The ACLU of Virginia filed a lawsuit on June 26, 2020 on behalf of youth activists of the Virginia Student Power Network (VSPN) and three individuals against the City of Richmond, the Richmond Police Department (RPD) and the Virginia State Police (VSP) for violating their constitutional rights to free speech, assembly and protest. Today, the court dismissed the lawsuit, denying the protesters a trial on this matter.
“These protesters and activists were exercising their constitutional rights to speak out against systemic and anti-Black racism when police turned their positive space into a war zone,” said Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia. “People who are harmed by police deserve their day in court, and tragically, our clients were denied the chance to hold police accountable. We hope the legislature will change Virginia law to make it easier for people to sue police for unconstitutional actions like what they did to these individuals. Too often, police escape accountability for harms caused against Black and Brown people and others protesting against racism.”
On the night of June 22, a group of local university students hosted a “teach-in” in front of City Hall, attended by about 150 people with the intent to gather overnight, learn more about police brutality and racial inequality, hear from community advocates and participate in workshops. In an unnecessary move that heightened tensions, police declared the event an unlawful assembly after midnight and attacked the group using tear gas, pepper spray, flash grenades and rubber bullets. Many people were injured during the unprovoked use of force. This incident followed weeks of violent force deployed at the hands of the Richmond Police and Virginia State police against individuals exercising their constitutional rights to speak out against police brutality.
Kalia Harris, co-executive director of VSPN said, "We are incredibly disappointed to hear that we won't see our day in court to hold the police accountable for their violence last summer. The demand to end police violence should never result in more police violence, like has happened here in Richmond. Black and brown youth in our city have been repeatedly brutalized and arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights. Our work to illuminate the need for real policy change when it comes to public safety in Virginia does not stop here. We will not be silent."
The state legislature is currently considering a bill – House Bill 2045 – that will give Virginians harmed by police the unqualified right to bring an action in a state court to hold the officer and their employer accountable for misconduct. Federal courts have given police a free pass called “qualified immunity” that shields them from accountability. If passed, House Bill 2045 will ensure that police and their employers aren’t immune from being held accountable in Virginia courts with Virginia judges.
Ibby Han, co-executive director of VSPN said, "We're incredibly disappointed that we did not have our day in court to shine a light on the irresponsible, dangerous behavior of local and state law enforcement. The police need to be held accountable for the immense harm they've caused to Black and brown youth protesters as well as the broader community. However, we know the fight does not stop here. We look forward to continuing to advocate for substantive policy change at the state level and to maintain pressure for a total overhaul of our justice system."
The lawsuit was filed in the Circuit Court for the City of Richmond by co-counsels ACLU of Virginia, Covington & Burling LLP and local attorney Charlie Schmidt. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of VSPN (a “hub” project of New Virginia Majority) and individual plaintiffs Noah Smith, Diamante Patterson and Jimmie Lee Jarvis.