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Majority of Richmond City Council affirms support for removing Confederate monuments

The Confederate statues lining Monument Avenue are poised to come down. All of them.

For a majority of the Richmond City Council, it’s a matter of when and how. Not if.

On the day Gov. Ralph Northam announced the state would remove the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee from Monument Avenue, six members of the nine-member council signaled support for removing four other city-controlled monuments on the strip.

“While the removal of these statues does not erase the systemic racism that remains in this country, these symbols have become idols of division,” said Andreas Addison, the 1st District councilman, in a statement explaining his decision to vote for the statues’ removal. “Now is the time to bring Richmond together.”

The indication from the council came on the seventh day of Black Lives Matter protests that have gripped Richmond in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, in Minneapolis. Mass gathering have become a daily ritual on Monument Avenue, where protestors have defaced the statues they view as symbols of white supremacy.

Northam announced Thursday that the largest of Richmond’s Confederate statues, depicting Lee, would come down “as soon as possible.” Four others honoring Confederate Gens. J.E.B. Stuart and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Confederate naval commander Matthew Fontaine Maury require approval from the council to remove.

The council’s commitment to pursue that course is nothing short of a stunning turnaround. The body twice voted against even asking the state for authority of Richmond’s Confederate iconography during this term.

The council ultimately made the request earlier this year, but several on the body still said they favored an incremental approach recommended by a city panel in 2018. That called for the removal of a single monument, the one depicting Davis, and adding context to the others.

The events of the past week changed that thinking.

“This seems like a step that we have to take to be the city we want to be,” said Council Vice President Chris Hilbert, who said he would vote to remove the statues.

Mayor Levar Stoney and 9th District Councilman Michael Jones plan to introduce an ordinance next month authorizing the removal. Under state law, the earliest a vote could take place would be August.

Joining Jones in supporting the statues’ removal are Addison; Hilbert, 3rd District; Stephanie Lynch, 5th District; Ellen Robertson, 6th District; and Council President Cynthia Newbille, 7th District.

Robertson and Newbille — the two senior-most African American members of the council — said they supported removal in concept, but conditioned that on reviewing the ordinance for details such as the cost and what the city would do with the statues once off the pedestals.

“I want to tell the whole story, and I want them to be in a place where that’s possible,” Newbille said. “That’s a part of it for me. As a person of African descent, I understand having history buried. As horrible as this is, I still want to make sure that I don’t do what people have done to African Americans, Native Americans and others.”

State law requires localities to hold a public hearing and publish notice of their intent in a newspaper. It also permits localities to conduct 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.

The bloc resolving to remove the statues is composed of three black council members and three white ones. One, Addison, represents a portion of Monument Avenue.

Unable to be reached for comment Thursday was Councilwoman Kimberly Gray, who represents a majority of Monument Avenue. She has twice opposed the council requesting authority over the statues from the state. A candidate for mayor, Gray has said in the past that she supports adding additional monuments to the street, not spending tax dollars to remove existing ones.

“I support a thoughtful and deliberative process that is inclusive and unifies people,” Gray said in a statement sent by an aide via text after this story was published online.

Reva Trammell, the 8th District councilwoman, also did not return calls about her position on the statues. She voted against each of this council’s three measures seeking authority over the monuments, including the one that ultimately passed earlier this year. At the time, she said there were more pressing matters for leaders to focus on, like improving schools and fixing roads.

Kristen Larson, the 4th District representative, said she had been flooded with emails and calls by constituents and was still weighing the matter. She, too, has previously opposed each of this council’s three attempts to request control of the statues.

“I welcome input, and I’m just listening. I want to hear from people,” Larson said. “I represent the 4th District, and I want to make sure that I’m fairly representing them on this issue.”

Lynch, the 5th District representative, said she would vote for removal.

Lynch, who has marched with demonstrators, echoed their sentiment that removing the monuments should only be the start of the council’s work to address racism and inequity in the city.

“I feel excited and emboldened that we have come into a moment where we can finally get a sense of urgency around the systemic and institutionalized racial injustice that has existed in our systems for hundreds of years,” Lynch said.

PHOTOS: Protesters march to RPD 4th Precinct on Thursday night

PHOTOS: Protesters march to RPD 4th Precinct on Thursday night

‘we’re still not where we need to be’
WATCH NOW: Protesters celebrate plans for removal of Confederate statues as they continue demonstrations

Black Lives Matter and anti-racist protesters are celebrating plans for the removal of Confederate monuments in Richmond, but are still protesting in the streets against police brutality against African Americans.

On Thursday, hundreds of people set out from Monroe Park to the police department’s 4th Precinct in North Side to continue protesting for equal justice and an end to unjust police violence against African Americans.

“We’re still not where we need to be in the realm of social justice,” said Iesha Lee. “My grandparents and parents had to do this. We’re here to continue this movement.”

A local school teacher, Lee fought back tears as she thought about why she is protesting for a better world for her family and her black middle school students. “It’s just really unfortunate we are in this position,” she said. “I am tired. We need action.”

