Protest occupation at Richmond Civic Center heads into third week

Protest occupation at Richmond Civic Center heads into third week
Tents set up at Richmond Civic Center Plaza are part of a protest demanding justice for slain U.S. Army soldier Vanessa Guillen and changes in the military's handling of sexual harassment and assault incidents. (Photo credit: Mike Kinney)

By Mike Kinney

A protest occupation at Richmond Civic Center Plaza has entered its third week, with 12 tents set up in the plaza as a 24/7 call for changes in the military. The tents have been pitched there since July 7, one day following a large vigil and protest at Civic Center Plaza demanding justice for Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillen, who was reportedly murdered by a fellow soldier in a case that has shined a national spotlight on the military’s handling of sexual harassment and assault cases.

On Tuesday, protesters who call themselves the East Bay Movimiento said they won’t take their tents down and head home until certain steps are taken by Richmond City Council. They want council to pass a resolution in support of a full Congressional investigation into Guillen’s case and to call for steps to address the military’s handling of abuse incidents. Protester Denis Perez said they want all military bases in California to be investigated in this regard.

East Bay Movimiento also wants Richmond City Council and the West Contra Costa Unified School District to prohibit U.S. military recruiters from doing their work on school campuses.

“It is very important that the local community’s concerns regarding these issues be heard by the Council,” Perez said.

On Friday, the group will hold a community event called “Celebrating Afro-Latino-The East Bay Movimiento.” They will march from the Grocery Outlet parking lot located at San Pablo and MacDonald avenues at 5 p.m. and go along MacDonald until they reach Richmond City Hall Plaza, where a community rally will begin at 6 p.m. Organizers are asking the community to bring flags and noisemakers such as blow horns and drums. They’re also asking attendees to wear face coverings and to bring hand sanitizer.

Guillen, a specialist in the U.S. Army, who was reported missing on April 22. Her remains were found about two months later about 20 miles from her base at Fort Hood in Texas. Authorities say she was murdered by fellow Fort Hood soldier Aaron Robinson, who shot and killed himself when confronted by police. Her family says Guillen had complained about sexual harassment on the base but was too scared to report it. Her family has called for a congressional investigation into Fort Hood.

The case has sparked nationwide calls for change in the military. Those calls have caught the attention of lawmakers. On Monday, Congresspersons Julia Brownley, Jackie Speier and Sylvia Garcia joined the Minority Veterans of America in calling for “a complete overhaul of the military’s handling of sexual harassment and assault cases and missing persons cases.”

Rep. Garcia, a Texas congressmember, said 87 of her colleagues in Congress have requested an independent Officer of Inspector General investigation into Guillen’s case to “make sure this never ever happens again.”

Meanwhile, Speier, the chair of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, said she’s introducing comprehensive legislation on the issue.

“We must honor Vanessa’s courage and memory by making lasting change that includes taking sexual harassment and assault cases out of the chain of command, and making sexual harassment punishable as a specific offense within the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” Speier said in a statement. “To give survivors confidence that reports will be taken seriously, we must ensure that sexual harassment claims are investigated by trained and experienced professionals. We must allow survivors to file confidential reports of sexual harassment, as my NDAA amendment would require, and connect those reports to the military’s Catch A Serial Offender database so survivors will know if their harasser has been reported by other servicemembers. When a servicemember files a report—or doesn’t show up to formation—it must be taken seriously.”

These efforts have the support of Contra Costa County’s own Congressmember Mark DeSaulnier, said Shanelle Scales-Preston, district coordinator for the congressmember.