Richmond’s newest monument got a one-of-a-kind unveiling in New York’s Times Square on Friday.
Kehinde Wiley, along with a group of speakers, unveiled his massive monument, called “Rumors of War,” to a crowd of cheering onlookers during an event livestreamed online.
Created in response to the monument of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart in Richmond, “Rumors of War” depicts a young African American in urban streetwear, sitting astride a horse in a striking pose. Wiley’s figure incorporates male and female characteristics. The sculpture is more than 27 feet tall, including a stone pedestal.
At the Times Square unveiling, Wiley talked about how the inspiration for “Rumors of War” came from his visit to Richmond and encountering the monuments on Monument Avenue.
“I’m a black man looking up at those things that give me a sense of dread and fear,” Wiley said at the unveiling. “What does that feel like physically to walk a public space and to have your state, your country, your nation say, ‘This is what we stand by.’ No. We demand more. Today, we say yes to something that looks like us. To broader notions of what it means to be an American.”
“Rumors of War” will remain on view in Times Square until Dec. 1.
After that, it will be moved to Richmond, where it will be permanently installed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ entrance at 200 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd., not far from the J.E.B. Stuart monument.
Wiley saw Richmond’s Confederate monuments while he was visiting for his career retrospective “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” at the VMFA in June 2016.
Best-known for his official presidential portrait of Barack Obama, the 42-year-old artist has built his career on creating larger-than-life, regal portraits of minorities in classical poses, positioning his subjects in ways typically associated with wealthy and powerful white men.
Wiley said the title of the monument, “Rumors of War,” refers to the New Testament and a “changing of times.”
“The idea is that in the ‘change times,’ there will be wars and rumors of war. ... And there are moments where art has to step in,” Wiley said.
Other speakers at the Times Square unveiling included Mayor Levar Stoney, VMFA Director Alex Nyerges and Dr. Monroe Harris, president of the VMFA board of trustees.
“Today is a monumental day,” Stoney said. “In Richmond, we have 10 Confederate monuments to the Lost Cause. I think that is 10 too many.”
Stoney appointed a commission to study the monuments on Monument Avenue in 2017. The commission recommended removing the monument to President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis and adding context to the four other Confederate statues. But state law protects the removal of statues as war memorials and it is still a question whether localities can assert control over their monuments.
Stoney talked about how Richmond has changed over the past 200 years and said that adding “Rumors of War” to Arthur Ashe Boulevard will be Richmond’s “symbolic battle cry” to change.
“The installation of ‘Rumors of War’ at the VMFA later this year will be a historic moment for our museum and for the city of Richmond and the commonwealth of Virginia,” Nyerges said earlier in a statement.
“Rumors of War” is Wiley’s first public artwork and his largest three-dimensional work to date.
“The sculpture belongs right here on our grounds,” said Valerie Cassel Oliver, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art. “It allows us to shift the gravitational pull of Monument Avenue and the conversation in general. Given that Virginia has the largest number of memorials and monuments dedicated to the Confederacy, it is a watershed moment. We are expanding conversation about monuments — who gets memorialized; who is edified.”
Said Nyerges: “When you look at Virginia as a whole, at least 20% of all Virginians trace their heritage directly to Africa. The fact that Richmond itself is a black majority city, it is important to us to be able to put this in context with a great work of art, which will hopefully further the conversation about these 19th- and early 20th-century monuments.”
Since 2015, the VMFA has been building its African American art collection with the goal of becoming one of the top three in the world for African American art.
Museum organizers hope that visitors can explore Wiley’s monument by foot or car on Arthur Ashe Boulevard and then proceed to explore the Confederate monuments just a few blocks away on Monument Avenue.
William Martin, executive director of the Valentine, which records Richmond history, described adding Wiley’s monument as a “moment of axis” to Richmond’s collection of Confederate monuments on Monument Avenue.
“This is a perfect monument to mark where we are in this very moment, in a language we’ll understand,” Martin said. “Nothing expresses Richmond more than these things together: the monuments on Monument Avenue and the new Wiley sculpture.”
He talked about how the monuments in Richmond are changing with the addition of the Arthur Ashe monument in 1996, the dedication of the Virginia Women’s Monument in Capitol Square next month and the addition of Wiley’s monument in December.
“Sometimes it takes art to encourage conversations in ways we don’t anticipate,” Martin said. “This is the moment for Richmond when the conversation begins between these monuments.”
