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Monument Avenue residents withdraw federal suit supporting Lee statue, want case consolidated locally

Ahead of a hearing Thursday in Richmond Circuit Court that could decide the future of Richmond’s most prominent Confederate symbol, six Monument Avenue residents who filed a separate suit against Gov. Ralph Northam’s bid to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee have withdrawn their suit in federal court.

The residents are asking that their lawsuit be consolidated with the case in Richmond Circuit Court that’s already led to a temporary injunction barring the state from removing the Lee statue. A Richmond judge’s 10-day injunction expires Thursday.

The legal maneuvering occurred as state workers stationed concrete barriers around the statue of the Confederate general, with state crews preparing for its possible removal.

The future of the 130-year-old monument is at the heart of a fight that has played out in Richmond’s streets and its courts in the weeks since George Floyd was killed in the custody of Minneapolis police. Demonstrations have spotlighted long-standing inequities and incidents of police brutality as well as Richmond’s conspicuous Confederate tributes.

The Monument Avenue residents’ lawsuit was filed Monday in Richmond Circuit Court but Attorney General Mark Herring moved it to federal court. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Patrick McSweeney, said Wednesday that it doesn’t belong there, prompting a voluntary withdrawal and a request to have it considered in Richmond Circuit Court.

“We have not asked to prohibit the removal” of the statue “based on federal law,” McSweeney said. “So there’s no reason for it to be in federal court. It’s a state issue. It should be decided in a state court.”

In response to the filing, Charlotte Gomer, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Mark Herring, said of the Lee statue: “This is a symbol that needs to come down and [Herring] will continue to work to make that happen.”

Herring had the Monument Avenue residents’ case moved to federal court Monday, saying the lawsuit’s arguments, specifically that removing the statue is in conflict with federal law as it relates to National Historic Landmarks, warrants it being heard in federal court rather than Richmond Circuit Court.

The residents, only one of whom, Helen Marie Taylor, is named, argue that removing the Lee statue and others along Monument Avenue, which members of the Richmond City Council say they plan to take down, would hurt property values and endanger tax benefits for living within a historic district.

When Northam ordered June 4 that the Lee statue be taken down, he directed the Department of General Services to do so “as soon as possible.” Before the agency could remove it, Richmond Judge Bradley B. Cavedo issued a 10-day injunction that lifts Thursday, when a hearing is scheduled in circuit court.

That lawsuit, filed by William Gregory, the great-grandson of two signatories of the original 1890 deed that gave Virginia control of the statue and the land around it, claims that under the terms of the agreement, the state is supposed to consider the monument and the area around it “perpetually sacred” and “faithfully guard it and affectionately protect it.”

In a letter to Herring dated Tuesday, Gregory’s lawyers proposed that Virginia hold a statewide referendum posing the question of whether or not the Lee statue should be removed. If a majority of people voted that it should be taken down, then the lawsuit would be withdrawn. If not, the statue would stay.

The offer, according to the letter, expires if it’s not accepted before Thursday’s hearing. Gomer called it a “nonstarter.”

“This random person who came out of nowhere doesn’t get to dictate what the commonwealth does with its own statue,” she said. “The statue needs to come down and AG Herring will continue to work to make that happen.”

Concrete barriers

In preparation for the statue’s removal, the Department of General Services installed concrete barriers around it on Wednesday. The agency said in a news release Wednesday morning that it’s still working on the plan for the statue’s removal.

DGS said it will continue to work on its removal plan “while we await the outcome of litigation.”

“DGS appreciates Virginians’ patience as we work to carry out the governor’s direction to remove the statue,” the agency said in the news release.

DGS said the roughly 3-foot barriers are temporary and “are intended to protect the safety of everyone speaking out to make their voices heard, as well as the structure itself.” Gaps in the barriers allow people to access the land around the statue, which has become the epicenter of the city’s activism since the killing of Floyd late last month, prompting nationwide calls to end police brutality and racial injustice.

Graffiti has been spray-painted on nearly every inch of the statue’s 40-foot pedestal. While protesters have torn down three Confederate statues and one of Christopher Columbus, the Lee statue is the tallest and heaviest (roughly 12 tons) in the city.

Protesters tag Stoney's apartment building with graffiti and enter lobby yelling obscenities

A crowd of 200 or more protesters on Tuesday night gathered outside Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s downtown apartment building and tagged the building with graffiti, and some of the demonstrators briefly entered the building’s lobby, the police said Wednesday.

Members of the crowd were demanding to speak to Stoney and yelling obscenities, and at least three men in the crowd were armed with rifles as they stood outside on Broad Street. No one was seen with a gun inside the building, according to a statement from property management.

The incident unfolded about 9:30 p.m., roughly 90 minutes before demonstrators tore down a Confederate statue adjacent to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Monroe Park campus.

