Apr 29, 2024 - News

Richmond policed asked pro-Palestine protesters to scale back demonstrations

Photo illustration of a Richmond Police cruiser with lines radiating from it.

Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Image

Richmond police asked the organizer of a weekly pro-Palestine demonstration to scale back the frequency of protests to give officers "a little break" amid staffing shortages, the Times-Dispatch reports.

State of play: On April 14, an RPD officer sent a text to organizer Zaid Mahdawi suggesting that weekly demonstrations against Israel's war policies were keeping depleted police resources from responding appropriately to violent crimes happening elsewhere in the city, per RTD.

  • "Less than six officers were at the scene because everyone was at the rally," RPD officer Mohammed Maher Hameed said in the text, referring to an April 14 fatal shooting in which four people, including a 16-year-old, were killed.
  • Richmond Police Chief Rick Edwards asked Hameed to reach out to Mahdawi because the two had met playing pickup soccer.
  • Hameed added that if he complied, RPD could speak with the commonwealth's attorney and "work something out" about unlawful protest charges pending against Mahdawi in connection with a protest earlier this month outside of a book launch for Sen. Tim Kaine.

The big picture: Officials and universities across the country are grappling with how to respond to a sharp increase in demonstrations against the Israel-Hamas war that at times have turned into violent clashes with police or veered into antisemitism, making some Jewish students feel unsafe.

Yes, but: Pro-Palestinian protests in Richmond have been mild compared to what's playing out elsewhere in the country.

  • For months, roughly 100 people have gathered in Monroe Park every Sunday afternoon. Sometimes the group marches to other locations, like City Hall or the book launch; the day police sent the text, the group stayed in the park and made bracelets.

Zoom in: Police-involved incidents connected to Richmond area Pro-Palestine protests include:

What they're saying: "The protests are our First Amendment right and we are in no way, shape or form stopping (them) from doing (their) jobs," Mahdawi told the RTD.

The other side: RPD chief Edwards told the RTD that the text wasn't a demand or meant to be coercive. Rather he was hoping to begin a conversation that would allow police to ensure the safety of demonstrators amid a streak of violence in the city and while the department is down 150 officers.

  • "I thought maybe they would be moved by the sheer amount of people shot," Edwards said.

The latest: The student-led university encampments that started cropping up on campus across the country have come to Virginia.

  • Pro-Palestine groups at Virginia Tech and Mary Washington set up encampments on school grounds on Friday.
  • Their demands echo those of similar student-led groups: a Gaza ceasefire and that their schools disclose and divest from Israel-connected companies.
  • At Mary Washington, 12 people, including nine students, were arrested and charged with trespassing Saturday night for defying an order to leave the area, NBC4 reported.
  • At Tech, students were ordered to leave the grounds by 4:30pm Sunday or risk arrest, per the pro-Palestine group's Instagram.

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