The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Felony charges over Confederate monument feed political intrigue in Portsmouth

Virginia state Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) adjusts her mask as she chairs the Health and Education Committee during a special session Wednesday. (Steve Helber/Pool/AP)

RICHMOND — The enormous black Hummer with state Senate plates rolled right up front, telling all the world that state Sen. L. Louise Lucas had arrived.

But the most prominent African American woman in Virginia politics was actually miles from where the Senate was convening in Richmond on Tuesday — instead getting fingerprinted and booked on two felonies related to a toppled Confederate monument in Portsmouth.

The ruse with the Hummer, which shook the media off Lucas’s trail as the Democratic lawmaker surrendered to her hometown sheriff, added another twist to an episode that left outsiders lost in the muddy swirl of Portsmouth politics. Even ultimate insiders, like the vice mayor who happens to be Lucas’s daughter, professed utter bewilderment at the criminal charges.

“Who is running the . . . city?” Vice Mayor Lisa Lucas-Burke demanded at a news conference last week, noting that the local prosecutor, city manager and city attorney all said they were in the dark about the case.

Lucas charged with felonies over Portsmouth’s Confederate Monument protest

On Monday — two months after a night of protest and vandalism at the city’s Confederate monument, when a bronze soldier ripped off its base fell on a man, causing what Police Chief Angela Greene called “life-altering” injuries — Greene brought felony charges against Lucas and more than a dozen others, including officials with the NAACP, school board and the public defenders office.

The man, Chris Green, 46, suffered a traumatic brain injury and is trying to relearn how to walk and talk at a Richmond rehab facility, according to an update posted this month on his family’s GoFundMe page.

The incident has brought new political turmoil to the southeastern Virginia city, where a succession of mayors, managers and council members always seem to be jockeying for power.

“These people will be partners one day and everything’s lovely, and the very next day, all hell breaks loose, and you’re like, ‘What the hell happened?’ ” said Michael Massie, a local attorney who represents two NAACP leaders and a school board member in the case. “Look, I live it every day, and I can’t make sense of it.”

Police chiefs have come and gone with unsettling speed — 12 in the past 18 years. The last chief, Tonya Chapman, said on her way out in March 2019 that she was fired for challenging “systemic racism” in the majority-White force that patrols the majority-Black city.

Lucas had been an ally of Chapman, now head of the state parole board and the first Black woman to lead a municipal police department in Virginia. Greene, a Black woman who had been Chapman’s deputy and immediately replaced her, said she had never experienced racism on the force.

Former Portsmouth police chief says she was forced out for confronting racism

Greene announced the charges against Lucas and the others a day before the General Assembly was to gavel into a special session called, in part, to address police brutality and racial injustice — issues thrust to the fore by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May.

Lucas’s allies contend the charges are payback for a bill she has sponsored that would allow the state attorney general to investigate systemic racism in local law enforcement agencies.

“She is the most powerful African American woman in Virginia history, and the night before session, they release these two arrest warrants? Something just doesn’t smell right,” said former governor Terry McAuliffe, one of many prominent Democrats to come to Lucas’s defense. “We need to get to the bottom of why this happened.”

Greene, who did not respond to messages seeking comment, said at a news conference Monday that she pursued the charges because she has a duty to uphold the law.

“You have placed faith and trust in me to take the appropriate law enforcement actions when necessary,” she said.

Lucas faces two charges: conspiracy to commit a felony and injury to a monument causing more than $1,000 in damage. A court date has been set for early September, but it is unclear whether the local prosecutor will pursue the case or whether Greene will succeed in an effort to circumvent her and have a special prosecutor appointed.

The charges created a distraction for Democrats on the opening day of the session and made Lucas about 90 minutes late. That did not stop her from leading committee meetings and seeing her legislation advance before the week was up. Fellow Democrats donned “I stand with Louise” lapel pins, and Republican pals greeted her with hugs.

Outside the clubby Senate, however, the charges inflamed partisan tensions in Portsmouth and produced more rallies — some in support of the senator, others backing the chief.