At Stoney’s apartment building, the demonstrators “chanted about the mayor and tagged the building with graffiti,” a police statement said. “A group of about 20 of them briefly entered the building’s lobby before being removed by private security.”

A resident of the building who saw the protesters in the lobby said in an interview on Wednesday that the demonstrators “were all screaming, calling for Stoney to come down” and yelling obscenities including, “F--- Stoney.”

The building was tagged with messages including, “We just wanna talk Stoney; come on out,” along with the phrases “Our streets,” “Who do you serve?” and “Who do you protect?”

A spokesman for the mayor released the following statement: “Entering anyone’s residence without permission is irresponsible and uncalled for, and more importantly only undermines the cause of Black Lives Matter.”

In a note to residents posted inside the building, its management said that no one who entered the lobby accessed any of the apartments. “No weapons were noticed, and the group did agree to leave the building peacefully,” the note said.

“In an abundance of caution, we are seeking additional courtesy officer coverage for the building beginning this evening and will also restrict guest access only to the hotel entry,” the message continued. “Residents are asked to utilize their fob and not to grant any random access to the building.”

On Wednesday evening, two men were checking the locks on the front doors to make sure they were secure.

Shortly after 11 p.m. on Tuesday, the statue that stood on the Richmond Howitzers Monument, erected in 1892 to commemorate a Civil War artillery unit, was toppled from its pedestal by protesters using rope. The monument is at the intersection of Harrison Street and Grove Avenue.

It was the third Confederate statue and fourth statue overall taken down during protests in recent weeks. The other statues torn down were Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue, Confederate Gen. Williams Carter Wickham in Monroe Park, and Christopher Columbus in Byrd Park.

PHOTOS: Graffiti on Miller & Rhoads building

Student-led conferences and the Socratic method: Eighth-grade English teacher named Hopewell's Teacher of the Year

In Megan Babb’s eighth-grade English class at Carter G. Woodson Middle School this year, students ran robust discussions about literature nearly independently.

At first, they shied away from the open-ended Socratic style Babb deployed. But over time, they found their voices. That’s when the magic happened.

“I set the timer and sit back,” she says. “It’s great to watch them be able to respectfully agree and tactfully disagree.”

Among the questions: Was Lizzie Borden, a real-life figure who became a folk character after she was tried and acquitted for the ax murder of her father and stepmother, truly innocent?

Just before school was closed for the rest of the year due to COVID-19, they drew from Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death” as a jumping-off point to ask larger questions about pandemics.

“I will admit, we took kind of a dark turn in English this year,” Babb says, adding that the kids got “particularly heated” when studying spooky stories.

It’s that spirit of engagement — meeting children (and her peers) where they are and bringing out their best — that garnered Babb the Hopewell City Public Schools award for Teacher of the Year.

The success of the system, which in recent years has seen all five of its schools meet the state’s standards for accreditation (one with conditions), depends on educators like Babb, who make teaching about more than instruction, said Superintendent Melody Hackney.

“It’s our goal every day, every class period, every interaction, to create magical experiences,” Hackney said, adding: “We stole that from Disney.”

The division celebrated Babb on Wednesday, surprising her at her Midlothian home with flowers, balloons and a congratulatory banner. Along with Hackney, Principal Shannon Royster, Assistant Principal Jeff Boarman and several of Babb’s fellow department lead teachers showed up to celebrate her achievement.

Officials said her influence in a year disrupted by the pandemic extended well beyond the classroom. As the English department’s lead teacher she led an initiative to replace parent-teacher conferences with student-led conferences across all English classes.

During student-led conferences, students present their parents with some of the work that they have completed during the semester — assignments they’re proud of and ones they struggled with. They spend the whole school year accumulating materials for their portfolio, and in the week prior to the conference, teachers help them organize those materials and prepare a script to read to their parents.

This gives students autonomy over discussions about their progress, and it teaches them how to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, officials said.

“It’s really opened up a lot of conversations” between parents and students, Babb said. “The parents will start asking, ‘Well, why didn’t you do well? Is this something I can help you with?’”

Principal Royster said Woodson had hoped to expand student-led conferences to the rest of the school’s departments this year, but sorting out the details of the school’s reopening may affect their ability to do so as planned.

Assistant Principal Boarman said Babb is not only an exceptional teacher for her students, but also for her colleagues. After some fellow teachers took an interest in conducting Socratic seminars in their classes, Babb showed them the ropes, provided materials and answered their questions.

“She a great teacher of teachers,” Boarman says. “She’s no-nonsense. She just gets in there and gets it done [with] not a lot of fluff. … She’s a teacher, so she understands how time is valuable.”