The march in Richmond marked the seventh night of protests in the city following the death of George Floyd, an African American man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police on Memorial Day last week.

Before the start of the protest, organizers sought to put a new spin on call-and-response chants that normally invoked his name to recognize the outsized number of African Americans who have died in high-profile incidents with the police in recent years.

“Say His/Her Name,” leaders would call. The response became: “Which one?”

Protesters held signs celebrating recent announcements that the city and state will take the city’s Confederate monuments off Monument Avenue, which are seen as vestiges of racism that persisted long after the end of the Civil War.

They said there’s still more work to do, however.

In addition to the removal of the Confederate monuments, the organizers of the march Thursday said they are still demanding the following:

  • the termination of all officers involved in firing tear gas at Monday’s protest in front of the Robert E. Lee statue;
  • withdrawal of the charges against all protesters who have been arrested in the last week,
  • removal of National Guard troops from the city; and
  • the creation of an independent civilian review board with subpoena power.

Other city activists are continuing calls for the creation of a “Marcus Alert” system, named for Marcus-David Peters, a local man who a Richmond police officer shot and killed in 2018. Peters was naked and suffering a mental break when the officer shot him.

The alert system activists are calling for would mandate that mental health professionals be the first responders in a suspected or confirmed mental health crisis.

“Relationship building is huge, and with the [civilian] review board, we’ll be able to build those relationships,” Princess Blanding, Peters’ sister, said in a Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project webinar Thursday evening.

Earlier this week, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced that he will back the creation of the system and a civilian review board.

Still, some protesters said they still feel compelled to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

“A year ago … I would have just said ‘Black Lives Matter.’ But I don’t think that answer is good enough anymore,” said Shannon Weatherford, a city resident who came to the protest with her husband and 18-year-old son.

“I think you have to come out for this sort of thing now.”

On Thursday afternoon, a small group of marchers walked along Midlothian Turnkpike in Chesterfield County bearing posters with messages that said “This is our home too” and “Our skin is not a weapon.” They chanted “Black Lives Matter” and demanded justice as they were escorted along the road by a dozen police cruisers.

The roughly 10 marchers walked to Chesterfield County Police Department’s Midlothian station on North Providence Road where officers were waiting at a community policing tent with coolers of chilled bottled water for the marchers.

Earlier in the day, about 100 demonstrators were gathered around the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.

Demonstrators on both sides turned out roughly an hour after Gov. Ralph Northam announced the state’s decision to remove the monument.

“We must forgive,” read one sign. Another, “Bye FeLEEcia.”

Northam will order the removal of the statue from its stone pedestal. The statue will be stored while the administration makes a decision about its ultimate fate, with public input. On Thursday, Stoney said he was planning to introduce an ordinance calling for the removal of four of the city’s Confederate statues that also sit on Monument Avenue.

The call for the removals comes amid turmoil over systemic racism and police brutality across the country, which has brought violent and peaceful protests to Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy.

PHOTOS: Protesters march to RPD 4th Precinct on Thursday night


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WATCH NOW: Northam orders Lee statue to be removed 'as soon as possible'; Stoney says 'It's time'

In a rebuke of Confederate glorification, Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday called for the swift removal of a bronze statue depicting Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, a response to recent local and nationwide protests over systemic racism and police brutality.

“When it’s the biggest thing around, it sends a clear message: This is what we value the most. That’s just not true anymore,” Northam said during a news conference in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy. “In Virginia, we no longer preach a false version of history, one that pretends the Civil War was about state’s rights, and not the evil of slavery. No one believes that any longer.”

Northam’s decision followed an announcement by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who said Wednesday that city leaders would seek to remove four other Confederate statues from Monument Avenue. Those depict Gens. J.E.B. Stuart and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson; Confederate naval commander Matthew Fontaine Maury; and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

“It’s time. It’s time to put an end to the ‘Lost Cause’ and fully embrace the righteous cause. It’s time to replace the racist symbols of oppression and inequality … with symbols that summon the best in all of us,” Stoney said at Thursday’s news conference, flanked by other state leaders, black activists and even a descendant of Lee.

The decisions were announced on the seventh day of protests in Richmond, some peaceful and others violent, fueled by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. In Richmond and around the country, protesters have called for reforms to the criminal justice system and for an end to excessive use of force by police, particularly toward black men.

Those demands brought protesters to the foot of Richmond’s Confederate monuments, which were heavily tagged with profanity toward police, calls for racial justice and Floyd’s name. Nearby, protesters set fire to the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which bore similar graffiti across its front walls.

The displays reignited a debate over Confederate iconography — one that has been long-standing in Virginia, and that reached a boiling point with the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

The Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, a descendant of the Confederate general, spoke from the steps of the monument in support of its removal Thursday. He called the monument an “idol of white supremacy.”

“There are members in my family who are shaking in their boots. I’m sure my ancestor Robert E. Lee is rolling in his grave, and I say, let him roll,” Lee said to a crowd of about 200 people, which included at least two people in opposition of the removal.

