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A Powerful Black leader. White Opposition. Criminal Charges. An Old Pattern Continues in Portsmouth

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tags: racism, African American history, Police, Virginia



Black leaders know what to expect when they fight for change in Portsmouth.

Supporters rally around them, fed up with the racism and systemic injustices that infect the city. Then, they say, white opponents come swinging, armed with the crushing weight of the law.

“It’s indicative of a (group) that is in the death throes of losing power,” Del. Don Scott said during a rally Wednesday on the front steps of the Portsmouth courthouse. “Any time we speak up, they try to take the leaders and make an example of them by making sure they silence the rest of you.”

To many advocates, the criminal charges filed this week against the city’s most prominent Black elected official, state Sen. Louise Lucas, were just the latest example — and perhaps the most dramatic.

This clear pattern, elected officials, activists and historians say, has repeated itself again and again in Portsmouth for decades. The city’s majority-Black population pushes its government to repair strained police relations, spend more tax dollars on children and pass countless other measures to make Portsmouth more equitable. And those calls face stiff resistance.

Portsmouth has had Black mayors and a majority-Black council as recently as 2016, and the city government’s day-to-day manager is a Black woman. But other Black officials and advocates say Portsmouth has a deeply entrenched white power structure.

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Crowds on Wednesday denounced what many consider the most brazen effort in recent history, when Portsmouth police Sgt. Kevin McGee brought felony charges against Lucas and 13 others for “injury to” a Confederate monument. The charges came Monday, a day before Lucas and other state lawmakers went to Richmond for a special session to consider police reforms for which she’s been an outspoken advocate.

The announcement drew intense criticism from residents and public officials, both Black and white. One historian said that’s in part because it fits a centuries-long pattern of white Americans weaponizing the legal system to keep control over people of color.

“The people that were (in Portsmouth) 200 years ago are still there, and their descendants are still in power,” said Norfolk State University history professor Cassandra Newby-Alexander. “And they’re making sure that they maintain the status quo and do everything to fight against any changes — any challenges — to the status quo. They will use the force of law and fight tooth and nail to hold on to power and would rather see it destroyed than shared.”

Read entire article at Norfolk Virginian-Pilot

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