Over the course of the pandemic, Babb has kept in contact with her students via daily virtual class meetings and frequent email communications. Still, she’s excited to return to in-person learning, and to a new year of encouraging students’ love of reading and books.

“Being in the classroom, we just have so much fun,” she says. “I really do miss them.”

The school system this week announced classes will resume Aug. 10.

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WATCH NOW: Arthur Ashe statue vandalized with 'White Lives Matter' graffiti

The lone tribute to a black man on Monument Avenue was vandalized Wednesday morning with “White Lives Matter” graffiti, amplifying concerns about racism and injustice in a city rocked by weeks of unrest.

It was a struggle to land the statue of Arthur Ashe, a civil rights activist and tennis icon, on the city promenade best known for its towering monuments to the Confederacy when it was erected 24 years ago.

His nephew, David Harris Jr., who successfully helped rename the city’s Boulevard for Ashe last year, said Wednesday that he was not surprised to hear his uncle’s statue had been targeted.

“There are people who have an agenda,” he said. “Some of them are still settling on hate and discord because they see the system changing before them, and they’re lacking influence and control over it.”

The tagging of the Ashe statue on Wednesday follows the removal and defacing of other city monuments in recent weeks — mostly tributes to the Confederacy — by people protesting racial injustice and police brutality. Woven into those collective actions is a belief that property matters less than human rights.

A white man wearing a blue shirt whom a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter observed spraying ‘White Lives Matter’ across the already-defaced base of the Ashe statue around 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday described feelings of frustration.

Red counter-graffiti reading “BLM,” shorthand for “Black Lives Matter” — a movement opposing police violence — already covered the existing “WLM” tags.

“Don’t all lives matter?” he said, when asked why he spray-painted the Ashe statue. “I’m not a racist. I just don’t agree with people desecrating property.”

The man gave his name as “Everybody,” and said he is a graduate of the Benedictine College Preparatory School who lives in the Richmond area and South Carolina.

Since the start of nightly protests three weeks ago, Confederate statues have been covered in spray paint and by visual projections with Black Lives Matter and anti-police messages. Gov. Ralph Northam and Mayor Levar Stoney have also initiated plans to remove the remaining Confederate statues on Monument Avenue.

On Tuesday, protesters pulled down the Richmond Howitzers Monument, erected in 1892 to commemorate a Confederate artillery unit. The monument is at the intersection of Harrison Street and Grove Avenue, adjacent to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Monroe Park campus. Authorities moved it to a safe location later in the morning, according to a police news release.

It was the third Confederate statue and fourth statue overall taken down during protests in recent weeks. The other statues torn down were of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue, Confederate Gen. Williams Carter Wickham in Monroe Park, and Christopher Columbus in Byrd Park.

A Richmond native who also was renowned as an author and humanitarian activist, Ashe won the 1968 U.S. Open and 1970 Australian Open in addition to his Wimbledon title in 1975. He died in 1993 at the age of 49.

Chuck Richardson, a former member of the Richmond City Council who advocated for the erection of the Ashe statue following his death, said there was strong opposition to placing the statue on Monument Avenue at the time, with some in the community suggesting that it should instead be placed near the Byrd Park tennis courts where Ashe was barred from playing as a kid because he was black.

Richardson said Wednesday that he is worried that those opposed to the removal of Confederate monuments are seeking retribution by defacing the Ashe statue.

He said those concerned with the removal of Confederate statues should think critically of their legacy, and whether society should continue to honor men who fought to maintain racial slavery.

“Since we’ve grown and changed, we should embrace the removal of ill-conceived statues,” he said. “The statues are totally different. [The Confederate statues] support evil. The [Ashe statue] opposes it and promotes decency, respect, integrity and [unity].”

Two women who live nearby arrived about 11:40 a.m. to scrub the paint off the Ashe monument. The man returned to help remove the spray paint, but left within a few minutes after he was approached by reporters and bystanders.

As he left, the man said: “Everybody that’s paid to live here, they’re tired of seeing this bulls---.” He did not clarify whether he meant the Ashe statue, graffiti on city monuments or the ongoing protests.

Several witnesses said they were perturbed by his actions.

“This is not about white lives. This is about who has been harmed most,” said Betsy Milburn, one of the people who saw the man vandalizing the statue. “It’s been black lives who have been significantly hurt by what Monument Avenue represents: systemic racism that existed before and after the Civil War.”

Louise Lockett Gordon, one of the two women who came to clean the statue after a friend texted a picture of it, said the tagging of the Ashe statue is a provocation because of his activism against apartheid in South Africa and his contrast with the other statues on Monument Avenue.

“He’s a pillar of civil rights,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming for those other statues to come down.”

