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UPDATE: Portsmouth 19 Court Case Continues In Divided City

By Randy Singleton
NJG Community Correspondent

PORTSMOUTH
State Senator Louise Lucas and the Portsmouth 19 were arraigned in court on Friday (Sept. 4) on felony charges involving the vandalism of Portsmouth’s Confederate monument during a demonstration on June 10.  Portsmouth General District Judge Morton Whitlow continued the cases until September 17, at which time a special judge, from outside of Portsmouth, appointed by the State Supreme Court will determine how the cases will proceed. 

Sen. Lucas, President Pro Tempore of the Senate and Virginia’s most powerful Black female legislator, was joined by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and her attorney Delegate Don Scott in the packed court room.  Fairfax and Scott decried the injustice of the charges against Lucas, local NAACP leaders, a school board member, and members of the public defender’s offense at a news conference after the hearing. Speakers called the legal fight “Good Trouble” in honor of the late Congressman John Lewis. 

Only the original 14 persons against whom charges were filed by police were arraigned in court on Friday (Sept. 4). Police later charged five others in connection with the incident, bringing the total number charged to 19.

Senator Lucas and the Portsmouth 19’s court appearance came on the same day that Portsmouth City Manager Lydia Pettis Patton placed Portsmouth Police Chief Angela Greene on paid administrative leave, and appointed assistant chief Scott Burke as the interim police chief.  Patton said this action was “effective immediately and until further notice.”

Vice Mayor Lisa Lucas Burke said that Patton informed the city council that Greene was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into her personnel file. Currently, it is unclear if Chief Greene’s removal is temporary or permanent.   Patton had previously told council that police should not have been investigating the monument case because the chief had a conflict of interest, but that interest was not disclosed.

Patton said she was surprised that Greene had brought felony charges against leaders of Portsmouth’s Black community.

Greene has been police department chief for 17 months following the abrupt dismissal of Chief Tonya Chapman,

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Greene said that she had no conflict of interest and that charges were brought against the Portsmouth 14 after an investigation by state police and meetings with Commonwealth Attorney Stephanie Morales’ office yielded no results. State police have said their investigation into the incident is still on-going while Greene had told city officials it had been concluded.

On Sunday (Sept. 6), about 150 people supporting Chief Greene staged a counter protest rally outside of Portsmouth City Hall. The rally was organized by Tim Anderson, a Virginia Beach attorney, who also had led a recall effort to have Sen. Lucas removed from office.

The local daily Virginian Pilot recently ran a two-part series on its investigation into the Portsmouth Police Department which found an entrenched culture of racism, according to nine current and former officers, to include the former dismissed police chief, Tonya Chapman.

The city of Portsmouth began removing its controversial Confederate monument on Wednesday (August 26) morning when work crews started disassembling the soldier statutes on the lower portion of the monument.  Today, only the base of the monument remains.

Vice Mayor Lisa Lucas Burke was charged with several misdemeanors after a group of residents went to a magistrate with allegations that Lucas-Burke violated an obscure section of the city charter which prohibits elected officials from discussing in public the potential dismissal of city employees who are under the supervision of the city manager. Lucas-Burke has hired Norfolk Delegate Joe Lindsey as her attorney.

Longtime observers of Portsmouth politics cite the criminal charges over the protests at the Confederate monument as another example of the weaponization of law-enforcement agencies in the city to silence Black leadership. Some residents say the political weaponization of the city’s police and sheriff’s departments have been used with ruthless aggression and efficiency in recent years to criminalize and ultimately bring down Black elected officials such as former-City Councilman Mark Whitaker, former-Mayor Kenny Wright, and former-Delegate Matthew James. Now, the same ploy, some speculate, is being used against Sen. Lucas.

Supporters of Lucas call this  a “corrupt political strategy” and have adopted the rallying cry, “Not This Time” to express the solidarity of Portsmouth’s Black Community. The FBI is currently investigating accusations of systemic racism in the Portsmouth Police Department and city government. 

On Tuesday (Sept. 1), a drive-up rally was held in the parking lot of Grove Church for Senator Lucas and the Portsmouth 19. The rally featured the political star-power of current and former elected officials such as Congressman Bobby Scott, Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander, former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, State Senators Lionel Spruill and Mamie Locke, and Delegates Don Scott and Cliff Hayes. Rally speakers condemned the charges as being politically-motivated as Sen. Lucas was in Richmond preparing to introduce police reform legislation at the General Assembly when the felony counts were announced by Chief Angela Greene.

Legal experts view the charges as unusual because police investigators bypassed the Commonwealth Attorney’s office and went straight to a magistrate to bring felony charges against Sen. Lucas and others.  The case has garnered national attention because it is the only one in which charges have been filed against protestors who have torn down a Confederate monument since the killing of George Floyd sparked a nationwide racial reckoning after May 25. 

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According to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Virginia has removed 26 Confederate symbols, the most in the country, with Richmond leading the way with dismantling 18. Across the nation, 76 Confederate symbols, including 48 monuments, have been removed from public spaces in 2020.

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