“Rumors of War” was acquired by the VMFA in late June for an undisclosed sum and is the most expensive acquisition of a sculpture the VMFA has ever made. The acquisition was funded by an endowment of private donations, not state money.
“The monument is an evolutionary leap in Wiley’s practice. It is a stunning work of art. It will change the face of the VMFA,” Oliver said.
Harris, president of the VMFA board of trustees, said at the unveiling that it’s “the most important acquisition this museum has ever made.”
Charles A. Ransom played football and baseball at Midlothian High School, where he was picked “most likely to succeed” upon graduating in 1997 before going on to serve in the U.S. Air Force.
On Friday, an access road leading to the school was named after Ransom, who was killed in a 2011 attack at a Kabul airport.
Speakers who gathered at the school on Charter Colony Parkway said the street sign naming the route Charles A. Ransom Way was a small but lasting gesture in the Air Force major’s memory.
“Today we’re showing just a small token of that appreciation for the sacrifice and the heartache that his family and loved ones have endured,” said Leslie Haley, the chairwoman of the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors. “And by some measures, April 27, 2011, may seem like a long time ago, I’m certain in some ways, it seems like just yesterday.”
On that day, Ransom was one of eight service members killed when an Afghan pilot opened fire at the Kabul airport. A U.S. civilian contractor was also fatally wounded in the shooting, a so-called green-on-blue attack carried out by a colonel in the Afghan military who was being trained by American forces.
Ransom, a 2001 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, was 31 at the time. He was a cyberspace airman assigned to the 83rd Network Operations Squadron at Langley Air Force Base, and he was deployed to Afghanistan to support Operation Enduring Freedom, the Air Force said.
In late 2013, American Legion Post 186 in Midlothian named its Otterdale Road post after Ransom, who was a member there.
Willie Ransom, the airman’s father, said the post’s gesture and Friday’s ceremony renaming the street say a lot about his son.
“I think it shows a lot about his character,” Ransom, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam, said before the ceremony. “He was a super person.”
Ransom told those gathered for the sign unveiling that he was proud of his son, whom he called a “well-rounded” and “trustworthy” person who kept his grades up while working part-time jobs and doing extracurricular activities. Ransom said his son, an active member at First Baptist Church of Midlothian, also volunteered at Johnston-Willis Hospital.
Randall Lofland, the commander of the Midlothian American Legion Post, said Charles Ransom was the first member of the post to be killed in action. The post was chartered in 1937.
“What happened to him is devastating to a lot of folks,” Lofland said shortly before Friday’s ceremony. “Charles was family to us.”
News reports around the time of the attack said the Afghan pilot was distressed over his personal finances and had argued with his American allies before the shooting. The Afghan pilot was also killed during the attack.
Javaid Siddiqi, the vice chairman of the Chesterfield School Board, told those gathered for Friday’s ceremony that during the attack, Ransom sacrificed his own life in defense of his fellow service members.
“I did not have the privilege of knowing Major Ransom, but I do know his reputation. It is one of fierce loyalty, of service to others, leading by example,” Siddiqi said. “Major Ransom was and is a true American hero and one that will be remembered each and every day by those who travel this road.”
In Nation & World | Pompeo subpoenaed in Democrats’ first impeachment moves | Page B1
A Metro & State
B Nation & World
TV / History C8
Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard said state Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, made “blatantly false accusations and lies” about him this week by accusing him of supporting so-called sanctuary cities.
Leonard is a Republican up for re-election this fall along with Chase and other members of the Virginia General Assembly. He and Chase were already on icy terms following an altercation Chase had with a Capitol Police officer earlier this year.
On Thursday, Chase on Facebook invoked a phrase that ignites conservatives, claiming that Leonard “supports sanctuary cities” and had turned Chesterfield into one “within months” of taking office in 2014.
No locality in Virginia has claimed to be a “sanctuary city.”
People commenting on Chase’s page said they were disgusted and disturbed to learn what she posted about Leonard. One person posted that he wondered how Leonard was able to keep it under the radar.
Leonard’s response: Because it isn’t true.
“We’re not a sanctuary city, never have been,” he said in an interview Friday afternoon. “The data, the facts support that we’re not.”
While there is no concrete definition of the term, “sanctuary city” is sometimes used to describe a locality that limits cooperation with federal immigration enforcement activities.
In an interview Friday, Chase cited the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that calls for low levels of immigration. On its website, the group lists Chesterfield on a national map of “sanctuary cities.”