Coverage inside

Day 19

Protesters march through Forest Hill on South Side. Page A3

Statuary Hall

Pelosi wants to replace Lee statue at U.S. Capitol. Page A4

‘Justice Act’

Senate GOP gives proposals for new police procedures. Page A10

Officer charged with murder for shooting Rayshard Brooks

ATLANTA — Prosecutors brought murder charges Wednesday against the white Atlanta police officer who shot Rayshard Brooks in the back, saying that Brooks was not a deadly threat and that the officer kicked the wounded black man and offered no medical treatment for over 2 minutes as he lay dying on the ground.

Brooks was holding a stun gun he had snatched from officers but was running away and was 18 feet, 3 inches from officer Garrett Rolfe when Rolfe opened fire, District Attorney Paul Howard said in announcing the charges five days after the killing outside a Wendy’s restaurant rocked a city — and a nation — already roiled by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis late last month.

“I got him!” the district attorney quoted Rolfe as saying.

The felony murder charge against Rolfe, 27, carries life in prison or the death penalty, if prosecutors choose to seek it. He was also charged with 10 other offenses punishable by decades behind bars.

“We’ve concluded at the time that Mr. Brooks was shot that he did not pose an immediate threat of death,” Howard said.

A second officer with Rolfe, Devin Brosnan, 26, stood on a wounded Brooks’ shoulder as he struggled for his life, Howard said. Brosnan was charged with aggravated assault and other offenses.

The district attorney said Brosnan is cooperating with prosecutors and will testify, saying it was the first time in 40 such cases in which an officer had come forward to do so. But an attorney for Brosnan emphatically denied he had agreed to be a prosecution witness and said he was not pleading guilty to anything.

A lawyer for Brooks’ widow cautioned that the charges were no reason to rejoice.

“We shouldn’t have to celebrate as African Americans when we get a piece of justice like today. We shouldn’t have to celebrate and parade when an officer is held accountable,” said attorney L. Chris Stewart.

Brooks’ widow, Tomika Miller, said it was painful to hear the new details of what happened to her husband in his final minutes.

“I felt everything that he felt, just by hearing what he went through, and it hurt. It hurt really bad,” she said.

Rolfe was fired after the shooting Friday night, while Brosnan was placed on desk duty.

The killing sparked new demonstrations in Georgia’s capital against police brutality, after occasionally turbulent protests over Floyd’s death had largely simmered down. Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields resigned less than 24 hours after Brooks died, and the Wendy’s restaurant was burned.

Ahead of the district attorney’s announcement, Rolfe’s lawyers issued a statement saying the officer feared for his safety and that of others around him and was justified in shooting Brooks. Rolfe opened fire after hearing a sound “like a gunshot and saw a flash in front of him,” apparently from the Taser.

“Mr. Brooks violently attacked two officers and disarmed one of them. When Mr. Brooks turned and pointed an object at Officer Rolfe, any officer would have reasonably believed that he intended to disarm, disable, or seriously injure him,” the lawyers said.

But the district attorney said the Taser that Brooks held had already been fired twice and was thus empty and no longer a threat.

Brosnan’s lawyer, Amanda Clark Palmer, said the charges against him were baseless. She said Brosnan stood on the wounded man’s hand, not his shoulder, for a short period of time — seconds — to make sure Brooks did not have a weapon.

About 50 demonstrators were gathered in the parking lot of the restaurant — now a burned shell with “RIP” and “Rayshard” spray-painted on it — as the charges were announced. The news prompted a few raised fists.

Police had been called to the restaurant over complaints of a car blocking the drive-thru lane. An officer found Brooks asleep behind the wheel of the car, and a breath test showed he was intoxicated.

Police body camera video showed Brooks and officers having a relatively calm and respectful conversation — “almost jovial,” according to the district attorney — for more than 40 minutes before things rapidly turned violent when officers tried to handcuff him. Brooks wrestled with officers, snatched one of their stun guns and pointed it at one of them as he ran through the parking lot.

An autopsy found that he was shot twice in the back. One shot pierced his heart, the district attorney said. At least one shot went into a vehicle that was in line at the Wendy’s drive-thru.

After Brooks was shot, he was given no medical attention for over 2 minutes, despite Atlanta Police Department policy that says officers must offer timely help, Howard said.

The district attorney said Rolfe and Brosnan were given until 6 p.m. Thursday to surrender. He said he would request $50,000 bond for Brosnan and would ask that Rolfe be held without bail.

The charges reflect a potential “sea change” in tolerance for violence by police, said Caren Morrison, a Georgia State University law professor who used to be a federal prosecutor.

Morrison said the view until now has generally been that officers are justified in using deadly force in a case such as this one in which the suspect had a Taser or other weapon that could cause “grievous bodily harm.”

In the Minneapolis case, Derek Chauvin, the officer who put his knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes as he pleaded he couldn’t breathe, has been charged with murder. Three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting.