After months of protests over systemic racism, Virginia creates Office of Civil Rights

Ana Ley, The Virginian-Pilot

As social unrest over systemic racism continues to grip the nation, Virginia has created an Office of Civil Rights with the intent of promoting a more equitable government.

The move will “expand and reorganize” the state’s previous Division of Human Rights, according to a statement released Tuesday by the office of Attorney General Mark Herring, whose office oversees it.

As part of the shift, the Office of Civil Rights will grow to a staff of 13, including seven attorneys. When Herring took office, the Division of Human Rights had four employees.

Staff duties will include carrying out investigations into cases of police misconduct, workplace and housing discrimination and failure to accommodate expectant and new mothers.

Herring’s announcement comes after protesters gathered by the thousands last year in Virginia and across the country through the most significant protest movement of a generation, spurred, in part, by the May police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who pleaded for his life as a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down in the street.

Since Floyd’s death, demonstrators have demanded that the officer and his peers be held accountable while calling out racial inequity in America.

In Richmond, Democratic lawmakers who took control of the General Assembly for the first time in decades called for a special session with the goal of delivering police reform.

Shortly after Tuesday’s announcement, Norfolk Del. Jerrauld “Jay” Jones, a Democrat who is challenging Herring for his seat this year, launched his own public statement to accuse the attorney general of launching the initiative for political reasons.

Jones had called for an office of civil rights in an opinion piece that was published on the web edition of the Roanoke Times on Nov. 11.

“I think it’s interesting from a timing perspective,” Jones said. “We don’t want to play politics with people’s civil rights but that’s certainly what it looks like he is doing with this proposal.”

In response to Jones, Herring’s press secretary said the change is simply a continuation of his expansion of the previous division.

“Attorney General Herring has made protecting Virginians’ civil rights a top priority since his very first days in office,” Charlotte P.L. Gomer wrote in an email, adding that his “record on civil rights is clear.”