June 18, 2020
On May 7, 2020 Mayor Levar Stoney declared Richmond, Virginia a “City of Compassion.” With this rebranding, the city also launched its RVA Strong website, which “centralizes support for our neighbors who need it and amplifies those who are willing to offer it.” By encouraging charity rather than utilizing already-existing taxpayer money for community care, the City of Richmond puts the onus on community members to care for each other.
Community members have always cared for each other, and that care has grown since the start of the pandemic through grassroots mutual aid networks. Meanwhile, the city uses taxpayers’ money to police, evict, and further marginalize Black and working class communities while continuing to withhold essential services such as free healthcare and rent forgiveness. As the city allows police to repress, abuse, and terrorize anti-racist protestors, community members are further consolidating their networks of care and mutual aid, providing Richmond with a much-needed sense of hope during this time. These responses are fueled by empathy and are carried out by working class Richmonders who understand the agony of struggling to get by.
Mayor Stoney’s actions during the recent anti-racist protests–coupled with his lack of action during the first two months of the pandemic–are a solemn reminder that our city’s leaders and government, on the other hand, are far from compassionate; they have chosen to withhold necessities from those who need them most in the midst of a pandemic. Officials have chosen to respond to Richmonders protesting police violence with increased militarized police presence, which has inflicted extreme suffering and harm on our neighbors.
In order to ensure that the people of Richmond make it through the conditions created by this pandemic with the least amount of possible harm, we continue to demand the adoption of the following five points of the People’s Pandemic Platform. These five points meet primarily Black poor, working class, incarcerated, and houseless Richmonders with the compassion they have long deserved:
- Free healthcare
- Worker protections
- The cancellation of rent, debts, and evictions
- Amnesty for prisoners
- Homes for the homeless.
Additionally, in order to ensure the safety of Richmonders most at risk from police violence, we join in demanding the full implementation of the program put forth by the Justice and Reformation coalition, which was formed in response to the police killing of Marcus-David Peters in May 2018. These demands build upon two years of sorrow on top of hundreds of years of police violence and brutality inflicted primarily upon Black Richmonders:
- Re-open the Marcus-David Peters case.
- Defund the police and reallocate resources to the Marcus Alert System and Civilian Review Board as well as human services addressing healthcare, employment, public education, the environment, and general community welfare.
- Establish a Marcus Alert System that prioritizes mental health responders over police during mental health crises.
- Create an independent Civilian Review Board.
- Drop all charges of those members of our community who have been arrested in connection with the recent protests against the police murder of Mr. George Floyd.
- Immediately remove the five Confederate statues on Monument Avenue and all other statues and memorials to Confederate leaders in the city.
We continue to demand compassion for poor and working class Richmonders through free testing, treatment, and healthcare. While the city has taken a small step in the right direction by providing free testing for our uninsured community members, we still lack free treatment and care for those who become ill. It is vital that individuals, especially those without adequate financial resources, are not punished for a public health crisis. Health disparities in Richmond along racial lines have been well documented by various institutions. The impact of redlining and community exclusion has relegated Black Richmonders to environments that are harmful to their health. As this universal health crisis continues to unfold, we are seeing these disparities exacerbated and costing lives: nearly all Richmonders who have died from COVID-19 were Black. Black organizers on the front lines of the protests are also at higher risk of contagion, and Richmond Police have made them even more susceptible to airborne disease by indiscriminately firing teargas, a substance that is chemically designed to agitate and stimulate mucous membranes, into large crowds of people. If Richmond city officials want to be compassionate, they should instruct the police to back down from this unjustifiable repression and use the funding that would have been spent on police overtime and military equipment to provide free healthcare for Richmonders suffering from COVID-19.
We continue to demand compassion for our city’s workers. Many “essential” workers are unable to stay home without economic penalty, compromising their medical well-being in the midst of a global pandemic. Black workers make up a disproportionate share of these essential workers. They are disproportionately represented in grocery, convenience, and drug store positions, as well as the public transit, trucking, warehouse, postal service, health care, child care, and social services sectors.”Essential” workplaces should not only consistently provide their employees with PPE but should also establish democratic practices that allow employees to voice their opinions on procedures and standards. Some non-essential employees who have lost jobs or had hours cut are able to receive unemployment, but many cannot. For workers who are unable to receive unemployment, the city should be providing paid sick leave, emergency funds, and food stamps.
Additionally, Governor Northam’s plan for the upcoming phase 3 of re-opening will burden even more employees with the decision between their health and financial well-being, with access to unemployment funds threatened by business owners and bosses demanding that their employees return to work. Many service workers will be given an ultimatum: risk your health as well as that of your family members for the sake of an economic system that does not serve you, or starve.
