Nine immigrant-rights activists who’d been extradited across state lines on misdemeanor charges of trespass and littering gathered outside the Henrico County, Virginia, Sheriff’s Office on Thursday with supporters, waving flags and calling for their charges to be dropped.
An hour away in Newport News, Virginia, heavily armed men—some associated with the right-wing “Boogaloo” movement—also gathered outside a police station to protest a misdemeanor trespassing charge against one of their own.
Members of the immigrants-rights group, who learned that their cases would not be dropped, were taken inside the Henrico County Sheriff’s Office to process their arrest paperwork. Members of the Boogaloo group received a public announcement system and chocolate milk from the Newport News Police Department.
The disparity underscored complaints of unequal treatment for protesters in Virginia, which has been a hotbed of unrest in 2020—from a massive pro-gun rally at the state capitol building to racial justice demonstrations after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis Police custody.
Activists on the left have accused police of cracking down on them for minor infractions while giving right-wing demonstrators a free hand. And Thursday’s demonstrations in Richmond and Newport News illustrated the canyon in police responses against the left and right.
Nancy Nguyen, a prominent Philadelphia activist, was changing her baby’s diaper on the night of Oct. 8, when three armed police officers entered her home. They handcuffed her in front of her two young children and took her to jail, where she was detained overnight without anti-COVID protective gear, she wrote in an article this week.
Nguyen, 38, was charged with misdemeanor trespassing and littering during a Sept. 8 protest outside the Richmond, Virginia-area home of acting ICE Director Tony Pham. Protesters, who placed crosses outside Pham’s home, condemned ICE’s history of human rights abuses and the separation of parents from their children.
An interstate arrest and a jail stay is heavy-handed for trespass and littering misdemeanors, Nguyen wrote. She argued that her arrest “is an attempt to criminalize nonviolent peaceful protest. I believe this arrest was an attempt to silence and intimidate me,” and other members of the Vietnamese and immigrant-rights communities.
She wasn’t the only out-of-state activist charged with alleged trespass for the Sept. 8 protest; eight participants from North Carolina were hit with the same charges.
On Thursday, Nguyen, and her eight co-defendants, and other immigrant-rights activists rallied outside the Henrico County Sheriff’s Office calling on a prosecutor to drop the charges. Their calls went unheeded and protesters were taken into the sheriff’s office to fill out arrest paperwork. (They were not detained, a citizen journalist tweeted.)
That night, approximately an hour away in Newport News, a different group was protesting a trespassing charge against one of their own, to a more accommodating police force.
Mike Dunn is a recognizable figure in the “Boogaloo” movement, a loose coalition of far-right and libertarian types who traffic in pro-gun and anti-government talk, some of which has allegedly turned into action. Members of the movement have been implicated in murders and plots to kidnap governors. Dunn (who identifies as a libertarian) has not been implicated in those plots. He was, however, arrested earlier this month on a trespassing charge while openly carrying a gun on public property in violation of a new local law.
Dunn, 19, told The Daily Beast last week that he would continue to open-carry in violation of the law, which he believes is unconstitutional, and that he would hold an open-carry protest outside the offices of the same police department that arrested him. Prior to that Thursday event, which encouraged breaking the open-carry law, Dunn told The Daily Beast that he didn’t expect arrests because “it’ll be a bunch of men that are willing to shoot their way out of it.”
Dunn was correct. Police did not arrest anyone at the demonstration, even when Dunn and a collection of heavily armed men took a picture with the department’s “no open carrying” sign, journalist Ford Fischer reported.
Instead, the city’s police chief, Steve Drew, came out of the building to offer Dunn a PA system and a bottle of chocolate milk (the milk was part of a libertarian in-joke, Dunn explained.)
“I think that’s his way of apologizing without coming out and apologizing,” Dunn said into the police PA system while holding a gun.
Drew gave a brief speech to the protesters, in which he indicated that he would have gone even further.
“I wanted a podium but we couldn’t get the freakin’ thing to lot, but we at least got the PA system,” Drew said, adding: “I offer the grounds here at the police department, certainly for free speech, and I appreciate the non-violence. We’ll treat you with the utmost respect and I just ask the same.”
Police sometimes attempt to de-escalate tense protest situations by being polite to demonstrators or declining to make misdemeanor arrests. It’s a tactic Black Lives Matter activists have called for, though have not always received, at their demonstrations—where people have been busted for small or dubious infractions, or where police have escalated tensions by leading charges into peaceful crowds. Newport News Police did not return a request for comment.
“I’m gonna get out of the way,” the police chief concluded his speech, handing the microphone to Dunn. “The mic is yours, and you certainly have the right to express free speech. Thank you for letting me share a few moments with you. I didn’t mean to take up too much time.”
Dunn then gave a speech noting that "legally, we're not supposed to be open carrying here, but we're all open carrying."
Dunn, who had previously suggested his group was willing to use their guns if police moved on them, told The Daily Beast he thought police went easy on the group because “I don’t feel they wanted a war.”
But other activists have faced serious charges for protests outside government buildings. In July, racial justice protesters in Aurora, Colorado, staged a protest outside a police department demanding the termination of officers involved in the killing of a Black man. Though the protesters dispersed without incident by early morning, several of their leaders were arrested by large contingents of police—including one with a SWAT team—months later and hit with a litany of charges including “attempted kidnapping” of police. (By positioning themselves outside the police department, the activists had effectively imprisoned cops inside, prosecutors argue.)
Although Dunn says he does not personally support Black Lives Matter, members of a local Black Lives Matter group attended the rally. (That local group, confusingly, has taken a more conservative tack than other Black Lives Matter groups been disavowed by Black Lives Matter’s national organizers.)
Japharii Jones, the group’s leader, gave a speech noting the difference between the heavily armed protest and previous Black Lives Matter marches he’d attended.
“If you’re trying to tell me we can show up like this and get a fuckin’ PA system,” he said, while at Black Lives Matter marches “we peacefully show up unarmed to a rally to exercise our rights and we get a lady pushed to the ground, we get a man sucker-punched in the face, we get a medic arrested and tackled for trying to render aid?
“We get stalked and followed to our car and they try to say race is not an issue right here?”