Growing demonstrations against racism and police brutality in Richmond have unfolded beneath the country’s most iconic Confederate monuments.
Protesters decrying white supremacy have chanted for city leaders to tear them down.
Gov. Ralph Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney heeded their calls Wednesday.
Northam is poised to announce on Thursday plans to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Monument Avenue. Stoney said he wants four other famous statues honoring the Confederacy removed from the strip in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests that already have left an indelible mark on a changing city.
The news came on the sixth day of local demonstrations over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man. The death has spurred nationwide protests over police violence targeting African Americans.
Locally, it also has reignited the push to remove Confederate iconography.
“I appreciate the recommendations of the Monument Avenue Commission — those were the appropriate recommendations at the time,” Stoney said in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, referencing a city panel that previously called for contextualizing most of the statues in place.
“But times have changed, and removing these statues will allow the healing process to begin for so many Black Richmonders and Virginians. Richmond is no longer the Capital of the Confederacy — it is filled with diversity and love for all — and we need to demonstrate that.”
Shortly after Stoney made the announcement, news broke that Gov. Ralph Northam would detail plans Thursday to remove the Robert E. Lee monument, which the state owns. Earlier this week, Northam said he would “follow the lead of the City Council and ... the people that live in Richmond.”
Northam will order the removal of the statue from its stone pedestal. The statue will be removed and stored while the administration makes a decision about its ultimate fate, with public input.
Protesters Wednesday night cheered news of the Lee monument’s impending removal.
Removing the four locally controlled statues will require approval from the Richmond City Council. Stoney’s ordinance said he and Councilman Michael Jones, a leading critic of the statues locally, will bring forward an ordinance to do that July 1.
A law set to take effect that day empowers local governments to take down Confederate monuments. Five stand on Monument Avenue. They depict Confederate Gens. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson; Confederate naval commander Matthew Fontaine Maury; and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
State law requires localities to publish notice of their intent in a newspaper and hold a public hearing. It also permits localities to hold a nonbinding referendum regarding the monuments.
If the City Council votes to remove, relocate, contextualize, or cover the monuments, it must have a 30-day waiting period in which it offers to relocate the memorials to any museum, historical society or military battlefield, among others.
Richmond’s council twice voted against requesting control of the statues from the state. It changed course earlier this year, after Democrats took control of the Virginia General Assembly.
Several council members said at the time they wanted to follow guidance from the city’s Monument Avenue Commission. The panel recommended removing the Davis monument and various ways to “contextualize” the others.
While some on the council have signaled they are open to altering the statues, removal is a different question.
Monument Avenue is a National Historic Landmark. Residents have cited the designation to push back against efforts to alter the famous street or its towering monuments.
Councilwoman Kimberly Gray, a candidate for mayor who represents the area, has said in the past that she does not support spending tax dollars to remove the statues. She opposed two attempts to request control of the statues from the state. She did not return a request for comment Wednesday.
At the Lee monument Wednesday afternoon, Jones looked on as hundreds gathered there before marching through downtown. Jones has called the statues symbols of white supremacy and a source of pain for African Americans. He faced death threats for leading the push to request local control of them.
The events of the last week have made clear that the council must act, he said.
“We need to put pressure on the others on council to listen to this generation of people,” he said in an interview Wednesday.
Two nights earlier, police fired tear gas on hundreds of protesters gathered peacefully at the Lee monument. Many stood with their hands raised above their heads. Police initially defended the show of force with a publicly issued lie.
Demonstrators and journalists circulated videos on social media contradicting the initial police account, prompting condemnation from leaders and a later apology.
Stoney and Police Chief Will Smith issued a public apology the next day and endured a tongue-lashing from angry residents and activists, who called for the firings of Smith, as well as the officers who launched the gas and targeted protesters with pepper spray.
Kaya Lee, 18, was standing with demonstrators when police fired the gas.
She returned Wednesday in cap and gown on what was her graduation day from Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School. Holding a sign that read “I can’t breathe” she posed for a photo with her mother, Mavis.
The statues should come down, but the graffiti should remain as a reminder of the demonstrations, Kaya Lee said.
