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Howell Blasts Police Presence in Richmond

State Senator says things have gone "seriously awry."

At Monday's Virginia Senate session, Sen. Janet Howell (D-Reston) denounced  Gov. Bob McDonnell's office for using riot police, SWAT teams carrying automatic weapons, police dogs, and helicopters in response to peaceful protesters in Capitol Square.

Protest groups were in support of women's issues in the wake of legislation aimed at limiting abortion rights.

On Saturday, 31 protesters were arrested - mostly for trespassing or unlawful assembly - on the state capitol steps following a women's rights rally.  Prior to some of the protesters being arrested, they were monitored by a fully armored police SWAT team carrying automatic weapons, riot police, and police dogs.

On Feb. 20, protesters gathered on the capitol grounds for a silent protest and rally to defend women's rights.  They were monitored by riot police, a police helicopter, and countless uniformed and plainclothes officers. No incidents were reported

On Feb. 27, protesters holding a candlelit vigil to 'Take Back the Night' on public property outside of the Governor's Mansion were responded to by a fully armed SWAT team carrying automatic weapons as well as an armored police vehicle.

Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) also spoke about his concerns to the Senate.

Meanwhile, Gov. McDonnell's office said the governor does not play any role in directing security at the Capitol.

"The governor played no role in the security response and was not at home at the time of the protest," Press Secretary Jeff Caldwell said. "The governor does not play any role in directing security at the Capitol."

The office did not offer comment on whether they thought the response was appropriate.

Capitol Police led efforts Saturday, assisted by Virginia State Police. Capitol Police could not be reached for comment. 

VSP Spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the department "routinely supplements security at the State Capitol and surrounding state buildings any time there is a gathering of significant size and population. Our presence is simply to ensure the safety of all individuals on the State Capitol campus — event participants, state employees, public officials, tourists, etc."

Here is what Howell had to say:

Since the very first day of this session, things have been going seriously awry.
On Jan. 10,  Virginia  had a well-deserved reputation as a moderate, pro-business, civil, and peaceful state.

In the past 8 ½ weeks that reputation has changed. Because of the a joke because of anti-women legislation passing through the General Assembly.

It got so bad that

But now we are at a new even more disturbing stage.

Our state capitol is becoming an armed garrison. Peaceful demonstrators are being intimidated and arrested.

Eight days ago, peaceful demonstrators who wanted to “take back the right” were confronted with SWAT teams, armed law enforcement on roofs, and officers in riot gear. “Take back the night” demonstrations have been going on across the country—often on college campuses—for women’s rights efforts. The demonstrators—mostly women—carry lit flashlights. 

Here on the Capitol Grounds—confronted by heavily armed police—the protestors were told they could not light their flashlights.

What? What is so subversive about a flashlight?

This past Saturday, 850 demonstrators came on the Capitol Grounds. They were chanting, “Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”

And it was! Peaceful demonstrators going to the seat of government to express their views. In this case, they were marching and chanting for women’s rights.

And what did they force? SWAT teams, state police in full riot gear, police armed with semi-automatic guns, and dogs, dogs!

Not since the massive resistance days in the 60s have I seen such a disgraceful display of excessive police presence in my state.

When I described what is going on here in Richmond to my son and showed him videos, he said we need a symbol to express outrage.

I thought back eight days to when women armed only with flashlights were confronted with SWAT teams and armed police. They only had their flashlights which they were told to extinguish. Well, now a flashlight is my symbol of peaceful protestors standing up to oppressive force.

And my flashlight will stay on my desk next to my beloved Virginia flag until reason and balance return to this General Assembly and capitol.

Kathy March 06, 2012 at 01:53 PM
The video is chilling. I surely hope we aren't looking at the future here. Riot police, semi-automatic weapons, dogs. The only thing missing is the water cannons targeting citizens exercising their right of free speech and assembly. That was the past we lived through with Civil Rights. We need to go there again? The governor and the Republican party want to bring this level of intimidation down on women who complain about unconstitutional legislation? Really? They must have forgotten that not only do women vote, but so do our fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, uncles, and neighbors. Kathy Kaplan Reston
Skip Endale March 06, 2012 at 04:27 PM
with the recent crackdowns in Syria world governments have learned to quell unrest at an early stage before it escalates. Putin has learned this lesson very well and so has McDonnell. we should salute these leaders and have a parade.
RareRestonRationalist March 06, 2012 at 07:48 PM
There are a couple of elements here. 1. Democrats stirred up a bunch of folks with terms like 'Culture war' in organizing this protest. A bit of a heavy handed term, and something to get blood boiling. 2. There is a certain element in this country that unfortunately loves to crash a protest or demonstration who's only purpose is to cause destruction and chaos. It's easy to go find footage of various WTO, or IMF protests that got out of hand due to these people, or even the Vancouver hockey riots from last summer. Now that doesn't excuse any heavy handed actions during the protest/rally mentioned above, but it does set the tone for the preparation. And Senator Howell in rightly bringing attention to this, does us no favors by trying to call for solutions or bringing sides together but rather just reminding us of darker days. It's not a solution that an adult would supply but more of the schoolyard name calling that we see more and more from our politicians and 'leaders'. Once again, we need someone to step up and grow up and not just point fingers.

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