By Caitlin Morris and Rosemarie O’Connor
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — Banks and schools may have been closed Monday, but around 50 political activists descended on Bank Street and went to work protesting against Gov. Ralph Northam and other elected officials.
The “March of Reckoning” began in Monroe Park with friction and ended in a showdown at the Capitol.
Protesters gathered to rally against Northam as well as the state Democratic leadership of Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring, along with Republican Sen. Tommy Norment Jr. of James City County.
Northam came under fire earlier this month when the media published a photo from his page in his 1984 medical college yearbook, which featured a man in blackface and another in a KKK hood. Northam apologized at first, then later denied being in the photo. He then admitted he had darkened his skin to dress as Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984. After the initial controversy over Northam’s yearbook Herring called for Northam’s resignation — then days later revealed he had worn blackface to a party in 1980.
The revelations led many across the state to dig deeper through college yearbooks, peering into the pasts of numerous government officials. It was found that Norment, the Senate majority leader, was an editor of Virginia Military Institute’s yearbook when it published racist images and language.
Two women accused Fairfax of sexual assault in between news of two blackface revelations.
Protesters gathered Monday morning near Franklin Street while “Freedom” by Charles Mingus thundered through a portable speaker.
“Virginia’s on fire and the whole world is watching,” said Rebecca Keel of Justice RVA.
Some demonstrators, like Travis Williams, reminded the crowd that accusations of racism against the administration do not stem from just the blackface confessions. Many demonstrators spoke out against the pipeline and compressor station that Dominion will build in Union Hill, a historically black neighborhood in Buckingham County. Williams said Northam was a “major enabler” of the project.
“We don’t just need to think about the projection of ridicule and bigotry onto racialized people and communities, bodies,” Williams said. “We also need to think about very violent negation, erasure, dehumanization, devaluing. That’s what’s been going on in Union Hill.”
Police had a visible presence in the park. A Monroe Park Conservatory volunteer stepped in and asked protesters to stop blocking bike paths.
Tension continued to grow as protesters marched through Virginia Commonwealth University campus and down Franklin Street toward the Capitol.
Marchers carried banners and signs while chanting, “No blackface, no pipeline, Northam must resign.” At times, the crowd moved against the flow of traffic and shut down multiple streets as they crossed.
The group paused at the Dominion Energy building downtown and voiced disdain for the company’s political influence on Northam and other lawmakers. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Northam has received almost $200,000 in donations from the energy giant.
“Not only are governments supporting businesses that are completely harmful to the environment and exacerbating climate change, but it’s also the case of environmental racism,” said Vincent Mangano, a VCU freshman. “The people who are seeing these effects are primarily poor people of color.”
Chants grew louder as the group descended on the Capitol, where Capitol Police closed and locked gates to the grounds. Protesters and members of the press were locked out, though protesters tried multiple gates before entering an hour-long standoff with police. After laying down signs and ending the chanting, protesters tried to enter the grounds as “citizens” but were still denied access. The Capitol is open to visitors seven days a week.
“We’re being denied access just as people,” said Keel, a member of the group Justice RVA. “We’re not in protest, we’ve made that abundantly clear. Actually, all the protesters have left; we’re being denied our right to come and enjoy the Capitol grounds. I’m feeling extremely disappointed in the Capitol Police.”
Police said they couldn’t allow anyone to enter without a valid permit from the Department of General Services, which provides management for Capitol Square. Demonstrators said it is illegal to be barred from a public place.
“I’m disappointed that this is where our tax dollars are going,” Keel said.
During the standoff at the closed gate, one protester slid under onto the grounds and laid down on her back facing the officers above her. She was not stopped from entering the grounds under the gate and proceeded to make it to the other side.
Some demonstrators said they received different answers from officers if they could enter the premises, leading to confusion.
Government officials and journalists who were inside gathered to watch the skirmish and were heckled by protesters.
March organizers eventually disbanded after being denied entry.
“We’re going to sue you tomorrow,” Keel said to Capitol Police on her way out.