On June 1, 2020, thousands of protesters in Richmond, Virginia, gathered for a march that began at Monroe Park around 5pm and traveled to the state capitol building before parking at Monument Avenue — home at the time to the largest Confederate monument in the South. That summer, the equestrian statue of General Robert E. Lee, covered with vividly graffitied slogans, was transformed into an icon of anti-racist activism and resistance. With no warning, 20 minutes before an 8pm curfew, peaceful protesters were sprayed with pepper spray and tear gas.
That same day, the Richmond Police Department (RPD) apologized to peaceful protesters in a tweet, adding by way of explanation, “Some RPD officers in that area were cut off by violent protestors. The gas was necessary to get them to safety.”
But in an explicit admission of wrongdoing, the RPD retracted that tweet from two years prior, calling it “false.” “There were no RPD officers cut off by violent protesters at the Lee Monument. There was no need for gas at Lee Monument to get RPD officers to safety,” the police department said in a statement issued last Friday, July 1, revising its initial account.
RPD made it clear that its apology was part of a legal agreement that marks the conclusion of a lawsuit lodged by six protesters who were tear-gassed by police officers. The lawsuit alleged that police “used intentional, unjustified, and inexcusable force and threats of force to disperse citizens.” It further documented the injuries that plaintiffs suffered from the needless use of force: temporary blindness, respiratory difficulties, and burning sensations that afflicted their skin, eyes, mouth, and lungs.
At a city hall after the tear-gassing incidents in 2020, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Police Chief William Smith apologized for the event, acknowledging that the city had violated demonstrators’ rights. By the end of the month, Chief Smith resigned from his post. But the newly finalized settlement goes beyond a simple apology: In addition to demanding that RPD publicly correct the record of what happened on the night of June 1, the settlement orders RPD to turn over records of the event — including bodycam footage, police radio recordings, and officers’ oral narratives — to the Virginia state library. Although the agreement was announced in February 2022, details about it were not publicly released until July 1.
An analysis conducted by the New York Times in June 2020 revealed that over 100 American cities deployed tear gas on citizens during Black Lives Matter protests — the most widespread use of tear gas since the early ’70s. Though law enforcement agencies have offered reassurances that tear gas is nonlethal, research has indicated that its use may lead to serious injuries and even death.
The Lee statue and a statue of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson are among the Confederate symbols that have been removed from Richmond’s Monument Avenue as a result of sustained activism over the last two years.