“I have known this for many years but I didn’t have confirmation of it until several of his former deputies came to me and said that he actually does release people who are here illegally who have committed crimes — he does release them into the streets of Chesterfield.”
Leonard posted on his website Friday that Chesterfield has “one of the best relationships with ICE in Virginia.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement pays the Chesterfield Sheriff’s Office “for the bed space for holding illegal immigrants in our jail,” Leonard wrote. “So you see Senator Chase, the FACT of the matter is we have done more with ICE since I became Sheriff.”
In the interview, Leonard said his office notifies ICE when an immigrant comes into the jail, notifies ICE again about 30 days before the end of sentence, again the day before release, and a fourth time on the day of release.
If ICE doesn’t pick up the person and there is no detainer, Leonard said, it would be illegal for him to continue holding the person in jail.
“We do work with ICE,” he said, “but they don’t always pick people up.”
He said a lot of people reached out to him about Chase’s post, “and I’ve simply been explaining it and they seem to be OK with the explanation.”
Chase said: “Some of his policies remind me of some of my colleagues in the Senate who are Democrats.”
Leonard and Chase clashed earlier this year after Chase, according to a Capitol Police report, cursed at a police officer outside the Capitol who would not allow Chase to park in an area where she wasn’t authorized.
After Chase posed for a photo with Chesterfield deputies, Leonard made a post on Facebook to make clear he stood with law enforcement and wasn’t endorsing Chase.
Chase, first elected in 2015, faces Democrat Amanda Pohl on Nov. 5. Leonard faces independent candidate Rahn Kersey.
Tara Carroll, chairman of the Chesterfield County Republican Committee, did not immediately return a call on Friday about the posts by Chase and Leonard.
The Richmond woman in her early 20s was in a tough spot financially, her attorney said, so in an effort to make ends meet, she stole some clothes and other personal items valued at about $300 from a Walmart in Chesterfield County. She was caught. It was her second strike for theft, and she faced a possible prison term.
But because of a change in state law, the woman’s legal failings didn’t result in a felony conviction. Instead of prison, she was sentenced to serve two months in a local jail and allowed to serve the time on weekends and on her days off — making it possible to keep her job.
It would have been a different story over a year ago.
The General Assembly in early 2018 passed bipartisan legislation that raised the monetary threshold for felony theft from $200 to $500 — the first time that standard was raised in nearly four decades.
“Under the old law, it was more likely than not that she would have been prosecuted for the felony and convicted of it,” said defense attorney Greg Sheldon, who agreed to discuss his client’s case but did not want her name published. “She would have faced up to 20 years of incarceration, supervised probation and the stigma of a felony conviction, including the loss of her civil rights.”
“The change in law was significant for her because she was able to avoid the lifelong impact of a felony conviction,” added Sheldon, who has defended about a dozen clients on theft charges since the felony threshold standard was changed. “She wasn’t proud of [what she did]; she just felt like it was the only option.”
The woman’s case illustrates how the law has reduced dramatically the number of Virginians charged with grand larceny since the measure went into effect on July 1, 2018, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch analysis of state court data.
The number of felony theft cases that originated in general district courts across Virginia fell by 33% — from 12,348 charges in the fiscal year before the law took effect, to 8,300 during its first full year, according to data provided by the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Virginia Supreme Court. The figures represent the number of charges filed, not people arrested, since an individual defendant could be charged with multiple counts of theft.
Most felony crimes originate with a warrant in general district court, but some defendants are charged in a direct indictment in circuit court, and those cases were not obtained for the analysis.
The law is having the effect that state legislators who sought the change had hoped for: Far fewer Virginians accused of committing relatively minor thefts are being charged with felonies.
“It’s fair to say that that was exactly what we wanted to have happen, and I’m glad that’s happening,” said state Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, who had been trying since 2003 to have the threshold changed from the $200 standard last set in 1980. “The whole idea was to make sure that minor crimes were not charged as felonies, and I think that’s the case.”
The 33% plunge in felony theft cases statewide is “not a huge surprise to me,” he added. “It would make sense that when you change the eligibility criteria, that you have fewer events qualify — so that’s roughly what I expected.”
Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said he believed the felony threshold was long overdue for an adjustment.
“Before this bill the last increase was in the early 1980s, [and $200] would have been reasonable to be a felony then,” he said. “But the dollar amount was no longer reasonable, and inflation over time had made it so.”
