Timing of Confederate statue charges against Black lawmaker ‘troubling,’ Virginia governor says

A Virginia state senator was charged Monday with damaging a Confederate statue during protests that occurred over two months ago, with the governor denouncing the timing of the charges against the veteran Black lawmaker as “deeply troubling.”

Sen. Louise Lucas faces charges of conspiracy to commit a felony and injury to a monument in excess of $1,000, Portsmouth Police Chief Angela Greene said during a news conference. The protest occurred on June 10.

Lucas, 76, a longtime Democratic legislator and a key power broker in the state Senate, joined the chamber in 1992.

Members of the local NAACP chapter, a local school board member and members of the public defender’s office are also facing charges related to the protest. The charges were filed the same week Virginia lawmakers are taking up dozens of criminal justice reforms during a special legislative session.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam condemned the charges.

“It’s deeply troubling that on the verge of Virginia passing long-overdue police reform, the first Black woman to serve as our Senate Pro Tempore is suddenly facing highly unusual charges,” Northam, also a Democrat, wrote in a tweet Monday. “@SenLouiseLucas, I look forward to seeing you in Richmond tomorrow—so we can get to work.”

Greene asked the public to help identify other people accused of being at the protest, based on photographs released by the police department.

The monument in Portsmouth consists of a large obelisk and statues of four Confederate military personnel. During protests that drew hundreds of people in June, heads were ripped off some of the statues while one was pulled down, critically injuring a demonstrator.

Calls for the removal of Confederate and Christopher Columbus monuments have grown louder amid widespread protests against police brutality following the in-custody death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis. Some demonstrators around the country have taken matters into their own hands, while officials in other cities choose to dismantle them.

Greene did not specify exactly what Lucas or the others are accused of doing during the protest. But she said that “several individuals conspired and organized to destroy the monument as well as summon hundreds of people to join in felonious acts.”

The acts “not only resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to the monument, but also permanent injury to an individual,” Greene said. She said the man suffered “life-threatening” injuries, but did not detail what those were.

Greene said requests were made to state and federal authorities to conduct an independent investigation. And she said that a discussion with the Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney “did not yield any action.”

“It was the duty of the Portsmouth Police Department to begin a thorough and comprehensive investigation,” Greene said.

Stephanie Morales, the Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney, did not sign off on the police department’s charges, a spokesperson for her office said.

A statement from the office released Tuesday said it had not received investigative results regarding the protest and “the Portsmouth Police Department chose their traditional process of securing warrants, albeit over two months after the alleged events, in lieu of submitting complete investigative results to this office.”

The statement said the office is listed as a witness in the arrest warrants related to the charges, even though “Mrs. Morales was not on scene to be an eyewitness to any of the matters listed.”

The office intends to file a motion to quash any subpoenas served to it in the matter, but “if that motion is denied and a special prosecutor is sought, it removes the ability of this Commonwealth Attorney from acting and places the matters in the hands of a special prosecutor who is not accountable to this city,” the statement said.

Claire G. Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said Virginia is one of the few states in which a felony warrant can be filed without a prosecutor’s approval.

She called for the charges to be dropped.

“These charges are political, and I think they’re discriminatory,” Gastañaga said. “The police department is making decisions about who should be charged in a circumstance in which the elected (prosecutor) is being bypassed.”

Lucas’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Her attorney, Don Scott, also did not immediately respond, but said that the charges were a political stunt.

“They’re doing what they always do, which is they weaponize the criminal justice system against Black leadership, and that’s what they’re doing,” Scott said. “This time we’re gonna fight it vehemently, we’re gonna fight it vigorously.”