Editors note: Mo Karn submitted this essay for possible publication on GJWN. The following is abridged version. Portions dealing with the Copwatch activities were already covered here and are mostly not included in this article. Excerpts are in the order they were written and separated by white space. You can read the entire piece on her blog
(Karn’s view are not necessarily the views of myself or GJWN.)
Why I want to protect First Fridays!
I have never been a regular attendee of Richmond’s First Fridays Art Walk. In fact, over the years I have been a major critic of the event and the concept of the event.
When I have gone to First Fridays in the past it was mostly to support friends who had art on display or who were performing. I even helped to organize some First Fridays events- like the Richmond Zine Fest at Gallery 5 in 2009. And what I saw was mostly white people. And I saw a lot of white people who were more affluent. Which is definitely the type of crowd this sort of event is desinged to draw in.
So I mostly stopped going to First Fridays. I was not interested in participating in a redevelopment strategy that seemingly reached out only to suburbanites and fearful west enders, adventuring into the heart of a city they really don’t understand.
We heard that the police had maced the crowd a couple times, ridden their horses into the middle of crowds, and were trying to organize with Curated Culture (the non-profit that officially organizes First Fridays) to change the times of the event and potentially get rid of it altogether. We heard from many non-anarchists, respected community members about town, that the police were being very aggressive and that a lot of this aggressiveness seemed directed towards people of color. The media and others mostly spoke of the “youth”, but in this case the youth they meant was mostly youth of color.
As the night carried on, it became quite clear that First Fridays had changed. I liked it better. There were kids from my neighborhood, and overall a lot of people of color seemed to be enjoying a public space.
We had heard that a fairly pliable person in “charge” at Curated Culture (one of the many reasons I prefer no one to be in charge) had cooperated with the police and made a fairly unilateral decision to end First Fridays at 9pm. Therefore we figured that the police would be amping up their presence around that time. We were right. The police presence grew, with motorcycle, bike, horse, walking, and cruisers being used.
First Fridays has become something I never thought it would- diverse and actually reflective of the population of Richmond. But now that it has the police want to shut it down. That comes as no surprise to me, but it is something that other folks need to recognize. The police presence at August First Fridays felt to me, like the police were looking for trouble, and looking to create an excuse to shut down First Fridays altogether. I heard one commanding officer on the phone with his superior towards the end of the night (around 10pm) describing the situation as “a warzone”. That is a seriously troubling way for one of “Richmond’s finest” to feel about groups of people walking on the sidewalk. How is engaging one’s right to assemble create a warzone? It seemed to me that the police were the ones escalating, creating panic, threatening violence, and creating the feeling of war.
First Fridays in Richmond has broken the standard mold of redevelopment and become a viable public event that appeals to a variety of types of people.
We need to stand up to the institutionalized racism of the Richmond Police Department and help make there be safe spaces for “youth” and people of color to congregate and socialize.
We need to stand up to the Richmond Police Department’s attempts to control cultural events, social events, and public spaces and help make hanging out on a sidewalk not be an invitation for police harassment and brutality.
We need to stand up together and talk with each other about what we want and how we can get it.
The First Friday of every month is a great opportunity for these things to happen.
We don’t need a non profit organization or police force to sanction people coming together to celebrate community, culture, music, and art in downtown Richmond once a month. The sidewalks are ours now, the streets could be ours if we decide that we want them too.