Pinch yourself, Richmond. There won’t be many days like this. Former Mayor Doug Wilder had his late-night eviction of the School Board from City Hall in 2007, but it doesn’t touch Richmond Free Press Publisher Ray Boone’s invitation to the Occupy Richmond protestors, who brought their tents and vegan cookouts to his front yard on Tuesday afternoon. Boone has in many respects been Mayor Dwight Jones’ most public critic in the last two years, not so much a political adversary as a political instigator.
Did we mention Boone and Jones are also neighbors? They actually share a driveway at the end of a cul-de-sac (not in the cookie-cutter suburban sense).Their houses share space on an old farm in what used to be Chesterfield County, pre-annexation, off Iron Bridge Road near Chippenham Parkway. The Boones, Ray and his wife, Jean, have the bigger yard -- about four acres. Jones has about three acres.
But on Tuesday afternoon, with a breezy Indian summer in full effect, this little paradise in the Brookbury neighborhood could have been mistaken for one of Stephen Spielberg’s movie sets.(See the photos here.) TV news trucks lined a narrow residential road, their satellite antennas protruding above the trees. Dozens of protestors were milling about, putting up tents in Boone’s massive front yard. Neighbors, mostly seniors, craned their necks and flustered about raking leaves, especially when the pickup truck came through carrying portable commodes. This is a close-knit community, with many well-to-do African-American seniors and families. The occupiers, who are mostly white, created an interesting dynamic for a city so steeped in racial conflict, white flight and sensitive political alliances.
Boone, impeccably dressed, made a brief appearance with his wife, Jean, to welcome the occupiers to their “front yard.” OK, so he compared the mostly 20-something protestors to Civil Rights-era trailblazers, Abe Lincoln and even Gandhi (maybe a bit much) but save the parsing of history, and ideology, for later. Spielberg, avert your eyes.
“You are following in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On an international scale you are following in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and you are also following in the tradition of Nelson Mandela,” Boone told the protestors, who are just arriving shortly after 2 p.m. “So, what I’m telling you is that the future and history will treat you much kinder than public officials are today.
“And you are true heroes, and therefore we are just happy to have you here.”
And then Boone left. Had to get back to the office to put the paper to bed. Like the grand maestro that Boone is – or is becoming – he disappeared into the afternoon as chaos ensued. At least a dozen police officers descended on the neighborhood, along with the police chief. The mayor made a brief, speedy pit stop in his black SUV (he declined to address the protestors or the media). The neighborhood association president, Amelia Lightner, stood and watched from a distance, huddling with a few neighbors to assess the situation. And it wouldn’t be complete without Councilwoman Reva Trammell (this is her district, after all), who stopped by to express some pent-up outrage and deliver water and sodas to the protestors.
Trammell seemed most upset by the presence of all the police officers (although it was difficult to ascertain how many were actually part of Jones’ usual security detail).
“This is God’s country out here. This isn’t Jeff Davis, where I live,” Trammell said, standing in the driveway the Boones and the mayor share. “If he’s afraid of our city, step down.”
She spent a few minutes hugging the young protestors, and then promised to reappear if the police attempted to shut down the protest. She told Josh Kadrich, an occupier and one of the spokesmen for the local movement, that she’d be back if anything went down.
“Honey, did they get the drinks out?” she said, in her motherly fashion, to Kadrich, before promising to return with fellow Councilman Marty Jewell if the handcuffs came out. “They are not going to take you to jail.”
After more than a month of dodging police and getting booted from city parks, the Occupy Richmond movement seems to have found a safe place to camp for a few days – maybe longer. Police brass, along with Chief Bryan T. Norwood, spent most of the afternoon on their cell phones, reviewing ordinances and zoning laws to make sure that everything was legal. After a few hours, the key finding was that the shared driveway was actually the mayor’s property, and the occupiers, along with the media, were instructed not to use it to access Boone’s front yard. Whether this was the mayor’s “stay off my lawn” moment wasn’t entirely clear.
“This is the mayor’s property. Mr. Boone has been granted an easement to use it and he's welcome to use it,” police spokesman Gene Lepley told reporters, instructing the occupiers and media to use a separate gravel driveway to the front of the property.
Shortly after dusk, Norwood explained that the primary objective was to alleviate neighbors’ concerns about safety. Police officers would remain in the neighborhood. As for the neighborhood encampment, Norwood said it didn’t appear that any laws were being broken.
“There are some zoning issues that we are going to take a look at to try to … make sure everybody is in compliance,” Norwood said. “At face value right now, it seems as though it is.”
That the movement had gained such an eloquent, ardent supporter in Boone wasn’t exactly inspiring the neighbors, though. They were concerned about young people wandering their streets, living in tents in the neighborhood.
“All I can tell you is that the neighbors feel like their privacy’s been invaded, and they’re worried and they’re concerned about their safety,” said Lightner, the neighborhood association president. Ray Graham, also a member of the association, which represents 150 homeowners in Brookbury, was a little more forceful in his disappointment.
“If they want to go somewhere and do things, they should go to … downtown somewhere, but not in the community where people, older people live at, who can’t protect themselves,” Graham said. “We have strangers walking in our neighborhood and we don’t know what’s going on, who they are, what kind of police record they have -- if they are criminals, not criminals. So for the safety of our community, we are concerned about that.”
Lightner and Graham were cordial, polite about it, like veterans of neighborhood confrontation. If this were still Chesterfield County, where the politics of property rights are always on display, it would be hard to imagine such cordiality. But if the occupiers accomplished anything, it was the surreal juxtaposition of an established community, anchored by educated, well-to-do African Americans, trying to cope with an invasion of young, mostly white protestors whose message, to many, is still unclear.
The streets may be public, and yes, the protestors are of the nonviolent variety. But can one imagine the same civility being extended if the roles were reversed -- mostly black protestors descending on, say, a mostly white subdivision just across the county line?
When they finally leave, will anyone remember exchanges like this one? Jon Lefleor, a 25-year-old occupier who is studying structural engineering at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, made his way up the street to introduce himself to Graham.
“Good afternoon. I just wanted to come and introduce myself. My name is Jon.”
“What’s up, Jon.”
“How are you today? I just wanted to come and say hello and see how y’all were doing and whatnot.”
“I can tell you how I’m doing. I pay a mortgage here.”
“I have a nice house here.”
“I don’t want [anybody] invading my space.”
“I completely understand that.”
“That’s how I feel.”
“I can completely respect that. And I hope I don’t infringe on anybody’s space.”
“Just for the record. You are.”
It was a pleasant, albeit tense, exchange. But it sums up the mood in Brookbury, at least on the first day of the protest’s suburban encampment. After Lefleor departed, another protestor, Jordan Romeo, emerged. They were trying to smooth things over, if a little clumsily.
“Hi, My name is Jordan. I wanted to introduce myself because I’m going to be around a lot. Nice to meet you,” Romeo said, extending her hand to Graham.
“When you say around, what do you mean ‘around’?”