Protesters visit Siegel Center as House of Delegates convenes for special session

Around 100 demonstrators gather outside of the Stuart C. Siegel Center on Aug. 18 as the House of Delegates convenes inside. Photo by Andrew Ringle

Andrew Ringle, Executive Editor

More than 100 protesters marched down the hot asphalt of Broad Street on Tuesday, blocking two lanes of traffic and facing off with officers from VCU and Virginia State Police. “Whose streets? Our streets,” they chanted as some in the crowd wove flags and handmade signs bearing the name of Marcus-David Peters.

The demonstration, the latest in a summer of protests in Richmond, unfolded just steps away from a Virginia General Assembly special session expected to address the very issues surrounding police violence that brought together the crowd on Broad Street.

Peters, a Black high school biology teacher and VCU alumnus, was killed by a Richmond police officer in 2018. Demonstrators in Richmond continue to demand the reopening of Peters’ case, among other social justice reforms. Protests began in the city in late May, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Delegates met at VCU’s Stuart C. Siegel Center on Tuesday instead of the Virginia State Capitol for social distancing. Meanwhile, the Senate congregated at the Science Museum of Virginia. The House voted on two resolutions affecting House procedures during the special session.

  • HR 515: authorizes the House to hold virtual sessions. Passed House 55-Y, 43-N
  • HR 516: approves use of House funds to cover the salaries of temporary employees, incidental expenses and per diem for delegates. Passed House 55-Y, 42-N, 1-A

The House also passed HJR 5006, which would limit legislation that may be voted on during the special session, but the joint resolution was killed by the state Senate.

Virginia State Police officers — one wearing a “thin blue line” face mask and another holding what appears to be a camcorder — face protesters outside the Stuart C. Siegel Center on Aug. 19. Photo by Andrew Ringle

The special session was called by Gov. Ralph Northam to address COVID-19 and related shortfalls in the commonwealth’s budget. He also wanted the legislature to address criminal justice and police reform.  

“Since the COVID-19 crisis evolved into both the public health crisis and the police brutality crisis, the lawmakers are using this as an opportunity to address criminal justice reform issues,” said Alex Keena, an assistant professor of political science at VCU.

Keena said he expects issues related to marijuana decriminalization to gain bipartisan support during the special session, while legislation concerning police reform will receive pushback from Republicans.

“The Republicans are still wrestling with who they are and what they stand for,” Keena said. “The Democrats have to perform. They have the majority.”

Keena said many of the issues legislators are tackling this session, such as police reform and the commonwealth’s budget, are likely going to draw “a lot of attention” to Virginia politics.

“One of the things that’s interesting is, it sounds like everyone’s sort of bringing their own ideas to the table,” Keena said.

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who sponsored two bills concerning marijuana and police reform, was charged with damaging a Confederate monument during protests in her city, Portsmouth Police Chief Angela Greene said during a news conference Monday. The state senator faces charges of conspiracy to commit a felony and “injury to a monument.” 

Lucas’ proposed bills include SB 5024, which would allow Virginia’s attorney general to file civil suits against law enforcement officials believed to be depriving people of constitutional “rights, privileges or immunities.” Lucas’ SB 5029 lowers marijuana possession from a primary offense to a secondary offense and prohibits law enforcement from searching a person, place or thing “solely on the basis of the odor of marijuana”

Keena said the timing of Lucas’ charges before the start of the special session is “mind-boggling.”

“If something were to happen to her [Lucas], I mean, she’s the president pro tempore of the Senate,” Keena said. “That would throw a real big wrench in what’s going on because she’s been a huge consensus builder.”

House delegates will meet virtually for the remainder of the special session, despite Republican opposition to the change. House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in a statement that Tuesday was “a dark day for the House of Delegates.”

“With a single vote, they [Democrats] declared that they have no need to meet in public, they have no desire to receive public input, and they have no intention of changing that practice anytime soon,” Gilbert said. “Our constituents deserve to have the business of the House done in public.”

Live streams and recordings of the House of Delegates and state Senate sessions are available at virginiageneralassembly.gov.

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