Critics blast McDonnell administration over weekend arrests

The ACLU of Virginia is offering to assist reproductive rights protestors who were arrested Saturday at the state Capitol, if their constitutional right to free speech was violated.

Approximately 1,000 demonstrators converged on the Capitol grounds to protest the passage of a bill to require pregnant women to undergo an ultrasound procedure prior to being allowed to have an abortion. Although organizers of the event had obtained a permit to use the areas near the Bell Tower in one corner of the Capitol grounds, some protestors proceeded to sit on the steps of the Capitol Building.

The State Police Tactical Team, fully armed and with the help of plastic shields, then arrested protestors sitting on the steps, who had locked arms and refused to move.

“We do not know yet if anyone’s free speech rights were violated,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “We do know, however, that from all appearances the police overreacted to a situation in which peaceful demonstrators gathered at a public place to exercise their First Amendment right to protest the government.”

“At the very least the spirit of the First Amendment took a blow on Saturday when the state used completely unnecessary military-style force to arrest peaceful protestors,” added Willis.

Anyone who witnessed the arrests or was arrested is encouraged to contact ACLU of Virginia Dunn Fellow Tom Fitzpatrick at 804-644-8080 or tfitzpatrick@acluva.org.

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Democratic Party of Virginia Chairman Brian Moran released the following statement on Monday following a peaceful demonstration over the weekend at the Virginia Capitol that ended in numerous protesters being taken into custody by heavily armed Capitol Police Officers.

The protesters gathered on taxpayer-funded property to protest Bob McDonnell’s plan to sign legislation that would force an unnecessary ultrasound on Virginia women before she can undergo an abortion.

“Watching riot police with helmets and shields march through peaceful protesters on the steps of Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol is a particularly vivid reminder of how far this Commonwealth has fallen in just the few short weeks since Bob McDonnell and his party took total control over Virginia’s state government.

“This should not be about the Capitol and State Police who responded to the protesters, it should be about the Republican politicians whose radical agenda created the environment for this unfortunate situation to arise.

“Instead of solving the problems Virginians are facing, this Governor and his radical majorities have led us on an extreme rightward course. The severity of that agenda has left thousands of citizens with no recourse other than to march on the building they pay for and to which they send representatives to conduct their business.

“While I cannot say whether or not the Governor authorized or had knowledge of this weekend’s regrettable arrests, there is no question that this unfortunate situation could have been avoided by a leader with the courage to resist the extreme elements of his own party and focus on making life better for Virginia families.

“We can only hope our next Governor will be such a leader.”

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On Monday, several Virginia Democratic state senators denounced the use of riot police, SWAT teams carrying automatic weapons, police dogs, and helicopters in response to peaceful protestors in Capitol Square.

On Tuesday, Feb. 20, peaceful protestors gathered on the Capital 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 the night of Tuesday, Feb. 27, peaceful protestors holding a candlelight 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.

On Saturday, March 3, 31 peaceful protestors were arrested on the Capital steps following a women’s rights rally.  They were likely arrested for trespassing or unlawful assembly, according to Capt. Raymond J. Goodloe of the Division of the Capital Police.  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.

Statement by Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City):

Ladies & Gentlemen of the Senate:

I rise to speak today on what is truly a fundamental right in this Commonwealth:  the right of citizens to peaceably assemble & petition their government for redress.

This right was included in our Declaration of Rights, passed by this body in 1776. It is in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

I joined this legislature 10 years ago.  During that time, I have witnessed demonstrations from every group imaginable.  Some armed with signs, others with firearms, some with white medical coats.

In all cases, I was happy to see people come to the State Capitol to share their views, whether or not those views were also mine.

Frankly, considering the low rate of voter participation in legislative races, I’m flattered anytime a voter takes the time to visit us.

That’s why I’ve been so shocked & amazed over the past few weeks to see the reaction of certain state agencies to the presence of protestors in Capitol Square.

On February 27, there was a peaceful gathering by several concerned women in front of the Governor’s mansion.  That is publicly-owned property and part of Capitol Square.  There was no indication that anyone was in any harm.

Regardless, there were State Police running around in flak jackets and an armored car parked at the mansion.

This past Saturday, March 3, there was another gathering of approximately 1,000 people, again mostly women.

They were met by squads of State Police wearing riot gear, more appropriate for a bar brawl than a civil protest.

Men of Virginia –

Would we permit our wives, our sisters, our mothers and daughters to be treated this way in our homes?  In our communities?

I speak not as a State Senator, but as a man who is the son of a Virginian, married to a Virginian and the father of Virginians.

It’s not right to see our Virginia women treated this way.

We are a free society.  This is a public square.  People have a right to protest, without harassment or intimidation.

Thank you for listening to me.

Statement by Senator Janet Howell (D-Fairfax):

Since the very first day of this session, things have been going seriously awry.

On January 10th VA 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 vaginal probe, Virginia became a national laughing stock, a joke because of anti-women legislation passing through the General Assembly.

It got so bad that business leaders complained about the damage being done to our state’s reputation and competitiveness.

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.


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