Many messages written in paint on the monuments’ use profanity to criticize the police. Alongside them, others espouse hope.
“This is for Marcus,” read one, a reference to Marcus-David Peters, the black school teacher shot and killed by Richmond Police in 2018.
“I am not my ancestors,” another proclaimed.
“Gods people shall rise.”
Richmond’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities is responsible for maintaining the city-controlled statues. A spokeswoman said the department had no timeline for cleaning graffiti off them and did not know how much it would cost.
Chris Morrison, a 38-year-old Hanover County resident, brought a bucket of water, dish soap and brushes to try scrubbing the graffiti from the Lee monument Wednesday.
He said he didn’t want the profanities to remain plainly visible. Some demonstrators heckled him, but most ignored him, he said.
Morrison said he believed the monuments should remain.
“You learn from history, and they should not be removed,” he said. “If you erase history, history can repeat itself.”
After trying for a while, he couldn’t scrub the graffiti from the pedestal. Instead, he found some chalk and began blotting out what messages he could. After a few hours, he decided to leave as demonstrators began gathering for another march.
Not long after Morrison gave up, Timesha Harris sat on the other side of the monument holding pink chalk. She drew an infinity symbol.
Asked what it represented to her, she said: “That this isn’t going to stop until the government cares about us.”
It was the first time the 19-year-old Prince George County resident had seen the monument.
In its current state, she said, it reminded her of the Berlin Wall.
As Richmond marked its sixth day of demonstrations against police brutality that has roiled the nation, protests expanded into the city’s suburbs on Wednesday with marches, chants and prayers.
The names of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd rang out on Iron Bridge Road in Chesterfield County. Protesters from the Short Pump area shouted “Black Lives Matter” as they wound their way into the city limits. In Ashland, roughly 200 people knelt for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck nine days earlier.
Demonstrators, many of whom were white, pointed to the slaying of Arbery in February while he was out jogging and Floyd’s and Taylor’s deaths at the hands of police as proof that systems in place that disadvantage people of color should be reformed. Police leaders engaged with protesters across the region, condemning the recent slayings and pledging to engage in introspection about their own practices and policies.
The hope of change brought Lewis Yancey to a muggy parking lot near GNC in Willow Lawn, where he was supporting his daughter, Shannon Yancey, a 2019 Mills Godwin High School graduate.
They had made a sign that read “Black Lives Matter” and initially showed up to Short Pump Town Center, where protest organizers planned to begin a march. A change of plans led to a shorter rally, but that didn’t stop the father and daughter.
Shannon Yancey had already protested Floyd’s killing once this week.
“They’re standing up for the right thing,” her father said.
As the afternoon wore on, the crowd, which at first largely consisted of students from Godwin and Short Pump area residents, grew to more than 100 people. Chanting “I Can’t Breathe,” they made their way to the Robert E. Lee monument, the epicenter of the city’s activism since Floyd’s death.
To keep cool on what was the hottest day so far this year, marchers stopped for water breaks throughout the 3.1-mile walk — roughly a fifth of what it would have been had they walked from Short Pump.
Unmarked police vehicles followed protesters along Broad Street, but officers did not exit their cars. In the early stages of the departure from Willow Lawn, several Richmond police officers raised their fists in solidarity.
Drivers honked car horns and workers along Broad Street came out of buildings to clap and show their support as the line passed. They arrived just before 2:30 p.m. to applause at the Lee monument, where nearly 1,000 protesters already had gathered.
Around 4 p.m., protesters in Ashland who fell silent to commemorate Floyd marched a half-mile from the town hall to the police station, escorted by town police and clergy.
At the police station, the demonstrators chanted, “These Racists Have Got to Go,” “No Justice, No Peace,” and “We’re All God’s Children.”
Several of the event’s organizers and a clergy member said they wanted the Hanover County area to show solidarity with Richmond.
“I believe this town has some shelteredness to it because we’re secluded from the city,” said the Rev. Randell Williams, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Ashland. “The desire is to help us become a society where we are all equal.”
