Across the state, people woke up to scenes of cars on fire, citizens being doused with tear gas and pepper spray and buses full of people who have been detailed but have been waiting for processing for hours. These bleak images on the news aren’t grainy black and white footage from cameras in 1964 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in Selma or Montgomery. This is what is happening to citizens in the streets of Richmond in 2020.
Over the past weekend, our neighbors have taken to the streets to protest against the modern day lynching of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis and countless others who have been unnecessarily killed. But the problem isn’t just other cities. Right here in Richmond, Marcus David Peters, an unarmed high school biology teacher with no criminal history, was shot in 2018 by a police officer.
All of us need to be outraged. All of us need to be angry. But putting a Black Lives Matter hashtag on social media isn’t enough. Changing the name of a Richmond street to Arthur Ashe Boulevard is an honor, but it doesn’t actually provide any relief to people. If we actually want to see results...if we actually want to see a change in how Black and brown people are treated, then guess what? We have to actually do something.
Several years ago, New Virginia Majority worked with the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project (RTAP), a coalition that was started in order to force the Richmond Police Department to be more transparent and accountable, to demand that the department release data on its policing practices. Some goals were achieved toward greater transparency, but there is still work to be done.
Since then, our friends and allies at RTAP have requested a citizen review board that would be an independent body composed of our neighbors, with seats for Black and brown residents and those who live in heavily policed districts in order to review police behavior. In addition, the coalition has asked the police department to create the Marcus Alert, which would train police officers in crisis intervention techniques and make the presence of mental health experts mandatory along with officers, rather than continuing to give officers the option to resort to lethal force when dealing with a citizen in distress.
At the state level, we should take this a step further and have citizen review boards in every locality across the Commonwealth. Additionally, Virginia must change its open records laws to ensure that officer misconduct information and disciplinary histories are not shielded from the public.
Last year, we launched the Central Virginia Court Watch Initiative, created in response to the disproportionate representation of people of color and the poor in the criminal justice courts that feed into a system of mass incarceration. Court Watch uses community members to record and document court activities in order to gather data to spotlight bias or trends in sentencing.
We are at a crucial crossroads across the nation and across the commonwealth. It is time to demand more of our leaders. It is time to support each other through action and not just words. It is time to finally ensure that all of us are actually equal in practice, not just in theory.