As demonstrations spread across the country following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, statues venerating Confederate military leaders became the target of protesters. In Portsmouth, Virginia such a demonstration was held and protestors began defacing a confederate monument with paint. An African American state senator was present, L. Louise Lucas who apparently told the police they could not arrest the protestors. Ms. Lucas had no authority to so direct the police and the police would have been well aware of that. A month after the riots the Portsmouth City Council voted to remove the monument.
Statements indicate that several hours after Ms. Lucas left the area of the monument a man was severely injured when a piece of the statue broken off by protestors struck him.
On August 18, CBS News reported that Senator Lucas was being charged with felony conspiracy to damage a monument in excess of $1000.00. Notably, members of the local NAACP chapter and three public defenders were also charged. The matter had not yet been sent to the prosecutor for the formal filing of charges but a warrant has issued for the arrest of Ms. Lucas who was supposed to be in session with the legislature that day. Angela Greene, the newly appointed Sheriff of Portsmouth who is also African American, announced the warrants for Senator Lucas and others.
While there is no evidence that Senator Lucas personally defaced the monuments, if the police can show she planned with others to destroy the statues she could be legally charged with conspiracy. However, because there is evidence a crime was committed does not mean the person should be charged. The police constantly use their discretion in determining whether to charge someone even when the evidence of an offense is clear. Camping without a permit is a crime violated by thousands of homeless Americans every day that goes uncharged. Panhandling is another potential charge that is rarely used.
Notably, it was against the law in Montgomery, Alabama for Rosa Parks to refuse to give up her seat on the bus to a white man in 1955; Ms. Parks was arrested for her efforts and a warrant signed by the bus driver who has police authority at the time. It was also against the law to sit at the ‘whites only’ lunch counter at the Woolworth Drug Store in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960. Thousands of peaceful demonstrators were arrested in those efforts to address America’s racism.
Despite our nation’s history of slavery, Jim Crow and institutional racism the police in Portsmouth, Virginia are using their discretion to issue felony warrants for several African Americans who were present when the vestiges of the Confederate States of America were defaced and damaged to protest the oppression, murder and systemic rape of African people brought to this country in bondage. The officials in Montgomery and Greensboro who perpetrated the oppression of African Americans are infamous for their contribution to injustice. Now it appears that police officials in Portsmouth yearn to enter the pantheon of those who protect the laws and symbols of oppression and racism. Let us hope that better angels eventually prevail in Portsmouth and that John Lewis’ notion of ‘good trouble’ to describe acts of civil disobedience be applied to this event as it would have been applied to tearing down the Berlin Wall or throwing tea into the harbor waters.
William W. Bruzzo has been a Criminal Defense Attorney for 26 years in California. He is also a former Major in the United States Marine Corps, having served as a Judge Advocate, Executive Officer and Company Commander.