Samantha Whitlock, a 20-year-old graduate of Patrick Henry High School who lives in Mechanicsville, organized the march, saying she said she wanted Ashland and Hanover residents to have an outlet.
“People here wanted to participate in the same kind of things they’re seeing in Richmond without having to go into the city and potentially risk getting hurt,” Whitlock said.
Some of the people who participated in the march thanked Police Chief Doug Goodman for participating, presenting him flowers and a handmade sign. Goodman told the group he understands why the protests are happening.
“What happened to Mr. George Floyd is not right,” he said. “In 27 years of policing I’ve never been trained to put my knee on someone’s neck.”
He added: “What I want you to know … we will continue to work on all these issues that are being brought up.”
In Chesterfield, minutes before protesters began a 6 p.m. march to the county courthouse, Police Chief Jeffrey Katz condemned the actions that led to Floyd’s death and said he understands the outrage and fear that people across the country felt while watching the video of Floyd in distress and dying.
“I don’t know a law enforcement officer that I have spoke with who has anything but complete contempt for the video that we saw,” said Katz, who was joined by Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard.
Consequently, “we need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to make people feel safe, and recognize that some folks don’t see us as the solution,” the chief said.
“If we’re not serving everyone in this community, we’re failing in our mission,” Katz added. “Our job is to help people feel safe from their fears, and if we’re part of that, we have to own it.”
Katz invited anyone from the community who feels like they haven’t been heard, or don’t feel comfortable when they see uniformed officers, to reach out “so we can sit down and have a hard conversation ... and listen to one another.”
Unfortunately, Katz said, the notion of equal justice that march organizers were promoting — and his department “absolutely” endorses — has been “hijacked by anarchists in many areas of the country. “And I want to make sure we are refocusing on the important message of equal justice.”
Leonard said, “People are frustrated and rightfully so,” and that the march “is an excellent example of using that frustration to be seen, to be heard, to be understood.”
“As important as it is to learn from this, it is more important that we change from this,” he said.
Hundreds of demonstrators marched under the hot sun down Iron Bridge Road chanting “I Can’t Breathe,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “No Justice, No Peace” as Chesterfield police officers slowly drove alongside them. Cars driving by honked in support.
Vanessa Adams, a Chester resident and retired federal prison warden, said she had to march.
“I care about justice. I care about peace. I care that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren when they hear about this, they know that their grandmother walked,” she said. “If we don’t have justice for all, we don’t have it for none.”
Gathered in front of the Chesterfield courthouse, the crowd erupted in Bill Wither’s “Lean On Me.”
“Some people don’t understand what it’s like to be black, even in Chesterfield,” Shedrick McCall, an associate professor at Virginia State University who helped organized the march, told the crowd.
“It’s not our racial differences that divide us, it’s our inability to recognize that our differences can unite us and make us stronger people in Chesterfield County.”
As the closing prayer began, the Rev. Marcus Leggett called for three law enforcement officers from the crowd to form a circle around his 17-year-old son, Joshua.
Two black men and a white woman emerged, joined hands and bowed their heads as Leggett prayed. His son held his hand in a fist above his head as his father spoke.
“We will not be segregated anymore,” said Leggett, a pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Church in Chesterfield.
Joshua Leggett, an incoming senior at Thomas Dale High, said afterward that a feeling of gratitude came over him.
“Being a black man in America, it’s hard to see the police as a force on your side. Having them around me is them doing what they’re supposed to do, to protect and serve.”
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Protesters reunited at the 7-11 on Main Street after departing the monument around 8 p.m., with a congregation smaller than Wednesday afternoon that still numbered in the hundreds. Cars tagged along, sending waves of pulsing rap music to amp up the crowd as they marched through a boarded up Carytown, where multiple businesses displayed “Black Lives Matter” along the wooden panels.
The march ended at Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War statue, which displays a black man in a top knot, sweatshirt and jeans on a horse facing the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
“There he is!” said one person marching.
“I love you,” said another.
Cyclists lined the grass surrounding the building that burned late Saturday night into early Sunday morning to help limit interactions with the four security guards with guns that were circling the Daughters of the Confederacy - its walls still covered with spray painted quotes including “built on our backs” and “abolition.”
