Complaints about the Fredericksburg police’s treatment of people protesting racial injustice drew an apology from Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw this week.
“I never thought I would hear the words ‘tear gas’ in the same sentence as Fredericksburg. I am personally sorry,” she said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “The people in our streets on the night of May 31 were motivated to protest by righteous anger and genuine pain. I know that the use of tear gas shocked and frightened them. I apologize to those who went through this fearful experience.”
Her words followed the public hearing portion of the virtual meeting where city staff read more than 40 emails sent in by area residents, and preceded council members’ unanimous vote on a three-part plan of action to address racial injustice and commit the community to discussions about racial disparities.
Most of the residents’ emails said they were upset and dismayed that the police had used tear gas on the protesters, wanted an apology and independent review of the police’s actions, and asked that charges be dropped for those protesters who’d been arrested for violating an 8 p.m. curfew. Some said simply “Free the Fredericksburg 50.”
“My cousin was killed brutally by police in Louisiana a few weeks ago and those 4 officers were given paid leave,” wrote Amaya Montgomery of Stafford County. “The Fredericksburg 50 peacefully protested and are being charged with a class 1 misdemeanor. Drop the charges because they do not deserve more punishment than 4 murderers.”
Several emails also complained about the arrest of Rayshawn Crawford, allegedly for cursing, during a protest on June 13.
“The tactics used in the arrest of Rayshawn Crawford were an embarrassment to the city of Fredericksburg—kneeling on a man less than 3 weeks after the murder of George Floyd from the same tactics show a disregard for the local and national movements against police violence, and imply the Fredericksburg Police Department and city leaders have not been listening to local calls for change,” wrote Alexandra Weathersby of Fredericksburg.
There were a handful of emails from residents thanking the police for their service in other matters, such as helping with school events. There was also one from Kathleen Harrigan of Fredericksburg, who thanked city officials for meeting with leaders of the Black Lives Matters protests and continuing to fund the city’s partner agencies in its upcoming budget.
Her list of suggestions included providing additional funding for local social service organizations and expanding the list of partner agencies to broaden services to the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] community.
Greenlaw said that a thorough investigation is being conducted about the events of May 31 and the first week of June, which is when city police fired tear gas at protesters on several occasions and arrested dozens of protesters for violating curfew. She added that a full report will be provided to the community, and in the meantime, the city’s police officers and sheriff’s deputies will continue to protect the community’s safety and respect the First Amendment rights of those seeking change.
“These events of recent days and weeks represent a legitimate and honest outcry against racial discrimination, which does exist and has existed for far too long in this country,” Greenlaw said. “We continue to struggle as a nation to realize our promise of equality. The Fredericksburg City Council is making a commitment to listen and to make real, lasting change.
The three-part plan that City Council approved was first presented in a draft version at a special City Council session held June 18 as the city’s response to protesters calls for reforms. It drew from daily meetings City Manager Tim Baroody and other city officials held with leaders of the groups who’ve been protesting in and around downtown since May 31.
The first phase of the plan calls for a review of police activities, but doesn’t withdraw charges for those protesters who violated curfew. Council member Chuck Frye Jr. pointed out that council doesn’t have that authority, and said those who were arrested need to file a formal complaint with the police department.
“We totally get it, but a lot of people don’t understand the process of following up on their own arrest,” he said. “Don’t just leave it at a phone call.”
The first phase of the plan is expected to last for the next three to six weeks. It includes managing permitted demonstrations and providing for public safety during unpermitted demonstrations. The report on police activities will be completed by the end of July and be presented first to a citizen advisory panel, as well as possibly a third party for review, before it is released to the public.
A priority during this phase will be the safety of both the protesters and the public, as the demonstrations are likely to continue. Continued mutual de-escalation will be key to avoid greater conflict, the plan stated.
Other steps include identifying and recommending proposed criminal justice reforms. These could include such things as having other professionals, such as social service workers or mental health professionals, assume or partner with police on some of their roles and responsibilities.
City Council also plans to hold community-wide discussions relating to racial disparities and why they persist. Residents touched on these issues when the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience led group discussions about the controversial slave auction block before it was removed from the corner of William and Charles streets.
The plan’s second phase will likely run from the end of June through the end of August. The goal will be to work on reducing disruptions caused by the protests and turning the discussion toward potential reform measures. Community stakeholders will be encouraged to develop a role in the community’s response to issues raised by the protesters. This phase will also include preparation for Virginia’s General Assembly’s special session in August. Legislators have said they want to take swift action on police reform.
The final, or strategic planning, phase will run from September through January. Council members will hear from community stakeholders in one or a series of “whole of community” meetings. Their input will help shape discussions during a two-day meeting the council will hold to set priorities for the next biennium and to generate a draft of its Vision, Desired Future States and Actions for community review.
“It’s a short-term plan that leads us to a longer-term solution, we hope,” said Council member Kerry Devine. “We need to hear from people. We need to listen. We need to have a true dialogue. I’m looking forward to move from protests to policy. I think that’s where we’re headed. I hope that’s where we’re headed.”
Council member Tim Duffy said that he’s eager to roll up his sleeves and work toward assigning white privilege “to the dustbin of history.”
“We owe that to our residents,” he said.