Why I want to protect First Fridays!

10 Aug

I have never been a regular attendee of Richmond’s First Fridays Art Walk. In fact, over the years I have been a major critic of the event and the concept of the event.

Richmond is by no means unique in having such an art walk. The tactic of using an art walk to push for the redevelopment or gentrification of an area (depending on your perspective) is not at a new concept. Richmond has had First Fridays for over a decade now. And while over that decade there have been major changes to the Jackson Ward/ Broad Street area, they have no occurred quite as  quickly as they might have were we not in an economic depression. I’m no expert, but the aspects of City Planning that I have studied and read about have lead me to take a position against Art Walks, Canal Walks, Convention Centers and other cookie cutter redevelopment schemes that fail to address the actual needs or wants of people living in a city.

Jackson Ward is a historically black working class neighborhood. The demographics of that neighborhood have been changing, particularly via VCU students moving in. First Fridays basically occurring in Jackson Ward was something I viewed as problematic- another major gentrifying move that had the potential to hurt that community and displace lower income people.

When I have gone to First Fridays in the past it was mostly to support friends who had art on display or who were performing. I even helped to organize some First Fridays events- like the Richmond Zine Fest at Gallery 5 in 2009. And what I saw was mostly white people.  And I saw a lot of white people who were more affluent. Which is definitely the type of crowd this sort of event is desinged to draw in.

I would acknowledge at this point that there have been organizers of First Fridays, Gallery owners and artists, who have all along worked to make this event inclusive and welcoming to pre-existing residents of Jackson Ward and the surrounding areas. I have just always been highly skeptical of their chances of success despite their good intentions.

So I mostly stopped going to First Fridays. I was not interested in participating in  a redevelopment strategy that seemingly reached out only to suburbanites and fearful west enders, adventuring into the heart of a city they really don’t understand. But then this year, we started to hear the rumblings of something else. I am a member of the non-hierarchical organization Richmond Copwatch. We listen to a digital scanner to hear what the Richmond Police are up to. This enables us to go out and observe and record the police, thereby helping to keep them accountable for their behavior. So through this and conversations with people we know who do attend First Fridays we began to hear that this year, the police were there in force, disrupting the crowd.

We heard that the police had maced the crowd a couple times, ridden their horses into the middle of crowds, and were trying to organize with Curated Culture (the non-profit that officially organizes First Fridays) to change the times of the event and potentially get rid of it altogether. We heard from many non-anarchists, respected community members about town, that the police were being very aggressive and that a lot of this aggressiveness seemed directed towards people of color. The media and others mostly spoke of the “youth”, but in this case the youth they meant was mostly youth of color.

Richmond Copwatch decided as a collective to go to the August First Fridays to observe and record the Richmond Police Department. I was still conflicted about how I felt about organizing to try and save something I have been avidly against in the past. For me, my motivations for going were mostly hearing from “youth” from my neighborhood (Southern Barton Heights on Northsiiiide) about the police presence. Regardless of the art, regardless of the suburbanites, I was interested in using Copwatch as a method to try and keep my friends and neighbors, as well as folks from neighboring communities like Gilpin Court a little bit safer from RPD.

We met at the Rite Aid parking lot for August First Fridays. Which was a bad idea, because of the whole private corporate property thing. But we met there, and then hung out in the parking lot waiting for one Copwatch member to go purchase some energy drinks from inside.  They came out and distributed the drinks to the caffeine fiends among us. We were just about to head out in smaller groups to patrol First Fridays for police, when lo and behold one came to us.  This RPO – Toney Waldorf- came speeding into the Rite Aid parking lot, parking at an angle, and got out of his car, basically yelling at me and my friend. He said something along the lines of “Hey you”. I asked if we were being detained (because if you are not being detained you do not have to talk to the police and can go on your merry way). He didn’t respond except to say he was not talking to me. He then crossed in front of me and unholstered his Tazer and held it about 2 feet from my friend’s face. Waldorf is a tall cop, and he positioned himself on a median above my friend, which made it so he would have been shooting my friend in the face had he fired his Tazer. That is the closest up I have ever seen a Tazer, and the fastest I have seen a Richmond  Cop freak out and pull a weapon. Tazers are less lethal weapons, just like if I shoot you in the foot with a .22 it is less lethal. They are still deadly and being shot with a Tazer can very easily end in death. Especially if someone has a heart problem, which my friend does.