Speakers focused on needing unity among all races and fighting for all social justice causes.
Richmond Police Department headquarters continued to be lined with humvees and guarded by soldiers as night turned to morning.
Nearly a thousand people converged at the Robert E. Lee monument Wednesday evening to celebrate after the city’s mayor agreed with protesters that the monuments to Confederate leaders should come down.
History is being made, but the work is not yet done, said Ashley Roye.
“The removal of the statue doesn’t mean anything until we see change,” she said. “A change in behavior, in what’s put back into our communities. This country was built on our backs. We are disparaged.”
Other demonstrators said the city can’t ignore how many black people continue to be imprisoned, and how police brutality predominantly impacts black communities; a statistic Dwight Gaines has become too familiar with. He lost his cousin to police violence in Washington, D.C., a few years ago.
“This is a revolution,” Gaines said. “We need every person in this fight, and whether I know them or not, we’re all affected.”
Even as they celebrated, event organizers and participants reminded the group to expand their activism and continue advocating for social justice causes, citing the importance of protecting black transgender lives and black women. They spoke of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police officers in Louisville, Ky., and Tony McDade, a black trans man who was killed in Tallahassee. No police officers have been charged in either case.
Carlton Webb, an organizer with the Richmond Transparency Accountability Project, said removing the monuments is a step forward but not sufficient.
“This was embedded in this society for one reason: to continue the narrative and to show their control over us. It should have been done 50 years ago,” he said. “A lot of people have given lip service and a lot of politicians do. The only way they do what they say is if we make them. Nothing happens without us at the table.”
As protesters celebrated Wednesday, state Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield and a candidate for governor, started a petition to save the Lee statue. “They must be stopped,” the petition says.
“Northam is giving into looters and domestic terrorists instead of defending the historical monuments owned by all Virginians,” the petition continues.
Two protest onlookers who live on Monument Avenue, Don and Nancy Baker, disagreed. The two have lived in the same house on the street for 35 years, and were shocked to learn of Northam’s plans.
A sign in their yard reads: “Take them down.”
“We’ve been wanting that to happen for years,” said Don Baker, the former Richmond bureau chief for the Washington Post. “It’s not a tribute to these guys. It’s a tribute to slavery and to Jim Crow. They say it’s history, but it’s bad history. It’s nothing to be proud of and it’s not going to hurt the neighborhood once they’re down. They’ll figure out something else to put up.”
Richmond leaders until Wednesday had not committed to a course of action involving the four Confederate monuments that the city soon will have the local authority to control; a power bestowed on localities by a new Democratic majority in the state legislature. The City Council still must approve the measure for action to occur.
The administration of Mayor Levar Stoney introduced an ordinance, in tandem with City Councilman Michael Jones, to remove city-controlled monuments come July 1.
Wednesday night’s protests were organized by members of the 381 Movement. Those in charge declined to identify themselves, but said they want to see change in Richmond. They plan to march and protest for 381 days; the same amount of time as the Montgomery Bus Boycotts organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“This is the beginning, y’all,” an organizer said.
Overlooking a crowd of hundreds from the steps of Richmond City Hall on Tuesday, Mayor Levar Stoney pulled down his face mask and apologized for the city’s police force using tear gas on peaceful protesters the night before. The megaphone he used passed from one speaker to another. The mayor spoke with people from no more than a couple of feet away.
The protests in Richmond since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have packed city streets, with most people wearing masks but not all. Some protesters have tried to maintain social distancing, staying at least 6 feet apart from their peers.
“We have two pandemics in this country — COVID-19 and racism. Both are lethal,” Stoney said. “We need to do everything we can to prevent them from claiming more lives.”
Yet the strategies are at odds: Avoid crowds to slow the coronavirus, or join them to show that people are fed up?
The coronavirus has killed nearly 1,500 Virginians and infected thousands more. In Richmond, where the virus’s spread was deemed so severe that the city’s economy had remained largely shuttered after most of the state began reopening, protesters say the need to show up and fight racial injustice and police brutality outweighs the risk of getting sick.
