Capitol Police Chief explains response to pro-choice vigil
It has been a General Assembly session filled with passion, anger and angst. Protests and counter protests have become a regular occurrence and the responsibility of keeping the peace falls with the Virginia Capitol Police force.
It hasn’t been easy. The Capitol Police force successfully managed several protests both for and against controversial bills dealing with abortion. Abortion is a topic that often brings out very heated emotions. Who can forget the anger that was unleashed in the moments after a Senate committee passed the “personhood” bill and a bill to require ultrasounds before abortions? Our photographer Nathan McCann captured this moment of a protestor being held back by a member of the Capitol Police.
The Capitol Police were called into duty again Monday night. A group quickly organized a protest of the pending “ultrasound before abortion” bill and asked supporters to gather
in front of behind the Governor’s mansion to voice their displeasure. Not long after the group of 50-100 protestors gathered, Capitol Police quickly came in and asked the group to leave Capitol Square. The protestors moved to a new location near the mansion, but off Capitol Square grounds. The next day, several voiced their frustration with being asked to move. Well known liberal blogger J.C. Wimore wrote about his displeasure on this blog and wrote a lengthy post on “The Richmonder”. Wilmore said the way Capitol and State Police handled the situation made him “really, deeply, viscerally angry.”
Note: I misunderstood the path of the vigil in my discussions with Pike and Whiting. Vigil participants silently walked by the General Assembly building on Broad Street and then assembled behind the Executive mansion on Governor’s Street. At no point did they enter or attempt to set up in Capitol Square. That was my mistake and I apologize for the incorrect information.
Capitol Police Chief, Col. Anthony “Steve” Pike said the response by his officers was appropriate and designed to protect not only visitors to Capitol Square that have nothing to do with the protest, but the protestors themselves. Pike said that it is his squad’s responsibility to enforce the regulations set out by the Virginia Department of General Services, which operates the Capitol grounds. He said this group, made up of various representatives from different women’s rights organizations, did not apply for a permit, despite efforts by his department to reach out to the group ahead of time.
“The regulations are pretty clear,” said Pike. “We want to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to have their voice heard. But in order to protect visitors to the Capitol and those wishing to assemble, we must follow those regulations.”
Those regulations require the protest to occur near the Capitol Bell Tower. It also restricts how long the event can take place.
Whitney Whiting was one of several organizers of the event and admitted the group did not even attempt to obtain a permit. She said their goal was to have a peaceful protest, that would garner the attention of lawmakers in control of the issues they were concerned about. Chief among them, Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Whiting said she understood why the group was pushed out of Capitol Square, but wonders why it required the force it did. Note: In the comments section below Whitney Whiting explains that she understood that the police wanted to “ensure safety.”
Whiting and Wilmore both describe seeing police in full riot gear, and in numbers that were not proportional to their peaceful gathering.
“It was surprising that they would bring out such a big force,” she said. “It was a little intimidating.”
Pike agreed, the protest was peaceful and those in attendance were cooperative with his officers. He explained that in addition to Capitol Police, the State Police was on hand guarding the Executive Mansion. The Virginia State Police handles all protection of the governor and his family. The governor has no say in the level of that protection.
He also said that the perceived heavy level of force was not there to keep the protestors in line, but to prevent a serious incident if a counter protest were to erupt.
“We heard chatter all day about this group or that group potentially showing up at the Capitol,” said Pike. “We don’t want to see anyone get hurt, so we take all necessary precautions.”
Whiting said that despite their imposing look, the Capitol and State Police forces were polite and were not verbally or physically threatening. She was surprised they were ask to turn off their electronic “candles”. Regardless, she hopes the overall message was received.
As for Pike, he encouraged anyone with questions to get in contact with his office or the Department of General Services so that they can help coordinate any demonstrations. He expressed his disappointment about the perception left behind by the incident and was emphatic that not one of his officers was there to interrupt or intimidate those expressing their first amendment rights.