCU does not condone — under any circumstances — acts of violence or vandalism regardless of the purported cause.”

So far, neither VCU nor police have made a connection between extremist groups who might have been present and the damage.

For example, people who identified themselves to a Free Press writer as members of The Boogaloo Boys, a far-right group that has been associated with neo-Nazis, were gathered near the Robert E. Lee statue Saturday afternoon. Accounts of their actions and involvement vary, but there is no clear link between them and the vandalism that occurred.

Chief Smith also confirmed that no direct links to white supremacist groups or Antifa have turned up among the 23 people who were arrested.

He said that, so far, police have not been able to determine who created and distributed the flyer that urged people to come out Saturday night and be destructive.

Meanwhile, questions continue to be raised about whether the police are able to properly respond to these protests.

Still, City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday tabled until late September consideration of a resolution calling for an end of police use of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets on protesters. Speaking during discussions on the resolution, Chief Smith suggested any potential misuse could be resolved by improving training, having commanding officers on the scene to make decisions and the development of written police policies to limit discretion.

Chief Smith also said he plans to bring in independent reviewers to assess the last two months of protests and the police response.

For now, however, the protests continue, with those involved endeavoring to keep focused and steadfast in their mission for police accountability and racial justice.

“We recognize attempts to sway and misdirect our true goal — true liberation and equity and justice for all of us,” Ms. Leeward said. “We continue to question and we continue to march with the same demands.”

Free Press writer Brian Palmer contributed to this article.