Cancellation of Rent, Debts, and Evictions
We continue to demand compassion for our neighbors. This so-called “compassionate city” has the second highest eviction rate in the country, at 11% annually. Regardless of income, property value, and other factors, as the share of Black Richmonders increases in a particular neighborhood, the eviction rate also increases. This can be attributed to Richmond’s history of segregated housing patterns, overpolicing, education inequity, discriminatory lending, and public housing policy. Eviction is already a violent event that impacts health and well-being, but during a pandemic, evictions are a sentence to sickness and possibly death. Though the city halted all evictions and foreclosures temporarily, payments were still due. Richmond’s courts re-opened briefly on May 26th for pre-pandemic eviction hearings, despite the continued health crisis. After receiving pressure from the legal and housing advocate communities, the execution of eviction orders by the sheriff’s office was halted. Additionally, a mandate from the Supreme Court of Virginia extended the eviction moratorium through June 28.
Once courts re-open, over 1,000 eviction court cases will be heard in Richmond over a two-week period. Where is the compassion in those actions? It is a moral imperative for the City of Richmond and Mayor Stoney to not only effect a moratorium on evictions for the duration of the pandemic but also to cancel rent and forgive debts from missed rent, mortgages, and utilities due to this health crisis. Because they have yet to take these compassionate steps, it is up to us to stand in solidarity with individuals facing the threat of eviction through court support and eviction defense tactics. This not only diminishes the isolation and loneliness of an eviction hearing, but it also demonstrates to the courts that we as a community denounce the violent act of eviction.
Instead of funding the livelihood of Black and working class Richmonders through initiatives like rent forgiveness, the City of Richmond chose to use taxpayers’ money to fund police repression during recent protests. Imagine if our city used the money allocated to police overtime or the operation of the Cessna surveillance aircraft to instead fund rent forgiveness in order to protect the safety of its people from the violence of evictions.
Amnesty for Prisoners
We continue to demand compassion for prisoners in our community through the granting of amnesty and pardons to all people incarcerated in Richmond facilities. Racially targeted policies have resulted in the overpolicing of Black neighborhoods, and Black youth and adults are therefore disproportionately overrepresented in the penal system. Jails, prisons, and detention centers lack adequate physical space, sanitary systems, and healthcare. After multiple actions and demands by the families of incarcerated individuals to #FreeOurPeople, our community members are still locked away in Richmond jails. On Monday June 1, the Richmond Police Department made 267 arrests. Many were arrested for merely being outside, and some were even dragged from their cars on their way home from work. There are reports of crowded cells, unmasked police officers ignoring social distancing protocol, and denial of access to food and medication. Detention centers, like jails, continue to be hubs of virus outbreak. This in-justice system is inhumane during normal times and the pandemic has only escalated existing race, gender, and class-based human rights violations. We also continue to demand compassion for our community’s undocumented people through the city’s non-cooperation and removal of Immigrant and Customs Enforcement. I.C.E.’s ongoing raids against undocumented people are unconscionable during the pandemic, just as they were beforehand.
Homes for the Homeless
We continue to demand compassion for our unhoused community members. The City of Richmond has always responded to homelessness by criminalizing it. At the start of this pandemic, the city destroyed Camp Cathy, a well-managed tent community established by a Black-led mutual aid organization to provide shelter for houseless individuals. The destruction of Camp Cathy by the city went against recommendations from the region’s legal aid community as well as guidance from various health departments. Unhoused people are likely to be severely impacted by COVID-19 due to compromised immune systems, health complications, and the sheer physiological stress of daily living. The city currently has hundreds of vacant public housing units that are being warehoused in the hopes that they might be demolished and converted to market rate rental units. Rather than provide housing in overcrowded shelters, we continue to demand the use of safe and sanitary lodging rooms and the immediate fitting of vacant venues for safe and sanitary shelter of the homeless community. It is the city’s responsibility to spare lives.
Establishing a Solidarity Network
We call all Richmond residents who want a compassionate city to join us in defending our community and stand in solidarity with one another. Mutual aid networks are working hard to provide essential items that working class people need for survival, but the re-opening of courts and businesses will create new challenges that will disproportionately fall on families with children and people of color. It is imperative for us to join together to fight these attacks on our community well-being, and we invite individuals and organizations to pledge to join the Solidarity Network. Joined together in this network of communication, Richmonders can be organized to support short-term reforms and long-term liberation of all people from exploitation under racial capitalism. It is only by connecting the struggles of tenants, workers, prisoners, and the unhoused through a Solidarity Network that we can hope to build a Richmond that is truly a “city of compassion”.