Later Tuesday, as a few hundred people rallied at the Robert E. Lee statue, the epicenter of protests in the city, Roslyn Taylor kept her distance.
She had heard about the larger protests the three days prior and had fielded questions from her 12-year-old grandson. She wanted to join. So the 59-year-old and her grandson, a student at nearby Binford Middle School, strapped on their face masks and made their way to Monument Avenue to stand together, but apart.
They kept their distance from the protesters crowded around the base of the towering Lee statue, hovering near the sidewalk.
Going carries risk, Taylor said, but so does staying home. She said demanding racial justice in the wake of Floyd’s death was “too important for me to sit at home.”
“This is 400 years of frustration coming out, and from what I’m seeing, it’s not going away anytime soon,” she said. “I had to bring him out.”
Since Floyd’s death on Memorial Day, thousands of people in Richmond and across Virginia have protested, assembling in large groups while marching and chanting calls for an end to police brutality.
At the same time, COVID-19 has infected roughly 47,000 people, according to state data, including nearly 1,500 in Richmond. The highly contagious virus, which shut down Virginia for two months, has yet to reach its peak, according to research from the University of Virginia.
Gatherings of more than 10 people continue to be banned, although the state, except for Richmond and Northern Virginia, will enter its second reopening phase on Friday, raising the limit on social gatherings from 10 people to 50.
Leroy Green, a Richmond resident, grew up in the 1960s during the civil rights movement and has continued his activism by joining the peaceful protests over the previous four days. He wears a face mask, as many protesters do, and feels that turning out to march is the best way to bring about change.
“We’ve got to come together,” the 59-year-old said. “The only way we can do that is we’ve got to come out. We want our voices heard.”
COVID-19 has killed 82 people ages 50 to 59, according to the Virginia Department of Health. More than half of the state’s deaths (748 out of 1,428) have been people older than 80, according to the Health Department.
Those deaths — and the infection rates — have disproportionately affected people of color in the state.
Data from VDH shows the percentage of coronavirus-related deaths among African Americans (20%) is equivalent to the state’s demographic breakdown (also 20%), but the state’s data is incomplete: Racial information is unknown for 186 deaths and for more than 15,000 of Virginia’s 46,905 cases.
In Richmond, 17 of the city’s 24 deaths have been among black people, according to VDH, while the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the city’s African American population at 48%.
There’s worry nationwide that the close proximity of protesters, among other things, could fuel new transmissions of the virus. The Associated Press found that demonstrations have taken place in every one of the 25 U.S. communities with the highest concentrations of new cases.
Some of the protesters who were arrested in Richmond on Sunday, the first night of the state-mandated 8 p.m. curfew, complained that they were held in tight quarters with no social distancing and poor sanitary conditions. They were allowed to keep a mask on if they had one when they were detained, but weren’t given one if not.
Cities and states across the U.S. have started to loosen coronavirus-related restrictions.
A fresh outbreak in the places where protesters gathered could lead to a fresh round of shutdowns.
Northam said at his Tuesday news conference, the first part of which was spent addressing racism and police brutality, that he’s concerned about the spread of the virus at the protests.
“Obviously people are gathering and we know that this virus is spread through the air, so I encourage folks as they are out protesting to No. 1, do it peacefully, but also to remember that we are in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “We encourage the social distancing and the wearing of facial protection.”
Two prominent Virginia lawmakers, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and state Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, have tested positive for the virus and recovered. (Kaine and his wife, interim George Mason University President Anne Holton, tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, a blood test that indicates previous exposure to COVID-19.)
Both spoke Monday at an event at Richmond’s Slavery Reconciliation Statue, where between each speaker, local activist Charles Willis used a Clorox wipe to clean the microphone.
“With all the protests going on right now, I think everyone needs to be careful,” said J.J. Minor, the president of the Richmond NAACP, which helped organize Monday’s event. “The pandemic isn’t over.”
Public health experts told The Associated Press that it will take two to three weeks to know whether the protests cause a surge in coronavirus cases. And even then, they can’t definitively tie it to the demonstrations.