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Opinion Richmond will never be the same

The Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond on July 24, 2020. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Andrew T. Bodoh is a civil rights lawyer in Virginia.

At 7:35 p.m. on June 1, 2020, the first gas canister exploded over the peaceful protest, thrown by a Richmond police officer in protective gear. It came without warning, with two more exploding seconds later. Then officers started firing canisters over and into the crowd.

The attack at the Robert E. Lee statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue took only minutes, but it has irrevocably altered Virginia’s capital city.

The third canister landed near Richmond resident Keenan Angel, kneeling on the front line. He felt the gas and heard people behind him retreating. He held the line to buy more time. Two more local residents, spouses Jarrod and Megan Blackwood, saw the unprovoked attack from their front-line perch. Jarrod Blackwood, a lawyer, knew his rights and wanted to stay until the police arrested him without cause, but they had a child at home who could not spend the night alone. Once in their car, Megan Blackwood went to Twitter and invited the public to the City Hall at noon the next day to demand answers.

On the north side of Lee Circle, Christopher Gayler retreated by crossing the street. He turned to record what he saw, capturing the image of a rocket-propelled canister screaming in his direction.

Apart from the Blackwoods, these four were strangers to one another, joining thousands in a deliberately peaceful protest following the murder of George Floyd. This crowd did nothing more violent than a chant before the police attacked, and the officers gave no warning. Protesters had ropes on the J.E.B. Stuart Monument a long block away, but there were no ropes on the Lee monument and there was no sign it was under attack.

Richmond quickly went into damage control. Thirty-three minutes after the attack at the Lee Monument, the city tweeted that it had to gas the protesters because some officers were cut off, and the police needed to get them to safety. The mayor then co-opted the demonstration at City Hall the next day with the obligatory apology and a promise of investigations. Yet a year later, the Commonwealth Attorney’s office disclosed it was not investigating the incident. But no matter. The mayor took down the Confederate monuments and congratulated himself with a New York Times op-ed. He assured the world the city discovered the gassing was “unintentional.”

In fact, the scene commander ordered the attack. He ordered it before he was on scene. He then ordered it time and again from Lee Circle, though he could see no evidence justifying the attack.

Angel, Gayler and the Blackwoods set out to tell a different story — the truth. They contacted my law firm after we filed suit on behalf of Jonathan Arthur, one of our attorneys who was among the demonstrators attacked at Lee Monument. They joined in a lawsuit to hold the city accountable. They would not let go without assurances the truth would be told.

On July 1, my firm announced the fruits of that courageous determination. The joint settlement of Arthur’s state case and the case of these federal plaintiffs obligates the city to give the Library of Virginia all the body-camera footage from the June 1, 2020, events at the Lee and Stuart monuments, along with radio traffic recordings, dispatch reports and all the relevant policies, among other things. The city must allow these materials to be accessed and reproduced by the public. Additionally, the public can contribute their own videos, pictures and narratives of those events to tell the story of what really happened that day.

This collection is a memorial to the victims of the police violence, for there is no memorial better than the truth.

This collection will be a repository of information for public policy advocates to study how something like this happens and to discuss how to stop it from happening again. This will be a model for other cities and litigators to address police misconduct in the future.

I spent hundreds of hours with the audio and video recordings. We carefully tracked the events moment by moment. Well more than a dozen officers on the scene had enough information to say what was happening was wrong, but they didn’t. We need officers to oppose unlawful commands. We need local politicians and agencies to tell the truth when officers err. We need prosecutors with the courage to charge officers who violate the law. We need municipalities to preserve and publicly archive these files so we can find ways to do better. We need accountability and responsibility.

And so, we hope with this settlement, Richmond will never be the same.