Tim Anderson, a Virginia Beach lawyer and gun shop owner who opposed gun-control bills Lucas helped pass earlier this year, launched a recall effort against her after video of Lucas at the monument surfaced on TV and social media. He also pushed for criminal charges against Lucas, posting videos on his law firm’s website accusing her of inciting a riot. Lucas filed a defamation suit against him in Portsmouth Circuit Court in July, seeking $20 million in damages.

Former Portsmouth sheriff Bill Watson, who in 2016 famously turned an expired inspection sticker on the mayor’s car into a televised slow-speed chase and felony charge against Watson’s political nemesis, weighs in on Lucas’s actions in one of Anderson’s videos.

“Absolutely, she incited a riot,” Watson tells Anderson. “I would have arrested her.”

Others say the videos of Lucas at the protest show nothing that could land her in legal trouble, particularly not in a city that the scrappy former shipyard worker has come to dominate. A former city councilwoman, Lucas has been in the Senate since 1992.

“You know like when Trump said he could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and still get elected?” said Volpe Boykin, a former Norfolk police officer and Republican activist whose stepfather was a Portsmouth police officer. “That isn’t true, but that may be the truth with Senator Louise Lucas in Portsmouth.”

The unrest began in Portsmouth’s historic Olde Towne neighborhood on the afternoon of June 10, as a crowd gathered around a stone obelisk ringed by four bronze rebel soldiers.

Lucas appeared on police body-camera footage telling officers not to arrest demonstrators, who she said were about to paint the monument. She suggested that Portsmouth City Manager Lydia Pettis Patton would back up her claim. As a state senator, Lucas has no authority over local police.

Lucas’s daughter, Vice Mayor Lucas-Burke, also appeared on the scene and can be heard in the video pleading for demonstrators to be patient and wait for the City Council to act under a new state law that would allow officials to remove the monument legally.

But the state senator, standing at her daughter’s side, seemed tired of waiting.

“To hell with the City Council,” Lucas roared.

Lucas stayed on the scene for about 45 minutes, her lawyer said, but left hours before protesters switched from spray paint to hammers and other tools.

“From where I sit, the crime that Louise Lucas committed is the arrogance of an elected official who’s been in office for so long she thinks she can tell police what to do, but that’s not a crime that you’ll find in any criminal code,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at nearby Christopher Newport University. “Literally my first thought was, ‘Why listen to her?’ ”

Portsmouth officers, present throughout the protest, did not intervene until a whole soldier fell late that night into the crowd, injuring the man. The next day, Lucas demanded Greene’s resignation, saying her officers should have stepped in when the situation turned dangerous.

The Portsmouth police officer whose investigation led to the charges against Lucas, Sgt. Kevin McGee, wrote to city officials the day after the protest saying that police were outnumbered by the crowd — dozens of whom he said were armed — and that Lucas had given protesters the “green light to do whatever they wanted to do.”

McGee also expressed doubts that Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales, first elected in 2015 on a promise to quit prosecuting marijuana possession cases, would have had officers’ backs if they’d tried to intervene.

Morales’s relationship with police has been strained since she successfully prosecuted a White officer, Stephen Rankin, for voluntary manslaughter in the 2015 shooting of an unarmed Black teen.

McGee did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment.

Police presented the case directly to a magistrate to obtain a warrant, which Morales described in a news release as typical procedure. But police broke with protocol afterward by not turning the case over to Morales’s office, the release said.

By listing Morales as a “potential material witness” on warrants for Lucas and others, police seem to be indicating they think a special prosecutor is needed. But Morales said in the release that she was not at the scene and that police should hand the case over to her office for evaluation.

In an interview, Morales declined to discuss the merits of the case but expressed concerns about the procedural fairness.

“This is harmful,” said Morales, who had her own falling-out years ago with Lucas. “We have an entire community watching, and people are all confused. When we see this, we truly have to worry about those who don’t have influence and what’s happening to them on a day-by-day basis.”

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