Democratic legislators on Monday blasted what they called excessive police force at a reproductive-rights rally where officers wearing riot gear and carrying semiautomatic weapons arrested 30 demonstrators at the Virginia Capitol this weekend.
“They were marching and chanting for women’s rights,” said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax). “And what did they face? SWAT teams, state police in full riot gear, police armed with semiautomatic guns and dogs — dogs. Not since the massive resistance days of the 1960s have I seen such a disgraceful display of excessive police presence.”
Hours later, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, both Republicans, called on lawmakers to apologize for “unprecedented” remarks “attacking Virginia’s law enforcement.’’
“When you get to the point where your anger over losing an election and your anger over not getting the committee assignments you want spills over...to taking the floor to tear down our incredibly talented and brave law enforcement officers, it really has crossed the line,’’ McDonnell said. “It really is over the top.’’
The criticisms Monday underscore the deteriorating relationship between Republicans and Democrats in the closing days of the 60-day legislative session. Republicans accuse Democrats of failing to pass a state budget in a bid for more power in an equally divided state Senate. Democrats blame Republicans for the divide, accusing them of focusing too much on social issues, including abortion.
Officers arrested 30 of the 1,000 demonstrators and took them to the Richmond City Jail after they refused to leave the steps of the Capitol -- where protests are prohibited. They carried signs, including “Governor McDonnell get out of my vagina.’’
Protestors say those arrested were kept on a bus for hours before being processed, with no water available and no toilets, using a bucket for a bathroom.
The 17 women and 13 men were charged with either trespassing or unlawful assembly — both misdemeanors, Capitol Police Capt. Raymond Goodloe said. They were arraigned Monday and are to appear in court later this month.
Goodloe said the response was not excessive. He acknowledged that some women had to wait for hours to be processed, as is sometimes the norm, but said there was a bathroom on the bus.
McDonnell, who was not in the nearby Executive Mansion when the arrests occurred, and Bolling said law enforcement officers acted in a way they deemed appropriate.
“These guys were doing their job as they saw them. To stand up on the floor of the Senate and attack our law enforcement professionals for political reasons...is inappropriate,’’ Bolling said. “It is not something we have ever seen before.’’
The event, organized by activists who call themselves Speak Loud with Silence, started with a march through downtown Richmond and ended with a rally outside the Capitol. They originally gathered at the Bell Tower but later moved to the Capitol steps. Goodloe said most people stayed off the steps after being asked. Those who did not were arrested.
“As the protest organizers, we believe that all Virginians can exercise their First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble,’’ the group said Monday in a statement. “The excessive police response witnessed on Saturday was unnecessary. Furthermore, we have received reports of inhumane treatment of those arrested, particularly from females.”
The ACLU of Virginia is offering to assist protestors who were arrested Saturday.
“We do not know yet if anyone’s free speech rights were violated,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “We do know, however, that from all appearances the police overreacted to a situation in which peaceful demonstrators gathered at a public place to exercise their First Amendment right to protest the government.”
Other organizations, including the Virginia State Conference NAACP, have criticized the the Capitol Police actions.
“The governor and General Assembly owe the citizens an apology and a change in whatever policy that directed them to do what they did on Saturday evening past and since citizen advocacy has intensified at the General Assembly,” said King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia NAACP.
Virginia has been in the national spotlight in recent weeks for some of its antiabortion legislation. Several bills have already died during the 60-day session — including those that sought to define a fertilized egg as a person, deny state-funded abortions to poor women with grossly deformed fetuses and ban abortions after 20 weeks.
But at least one — requiring women to get an ultrasound before an abortion — is on McDonnell’s desk after being amended to no longer mandate a trans-vaginal procedure. He has until the end of the week to sign the bill.
“You may not like the presence of it. And you might think that that is contributing to a public image that we find inconsistent with the positive image that we like the commonwealth of Virginia to have,” Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City) said Monday. “But let me say this: There are some in this body that have done everything that they can to exacerbate the tarnishing of that public image based on social issues to try to deflect what they are not doing in other [budget] issues.”
In both those instances, protesters gathered in parts of the square where demonstrations are not permitted. The first time they were allowed to remain, but the second time they were told to move.
A permit has been required for rallies at Capitol Square since 1970s.
Another protest is scheduled for Tuesday -- the day Virginia and nine other states pick a GOP presidential candidate -- outside the train station where McDonnell will vote.
“Men of Virginia — men of Virginia --- do we want our wives, our grandmothers, our mothers, our sisters, our daughters our nieces treated this way? ... Speaking to the gentlemen in this body, we as men, take exception when we see our womenfolk treated this way. It’s not right,’’ Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) said. “I stand up today, not as a state senator, simply as a son of a Virginian, as the husband of a Virginian, as the father of a Virginians. It’s not right. I speak as one half of the gender, but as a man, I don’t think it’s right.”
House Minority Leader David Toscano (D-Charlottesville) wrote a letter to Capitol Police Chief Steve Pike asking for a meeting to discuss the need for permits and the protocol for protests.
Capitol Police were assisted by Virginia State Police, but Goodloe declined to say how many officers were present. A spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police referred calls to the Capitol Police.