by Kent Willis, Executive Director
Based on the blasé response from citizens, elected officials, and business owners, I can only guess that I missed some critical fact about the police action that took place in Richmond this past weekend. Then, again, maybe no one really cares.
As I understand the situation, around 2:00 a.m. Sunday morning, as the numerous bars and clubs that line the Shockoe Bottom area of the city were closing, about a thousand patrons wandered onto the streets, pretty much as usual. As they slowly made their way to their cars, the Richmond City Police decided there were too many people in too small an area and that it would therefore be “prudent,” as the police chief later said, to disperse the crowd.
Without warning, and without any provocation, the police decided to drive a large street cleaning truck into the crowd, spraying them with water and thereby hastening their departure.
Later, the police seemed proud of the fact that they had scattered this large crowd without injuring anyone. Business owners complimented the police on their ability to handle the situation. Even the people who were there seem to think that it was okay to push law-abiding citizens around with large machinery and water sprayers.
Now, I realize that the police were unusually apprehensive due to two the recent shootings in the area, but pardon me if I lodge an objection here. The assumption in this country is that everyone has a constitutional right to walk down a public sidewalk unless they are committing a crime or the police can demonstrate that a threat to public safety is imminent.
It appears that this crowd was broken up simply because the police got a little nervous. That’s not a sufficient reason, not in this country anyway, and it’s a bad precedent to set. The prospect of pulling out the street cleaners every time a large crowd gathers seems more like something we see in developing countries than here.
It is one thing for the police to be present when crowds gather—that can be beneficial—but it is something entirely different, and far more dangerous, when the police overreact to large gatherings. A police presence, when handled in a non-threatening way, lets people know help is nearby, engendering a sense of safety and generally thwarting harmful behavior. That should have been sufficient early Sunday morning, and barring anything to indicate an impending threat to public safety, the police had no business dispersing the crowd, especially without warning and in such an intimidating manner.
Immediately after the deadly riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, everyone blamed the demonstrators. But, later, after the videos were reviewed and onlookers were questioned, every legitimate study concluded that it was the police who set off the violence. Ever since, well-trained police departments have understood that taking unwarranted action against a crowd is potentially far more dangerous than allowing the crowd to gather and disperse on its own.
And, besides, there’s a constitutional right to be reckoned with here. No constitutional right is absolute, but in a free country -- especially this free country -- we ought to be able to walk from a club to our cars, even in significant numbers, without police interference.
The City of Richmond plans to study the problem of crowds gathering outside the clubs located in Shockoe Bottom. One would think that the City might have contemplated this problem when it licensed so many clubs to operate in the area in order to encourage more people to visit and spend their money there.
That was, at the very least, dumb planning on the City’s part. Of course, one of the proposals to deal with the problem -- trumping dumb with dumber -- is to schedule ‘street-cleaning’ in Shockoe Bottom every Sunday morning at 2:00 a.m. Whoa!
One can only hope that somewhere in the process of trying to fix this problem of their own making, everyone involved—including elected officials, the police, and business owners – keeps in mind that the right to walk peacefully down a public sidewalk minding your own business is a fundamental right in a free society.