“Whenever there are laws based on specific dollar amounts, you need to evaluate those from time to time to see if they make sense,” Suetterlein added. “And I thought that the felony threshold should have been increased more than 10 years before it was.”
The U.S. Consumer Price Index for inflation shows that $200 in 1980 was equivalent in purchasing power to $622 today, although the figure can vary greatly by state or region of the country.
The plunge in felony theft cases statewide has resulted in a corresponding rise in misdemeanor theft charges. Those rose 37%, from 10,486 cases in fiscal 2018 to 14,394 in fiscal 2019, according to an analysis of state court data.
In the Richmond region, the percentage decline in felony theft cases filed dropped 35% — above the state average — from 2,097 cases in fiscal 2018 to 1,366 in fiscal 2019.
Hanover County experienced the biggest drop, at 46%, followed by Henrico County at 44%. Chesterfield saw a 38% decrease, while Richmond saw its numbers decline 32%.
The new law may also help defendants make decisions they believe better suit their circumstances.
“I’ve had clients take deals for misdemeanors out of fear that they would be convicted of a felony, despite maintaining their innocence,” Sheldon noted. “The risk becomes lower when they aren’t facing the possibility of a felony conviction they may not be able to rebound from.”
As an attorney, Petersen said he and other members of the Fairfax Bar Association saw firsthand in the courtroom the negative consequences of a law that badly needed to be revised.
“This is a bill that I had carried year after year after year,” Petersen said. “Quite frankly, if I had my druthers, I would like to see the threshold be $1,000 — just to accommodate a number of things, starting with the cost of inflation.”
Aside from what Petersen regards as a basic unfairness in saddling a petty thief with a felony record, charging a person with a felony is “obviously costly to the state,” he said.
“You have to appoint a public defender, and if you convict you have to incarcerate them in a state prison,” he said. “A felony, of course, is like a permanent record.”
Suetterlein said critics who think the state is going soft on thieves should note that the penalty for misdemeanor theft is not negligible: A defendant faces up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine if the maximum punishment is imposed.
“That is significant,” he said. “A year in jail is certainly not just a slap on the wrist, and they can be fined more than five times the value of what they stole.”
Before sponsoring the legislation, Suetterlein said, he spoke with a number of people in law enforcement and prosecutors’ offices. And while he said there was no unanimity of opinion, “I heard from a lot of folks that thought this was the right thing to do, and they encouraged me to work to make it happen.”
Critics of raising the threshold have warned that the higher monetary standards for a felony conviction might embolden offenders and cause property crime to rise, particularly larceny.
However, the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit research and public policy organization, examined crime trends in 30 states that raised their felony theft standards between 2000 and 2012, and found no impact on overall property crime or larceny rates, according to a study the organization published in April 2017.
And changes in state felony thresholds have not interrupted the long nationwide decline in property crime and larceny rates that began in the early 1990s, the study concluded.
When comparing the 30 states that raised their felony theft thresholds between 2000 and 2012 with the 20 that did not, property crime and larceny rates fell slightly more in the latter group, although the differences were not statistically significant, the researchers found.
Property crime rates over that period fell by 36% in states that changed the threshold, compared with 40% in states that did not. Likewise, larceny rates in states that changed the threshold fell 34%, compared with 35% in states that did not.
At least 40 states have raised their felony thresholds since 2000, including nine that did it twice, the Pew researchers determined.
Of the 40 states that raised their thresholds once or more, 13 increased it to $1,000, and 14 states raised the threshold to an amount from $1,200 to $2,500. Four states, including Virginia, raised it to $500, and six raised it to an amount from $650 to $950.
Virginia is one of only six states in the country with a threshold of $500 or less.
Petersen said he may introduce legislation to raise Virginia’s threshold again, to $1,000, “depending on whether my political party is in control” after this year’s state election.
“I might give this a couple of years or two, but eventually we should get to a thousand — that’s where most states are,” he said.
Sheldon said he can’t imagine that many law-abiding residents are overly sympathetic to defendants accused of theft and who are benefiting from this change in the law. But the law, the attorney said, “doesn’t take into account the motivation behind the theft, which most commonly is severe financial distress or drug addiction.”
“Obviously, these aren’t excuses or defenses,” Sheldon added. “They are explanations. The change in the law is resulting in less felony prosecutions for theft and hopefully, eventually less felons. The stigma of a felony conviction cannot be overstated.”