Katharine DeRosa, News Editor
Electric keyboards, bubbles floating through the air and the chatter of community members on a sunny afternoon marked a celebration of the life of Marcus-David Peters in Richmond on Saturday.
The event was organized by Justice and Reformation, a Richmond-based community activist group that was founded in response to Peters’ death. The organization advocates for community care and safety, according to the Justice and Reformation website. Princess Blanding, Peters’ sister, is one of the founding members of the organization.
“I’m busy, tired, but very grateful,” Blanding said. “I’m very grateful that the community’s coming out as they always do to celebrate Marcus’ life, to celebrate mental health awareness and to just be here in loving unity and that’s what Marcus would have wanted.”
Peters, a high school biology teacher and VCU alumnus, was fatally shot in 2018 by a Richmond police officer on Interstate 95 while experiencing a mental health crisis.
The group has organized since 2018, when Peters was killed. Since then, they’ve organized marches, a vigil and community meetings to rally for Peters.
The group has a list of demands directed at Richmond public officials that include creating a statewide alert system, known as the Marcus Alert System, to ensure that those experiencing mental health crises have mental health professionals as first responders.
The alert was established through the General Assembly 2020 special session and was signed by Gov. Ralph Northam on Dec. 15. The Mental health awareness response and community understanding services alert is meant to create a mental health response team for those experiencing crises.
Blanding said she is disappointed with the way the alert system was created because she believes it does not guarantee safety for those experiencing mental health crises.
“I can’t keep begging our oppressors to be our saviors,” Blanding said.
Blanding said she was unsure whether to have a private or community-based event to celebrate her brother, but ended up choosing to celebrate with the community.
“The answer always ends up being do something with the community as the Richmond community and beyond continuously comes out and stands in solidarity and fights for Marcus and all others who have been unjustly taken away from us at the hands of our unjust system,” Blanding said.
The area around the Robert E. Lee monument was reclaimed by community members in the summer of 2020 and was renamed Marcus-David Peters Circle in Peters’ honor. The Circle has served as a site for Black Lives Matter protests and other community gatherings.
This year, celebrations took place on the medians around the area, due to the presence of a fence surrounding Marcus-David Peters Circle. Three out of the four medians were occupied, one with food and games, one with music and another with food and tents.
“It was liberated by the people for the people,” Blanding said of the circle. “It’s a space that we all know that the local and state level elected officials are doing everything — and have been doing everything — in their power to keep us out of.”
The fence around the Lee statue was put up on Jan. 25 by the Virginia Department of General Services in anticipation of the statue being removed. Judge W. Reilly Marchant issued a ruling on Oct. 27 that would allow the statue to come down, however two Monument Avenue residents have filed appeals. There is currently no set date for the statue to be removed.
Blanding is running for governor of Virginia as an independent. As an independent candidate, Blanding isn’t required to participate in primaries and must petition to get her name on the gubernatorial ballot.
“I’m running for governor, not out of my own personal interests, but out of the failure of the two-party system, specifically the Democratic Party,” Blanding said.
Blanding said the Democratic Party has failed to vote to end qualified immunity and make the independent civilian review board mandatory.
At one of the medians, art curator Ra-Twoine “Rosetta” Fields promoted art created by Genevieve DeMarco and Jamile B. Johnson from an exhibition at The Well Art Gallery on Hull Street called “Feared x Revered.” The exhibition focuses on the lives of Black boys when they are free to “live without limitation.”
Fields was displaying paintings and prints of Peters and Erik McCorkle, known as Oliver Luck, a 24-year-old Black man who was shot and killed in Richmond in 2016. McCorkle was shot on Broad Street, according to NBC 12.
The portraits included aspects of the lives of both Peters and McCorkle. Peters’ for instance, included the chemical symbol for melanin, a nod to Peters’ job as a biology teacher.
Fields said he’s been “honored” to have blessings from both families to display the art.
“We wanted to make sure we highlighted not only that he was murdered, but actually what he did as a human being in life,” Fields said.
He said the proceeds from the artwork and exhibition are being used to fund a mural on Hull Street which would continue to explore the lives of Black men and boys.
“The whole goal is to have a juxtaposition of accountability and responsibility and communication and correspondence between both sides,” Fields said. “We understand that police are killing our people but we also understand that we are killing our people.”
Fields said he believes the community likes to gather near the circle because of the work that was done to occupy it. The area ends up bringing different types of people together, he said.
“It also shows what Richmond could be in so many ways,” Fields said. “A juxtaposition and intersection between so many diverse groups of people.”