Quickly other RPD arrived and kicked the rest of us (who were filming at this point) out of the parking lot. One of them, Stone, committed battery against me by shoving my arm while I was clearly backing out of the lot and not at all resisting. They eventually let my friend go, after we showed a commanding officer the picture of Waldorf with a Tazer in my friend’s face. He had no charges, had done nothing wrong, was simply wearing the same color shorts as a suspect in a call they had received.

So my first experience back with First Fridays is Toney Waldorf, Richmond Cop, freaking out, unholstering a weapon at an inappropriate time and in violation of protocol, and threatening to kill my friend.

As the night carried on, it became quite clear that First Fridays had changed. I liked it better. There were kids from my neighborhood, and overall a lot of people of color seemed to be enjoying a public space. I am a huge proponent of public spaces and our ability to use them. It is the lack of public spaces in lower income neighborhoods that can make community development and organization more difficult. Downtown was packed, loud, and seemed to be full of people enjoying themselves.  These were not the people who might be likely to eat at some of the few new fancy restaurants on Broad Street, but they were people socializing in an area that could certainly benefit from development of community.

We had heard that a fairly pliable person in “charge” at Curated Culture (one of the many reasons I prefer no one to be in charge) had cooperated with the police and made a fairly unilateral decision to end First Fridays at 9pm. Therefore we figured that the police would be amping up their presence around that time. We were right. The police presence grew, with motorcycle, bike, horse, walking, and cruisers being used. We had about 4 groups of Copwatchers with video and still cameras throughout the area documenting the police.

Police were arbitrarily telling groups of people to disperse or to keep walking. They were telling people to get out of the street onto the sidewalk. Then once on the sidewalk, telling people to walk somewhere else. The sidewalks were crowded and certainly the extreme proximity to others contributed to the inevitable problems of large crowds of people- a fight. Not a big deal, certainly something that you would expect the RPD to be able to take care of with less that 30 officers, but apparently not.

Repeatedly, Richmond Cops would unholster their giant cans of mace and wave them threateningly at the crowd. This produced stampedes of people running in terror from the cops. This action on the part of the RPD did nothing to solve any perceived problems of the crowds, just repeatedly moved groups of people back and forth from one section of Broad Street to another. The Mounted RPD would, for no reason, ride their horses onto the sidewalks in the middle of groups of people, also resulting in panic. They also had police officers walking through the crowds, looking and acting harried as all get out, telling people to keep moving. One officer I noticed in particular Ferguson was totally losing it, she was stressed out. Adding to the feeling of chaos were motorcycle cops riding through crowds, and even between lanes of traffic on Broad Street.

It is symptomatic of larger problems if Richmond, as a city, freaks out when people are in public spaces. It is symptomatic of larger problems if Richmond, as a city, freaks out when young people are in public spaces. It is symptomatic of larger problems – like racism- if Richmond, as a city, freaks out when people of color are in public spaces.

The main crowd problems at First Fridays have one clear and simple solution. Close the street to traffic. If there were no cars, a major danger of this event would be eliminated entirely. And a secondary result of this would be more space for people to hang out, and therefore smaller odds of close quarters resulting in conflict within the crowd. A tertiary result of this would be less “need” or perceived need of police presence and police pushing the crowd around which might mean fewer stampedes and scared people. It seems simple, cheaper, safer, and like it might create a more enjoyable public space.

First Fridays has become something I never thought it would- diverse and actually reflective of the population of Richmond. But now that it has the police want to shut it down. That comes as no surprise to me, but it is something that other folks need to recognize. The police presence at August First Fridays felt to me, like the police were looking for trouble, and looking to create an excuse to shut down First Fridays altogether. I heard one commanding officer on the phone with his superior towards the end of the night (around 10pm) describing the situation as “a warzone”. That is a seriously troubling way for one of “Richmond’s finest” to feel about groups of people walking on the sidewalk. How is engaging one’s right to assemble create a warzone? It seemed to me that the police were the ones escalating, creating panic, threatening violence, and creating the feeling of war.

First Fridays in Richmond has broken the standard mold of redevelopment and become a viable public event that appeals to a variety of types of people.

We need to stand up to the institutionalized racism of the Richmond Police Department and help make there be safe spaces for “youth” and people of color to congregate and socialize.

We need to stand up to the Richmond Police Department’s attempts to control cultural events, social events, and public spaces and help make hanging out on a sidewalk not be an invitation for police harassment and brutality.

We need to stand up together and talk with each other about what we want and how we can get it.

The First Friday of every month is a great opportunity for these things to happen.

We don’t need a non profit organization or police force to sanction people coming together to celebrate community, culture, music, and art in downtown Richmond once a month. The sidewalks are ours now, the streets could be ours if we decide that we want them too.

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