McDonnell’s role in Capitol protests
Saturday was a hectic day at the State Capitol. As our Ben Garbarek reported, several dozen people were arrested after a protest. This was another in a series of mass gatherings designed to stop controversial legislation aimed at abortion. This particular gathering was specifically designed to encourage Governor Bob McDonnell to veto legislation that would require an ultrasound before an abortion.
As Ben reported yesterday, the protest was peaceful and for the most part, within the standards set up by the General Assembly when it comes to mass gatherings at the State Capitol. Roughly one thousand people set up at the Bell Tower to send a message to the governor regarding the legislation.
However, things took a turn when a small group of protestors decided to assemble on the steps of the Capitol building. A maneuver that is specifically prohibited by the Department of General Services regulations. Capitol Police asked the Virginia State Police for help in breaking up the situation. The result was a moment that created unpleasant optics. State Police in full riot gear forcibly removing Virginia citizens from a public building. Many of them arrested and temporarily detained.
In the wake of the event, supporters of the protestors were strong in their criticism of State and Capitol Police. They argued that there was no violence or counter protest and that the police presence far too much. Many specifically blamed Governor McDonnell and claimed he “ordered” the police to respond in the fashion that they did.
According to representatives from both the State and Capitol Police, it doesn’t work that way.
“The governor has never directed me in any of my operations at the State Capitol,” said Col. Steve Pike, the Chief of the Capitol Police. “I report to the legislative leaders in the General Assembly.”
Pike told me that he takes personal responsibility for the way his team responded to yesterday’s protests and that their action had nothing to do with the group or their beliefs. He claims that he was simply enforcing laws that have been on the books since 1972.
“It is my responsibility as the Chief of the Capitol Police to protect that property,” he said. “All those resources are there just in case things don’t go smoothly.”
Richmond Del. Delores McQuinn is among those reacting strongly to the way the Capitol Police handled the situation.
“I have never seen a similar police presence when guns rights advocates assemble on Capitol Square on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday,” she said in a statement. “We must ask the question: what are they so afraid of? Women demanding the right to be treated with respect shouldn’t illicit arrest.”
Despite the fact that a small portion of the group was in violation of the regulation, McQuinn and others argue that it did not require the heavy-handed response by the officers. They believe that there was not the type of threat that required police in riot gear.
Pike believed they had no choice and despite his efforts to ask the group to leave, they resisted. When they started to assemble on the steps of the Capitol, that was when Pike claims they were forced to take action.
Despite all of the activity, the governor never got involved.
“That was my call,” said Pike. “We gave them 30 minutes to leave without incident. When they refused, we had to step in.’
But the result was a scene that everyone wanted to avoid. Police in full riot gear dragging protestors off the steps before piling them into vans under arrest. Pike said it is standard protocol to have State Police on standby. Corrine Geller of the Virginia State Police confirmed that they were ask to provide support, not by the governor or his Commissioner of Public Safety, but by Pike and his team.
“Our presence is simply to ensure the safety of all individuals on the State Capitol campus – event participants, state employees, public officials, tourists, etc,” said Geller. “In all security efforts we strive to be ready for any eventuality that may occur, without any undue intrusion or interruption of the lawful event or gathering.”
Obviously this is a topic that elicits strong opinions from both sides. I appreciate any and all feedback, but please attempt to keep your comments civil and thoughtful of others points of view.