“If you can stay off the Downtown Mall and I don’t see you again, then I won’t take you,” said the Charlottesville police officer.
“That’s not going to happen,” said Christopher Gonzalez, who had been lying on his back on the mall outside CVS. It was 5:30pm on Wednesday, July 8. The sun was shining.
“Why?” The officer asked.
“I’m going to stay living right here,” said Gonzalez. He was experiencing homelessness, and had nowhere else to go.
“Then I’m going to take you to jail for drunk in public,” the officer responded.
“Well let’s go then,” Gonzalez said.
The officer turned Gonzalez around and started to put him in handcuffs, but Gonzalez pulled his arm away. Moments later, the officer threw Gonzalez up against the wall of the CVS, kneed him in the thigh, and pinned him on the ground in a headlock, where he held him for around 50 seconds.
An Instagram video showing the physical altercation was posted later that evening, and soon after, at the request of multiple community members, the Charlottesville Police Department released 17 minutes of body camera footage recording the lead-up to the incident. The body camera fell off during the scuffle, so the Instagram video is the only available footage of the physical arrest.
A citizen on the mall saw Gonzalez lying down and called 911, says the CPD. The body cam footage shows that a police officer arrived first; then a rescue squad appeared and gave Gonzalez a clean bill of health. The officer dismissed the rescue squad, and the altercation began. The police department has not released the officer’s name because the incident is subject to an “ongoing investigation.”
Fortunately, Gonzalez did not appear to suffer any physical injuries. He was charged with felony assault of a police officer, as well as with misdemeanors for public intoxication and obstruction of justice.
The officer’s violent arrest of Gonzalez has drawn concern from justice system experts and activists around town.
“I’m a nurse, and I am a researcher, and one of the things that I focus on a lot is strangulation,” says Kathryn Laughon, a UVA nurse and an activist with Charlottesville’s Defund the Police movement. Laughon says, speaking generally, “use of chokeholds by police—it’s unconscionable. There is no safe way to apply pressure to anyone’s neck.”
“We don’t do chokeholds, we don’t teach any sort of neck restraints,” said Police Chief RaShall Brackney in an interview with Victory Church on June 14.
“[Gonzalez] really didn’t assault the officer,” says Legal Aid Justice Center community organizer Harold Folley. “He pulled away from the officer, but he didn’t assault the officer. It doesn’t justify the officer beating his ass like that.”
Stephen Hitchcock is the executive director of The Haven, a shelter just a few blocks from where the incident took place.
“We deal with that kind of situation, someone who’s intoxicated, every day, all day,” says Hitchcock. “And we never have to knee the person, and pummel them, and then slam them to the ground, ever. We’ve never had to do that.”
“You give someone a bottle of water. It changes their breathing, it builds a connection with them. A little act of trust and generosity,” Hitchcock says. “How in the world, in this moment, could an officer think that was the way to address this person who’s intoxicated?”
The officer’s treatment of Gonzalez fits into a larger pattern of criminalizing poverty and addiction, say these activists. And Black and brown people feel the effect of those practices at a disproportionate rate.
The officer, standing just a few feet from restaurants where affluent patrons drink the night away, offered Gonzalez a deal—leave the mall and we won’t arrest you. “A drunk in public—it is against the law,” Hitchcock says. “But how many white, wealthy people behind the looping chains [of restaurant patios] are also drunk?”
“To say that, in the city, there are certain places where you can’t be drunk in public, but if you move a block away it’s not a criminal act—that tells me that this isn’t about health and safety,” says Laughon.
“So often, you see [UVA] students getting trashed,” Folley says, “and the officers assist them, help them to where they need to go…But that’s the difference between Black and brown people and white people.”
Arresting people who are experiencing health problems or homelessness makes it more difficult for them to get back on their feet, Hitchcock points out. If the felony charge sticks, it will be harder for Gonzalez to find housing and employment.
The body cam footage shows police officers misbehave in smaller ways, too. Several of the officers who appear in the video are not wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID. And as an officer pats down Gonzalez, he pulls bits of trash and a bottle cap out of Gonzalez’s pocket, which he then litters on the ground.
Activists see this incident as an example of why it’s necessary to radically change the way police operate in the city.
“What I see is the importance of a strong Civilian Review Board,” says Folley. “The police should not police themselves.” (Charlottesville’s Police Civilian Review Board has just begun meeting, but it has been entangled in a dispute with City Council over its own bylaws.)
“This is a perfect example of why using armed police to be our first responders to just about every situation is a real problem,” says Laughon. “The money that goes into policing, and to then criminalizing behavior, could be better spent on housing, on health care—those are things that would make the community safer and healthier.”