Richmond police declare unlawful assembly as protesters try to tear down Confederate statue

Protesters tried to pull down the J.E.B. Stuart monument on Sunday night.

Police in Virginia's capital declared an unlawful assembly on Sunday night as protesters tried to tear down a Confederate-era monument.

Richmond police responded to the scene Sunday night when demonstrators blocked an intersection on Monument Avenue and climbed atop the bronze statue depicting Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart on horseback. The protesters tied ropes around the monument, but it was only when they "began throwing bottles at officers" that an unlawful assembly was declared, according to the Virginia State Police, which tweeted that it "responded to disperse the rioters."

No injuries were reported, police said.

The Richmond Police Department described an unlawful assembly as "whenever three or more persons assembled share the common intent to advance some lawful or unlawful purpose by the commission of an act or acts of unlawful force or violence likely to jeopardize seriously public safety, peace or order." The police force has reportedly made several unlawful assembly declarations in recent weeks amid citywide civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd's death.

Floyd, an unarmed and handcuffed 46-year-old Black man, died in Minneapolis on May 25 shortly after a white police officer was filmed kneeling on his neck as three other officers stood by. The incident has sparked demonstrations across the nation and abroad against racial injustice and police brutality.

Protesters have pulled down several controversial statues in Richmond since Floyd's death, including ones depicting Christopher Columbus and Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has vowed to take down Richmond's monument of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as soon as possible and put it into storage, but a court order has indefinitely blocked his plans to do so. The 60-foot-tall statue, among others on the city's Monument Avenue, has been vandalized with graffiti.

Meanwhile, Richmond police have been criticized for deploying chemical irritants and rubber bullets to disperse protesters, including one incident on June 1, when officers reportedly fired tear gas at a peaceful group of demonstrators about half an hour before the mayor's mandated curfew went into effect.

Last week, two days after local advocacy groups sent a letter raising concerns over the "escalation of violence against protesters," Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced that the city's police chief, a white man, had stepped down from his post at his request. Stoney named Maj. William "Jody" Blackwell, a Black man, as interim chief of the Richmond Police Department.