A little more than an hour into the confrontation, officers fired numerous canisters that cleared people out of a parking lot across the street from headquarters.
Protesters later returned. As they walked back around 11:30 p.m., a recording warned it had been deemed an unlawful assembly and failure to disperse would lead to arrest. Fewer than 50 people remained in the area shortly before 1 a.m.
It was a much quicker and more severe response than the night before, when protesters kept up a tense confrontation until nearly 2 a.m. Monday before police used tear gas to clear them out.
The hours-long standoff that began Sunday evening was sparked by an incident in which a city police vehicle struck several demonstrators on Saturday night. One person was taken into custody after authorities said she crossed a police line and struck with a bullhorn an officer who tried to stop her.
Richmond police said Monday that three officers were injured in Sunday’s incident, and several city vehicles and privately owned buildings were damaged or vandalized. The department said pepper spray was deployed after the crowd disregarded warnings to disperse.
The confrontation began Sunday, shortly before 10 p.m. outside Richmond police headquarters on Grace Street. A crowd of about 300 protesters, many dressed in black with black head and face coverings, converged in a parking lot across the street from the building.
They confronted several dozen officers in riot gear, standing in a line along the block and holding clear shields. An armored vehicle was behind the police in the entrance to the building’s parking garage. Several officers looked down from the roof. City dump trucks had been stationed at either end of the block to seal it off to traffic.
Almost immediately, the officers put on gas masks. Soon a helicopter was circling overhead, aiming a spotlight onto the crowd.
The protesters chanted “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace,” while several stood close to the officers yelling profanities and shining lights in their faces. Some protesters carried knives on their hips; one had a samurai sword in a sheath.
The police wore body armor, carried rifles and kept their hands on what appeared to be cans of pepper spray. They were from both city and state police, joined later by Henrico County police.
One protester, a recent law school graduate, said she was pepper-sprayed for trying to record the badge numbers of officers.
After the pepper spray was deployed, the crowd backed up a little. But protesters surged forward again, yelling taunts.
Police deployed spray a second time after a protester seemed to lunge at an officer, who pushed the man back with his shield.
Around 10:50 p.m., some protesters began telling others in the crowd to leave or back off. A young woman who had been helping lead the protest had been taken into custody early in the confrontation, and several others now told the crowd that they wanted to de-escalate as part of negotiations to have the woman released. About two-thirds of the group left.
Those who remained stepped back and urged one another not to provoke the police or throw anything. They chanted “Let her go” and “We won’t leave without her,” referring to the person taken into custody.
By midnight, the number of protesters had grown again. More police had come onto the street as well. They once again stood face to face, but the tension seemed to have ebbed. Protesters confronted individual officers with messages that ranged from profane taunts to heartfelt pleas for peace.
“Why you fighting against people you’re supposed to protect?” one man asked an officer, who stared straight ahead.
“You got your hand on your pepper spray,” another man said. “Do you not see the problem here, man?”
When one officer seemed to be physically overcome and stooped to remove his gas mask, some protesters ridiculed him while others stepped in to defend him. “We’re not against him,” one man said.
The crowd thinned over the next two hours, and many of the officers — who were regularly rotated off the line with fresh replacements — had removed their gas masks. But shortly before 2 a.m., they fired tear-gas canisters into the parking lot. Some protesters hurled them back. Many dispersed, but social media images showed a few keeping up the vigil into the morning hours.
“This demonstration escalated into rioting and violence that lasted throughout the night and into the early morning hours,” Richmond Police Chief William C. Smith said in Monday’s statement. “Last night’s actions far exceeded what is considered to be lawful First Amendment activity. Organizers were intent on provocation and creating mayhem by throwing rocks and other objects at the officers on duty, who showed great restraint in response to these attacks.”
The event that sparked the confrontation took place Saturday evening. A police SUV drove up onto a curb, striking multiple people who were blocking the vehicle’s path near the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. No one appeared to be seriously injured, the newspaper said. Several videos of the incident were posted on social media.
The incident occurred as demonstrations continued in Richmond and elsewhere after the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
Early Sunday, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D) tweeted that he was asking the local commonwealth’s attorney for a “full investigation” into the Saturday night incident.
“While the investigation is underway, I have instructed the Richmond Police Department to place the officer involved on administrative leave pending the result of the investigation,” Stoney tweeted.
Stoney has also called for a disciplinary review of officers who tear-gassed peaceful demonstrators at the Lee statue earlier this month.
John McDonnell contributed to this report.