Anya Sczerzenie, Staff Writer
Dance performances, screen-printed T-shirts and birthday cake marked on Saturday the 27th birthday of Marcus-David Peters, a VCU alum who was killed by Richmond police while experiencing a mental crisis.
Richmond community members gathered at the Robert E. Lee statue, coined Marcus-David Peters’ Circle, to celebrate Peters’ birthday. As performers danced around the statue’s base, volunteers handed out free food and cake.
Princess Blanding, the older sister of Peters, said she was thankful for the positive energy at the events and the people involved in the event. Blanding says that although the day was an emotional experience for her, she was happy that they had the party.
“We want to celebrate the life that he did live.” Blanding said. “It was a hard decision, but we wanted to do it this way because I wanted the Richmond community — that has been amazing — to celebrate. Marcus is my blood, but he’s the family of the Richmond community.”
Peters, a Black high school biology teacher, was shot and killed by Richmond police when he was 24 while experiencing a mental health crisis on Interstate 95.
Blanding and other Richmond activists have pushed for legislators to pass the mental health awareness response and community understanding services, or MARCUS, alert system. The bill, which has passed both chambers in the Virginia General Assembly’s special session, would require behavioral health and criminal justice agencies to establish guidelines for de-escalating mental health crisis situations.
Some VCU students attended the birthday party, such as Ash Chang and Chloel Welch, who volunteered to hand out free sandwiches, cookies and drinks. Both Chang and Welch are seniors in VCU’s School of the Arts.
“Food is a simple thing, but it’s nice to be able to give back to the Richmond community,” Welch said. “Especially when we go to a school that is gentrifying Richmond, it’s the least we can do.”
Near the end of the event, people gathered to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Peters.
Signs bearing Peters’ face and wishing him a happy birthday were planted around the circle, and a small altar holding candles and flowers stood next to a sign that encouraged people to scatter seeds on it.
The circle has become a community space since it was repurposed by protesters during the summer’s calls for social justice nationwide and in Richmond. The space has hosted marches, performances, celebrities and the family of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in Minneapolis police custody. Most recently, the New York Times named the now graffiti-covered Lee statue the most influential work of American protest art since World War II.
One of Saturday’s dance performers, Alex Harvell from Fredericksburg, said that the atmosphere of the circle made him feel safe.
“This is great, I feel really connected,” Harvell said. “This is great motivation for everyone to keep the momentum, to put in the important work for humanity.”
A screen-print station that gave out free printed T-shirts was one of the more popular tables at Saturday’s event. Safa Eltaib, a member of Richmond-based Black social justice organization RVA 26, helped run the table. They ran out of T-shirts by the end of the night.
“I think it’s been really awesome. It’s been nice to see kids having fun, Black people having joy and really celebrating Marcus-David Peters,” Eltaib said. “His death was tragic, but being able to see people come together to support him, and the life that was lost, has been really good.”