Elsewhere, Senate GOP leaders, led by Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, opposed the decision.

“Attempts to eradicate instead of contextualizing history invariably fail. ... [Northam’s] decision is more likely to further divide, not unite, Virginians,” the caucus said in a statement.

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who is not part of the GOP caucus, said the decision to remove the Lee statue is an attempt at “revising history” and “erasing the history of the white people.” Chase started a petition to oppose the removal on the website of her campaign for governor.

The House GOP caucus did not issue a statement on the matter. On Wednesday, Minority Leader Todd Gilbert said the removal decision was made to “change the subject” from the tear-gassing of peaceful protesters by Richmond police on Monday, from Northam’s failure to denounce looters.

Robert W. Lee is a pastor at Unifour Church in Newton, N.C. He was among a group that flanked Northam and Stoney at Thursday’s formal announcement, which also included Robert Johns, a descendant of Barbara Johns, who protested school segregation; Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is African American; and a student from Charlottesville, Zyahna Bryant.

In 2016, at age 15, Bryant started a petition to remove Charlottesville’s Lee statue. On Thursday, Bryant didn’t talk about the monument’s removal; instead, she called for the dismantling of systemic and interpersonal racism.

“I want to be clear: There will be no healing or reconciliation until we have equity, until we have fully dismantled the systems that oppress black and brown people.”

She urged the public to have “tough conversations” about racism, even if it causes “controversy” or “inconvenience.”

Similarly, Fairfax praised the statue’s removal, calling it a “down payment on the promise to the people of Virginia and all over America.” He likened racial inequity in the state to monuments to the Confederacy.

He said those Confederate monuments include substandard schools, health care, housing and the criminal justice system, which he said disproportionately yield worse outcomes for black people in Virginia.

Pressed by a reporter on “concrete” plans to address police brutality, Northam said the way forward will include diversifying the police force, increasing positive relations between civilians and police, and improving police training on de-escalation. Northam did not directly point to legislation or executive policy changes.

Removal of the Lee monument, which is the only one on Monument Avenue controlled by the state, has weighed on Northam since the start of his administration. (The rest of the statues on Monument Avenue were controlled by the legislature, which in the spring shifted power to localities.)

In the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, during his campaign for governor, Northam said Confederate statues “should be taken down and moved into museums.”

Northam had so far declined to make a decision on the statue, but this past spring, he signed legislation allowing localities to decide the fate of Confederate memorials controlled by their localities. That bill will allow Richmond to move on the four statues on Monument Avenue, and would allow the city of Charlottesville to similarly remove the Lee statue in its downtown.

As for Richmond’s Lee statue, the bronze portion will be removed and stored in a warehouse while the administration makes a decision about its ultimate fate, with public input.

The fate of the stone pedestal it sits on, and the graffiti that now covers it, is the subject of ongoing discussions, Northam said.

The administration did not share a timeline for when the bronze statue of Lee would be removed. A spokeswoman for the Department of General Services, which will oversee the task, said the work will require “careful planning” due to the size, scale and location.

“DGS is taking steps to carry out this order as soon as possible,” spokeswoman Dena Potter said.

The 14-foot bronze statue was unveiled in Richmond on May 29, 1890, 25 years after the end of the Civil War. The statue has become a part of both the state and federal registers of historic landmarks.

Rita Davis, the Northam administration’s legal counsel, said the registers are both voluntary, allowing the owner, in this case the state, to remove or dispose of the landmark as they please.

Davis said Virginia law also explicitly allows the governor to move any state-controlled piece of art, which includes monuments. Davis said she has consulted the leader of the state’s historic registry but has not communicated with federal officials.

Still, the decision could prompt legal challenges.

The Monument Avenue Preservation Group, a network of supporters of the avenue’s statues, said Thursday that the governor’s “illegal action is being actively researched.”

Asked if the administration was aware of any legal challenges, and if it was prepared to defend its decision, Davis said: “No, and absolutely.”

PHOTOS: Richmond's Monument Avenue during the recent Black Lives Matter protests

Williams: 'The Lost Cause is dead.' Let's dismantle its legacy beyond the symbols.

The original opponent of the Robert E. Lee statue issued a stern prophesy after the monument was erected in 1890.

John Mitchell Jr. — newspaper editor, politician, banker and civil rights activist — predicted that the monument “will ultimately result in handing down to generations unborn a legacy of treason and blood.”

Mitchell, editor of the Richmond Planet, wasn’t done. He wrote of the black man: “He put up the Lee Monument, and should the time come, he’ll be there to take it down.”

The time has come. Gov. Ralph Northam is removing Lee from his pedestal as soon as possible. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney will attempt to follow suit with Monument Avenue’s other Confederate statues in tandem with City Councilman Mike Jones.

John Mitchell, the great-great-nephew of John Mitchell Jr., could not be happier.

“Beautiful,” he said Wednesday. “It has to be done.”

And Mitchell, a Richmond-based web designer and musician, says that when that pedestal becomes vacant, “Of course, I would like to see my great-great-uncle up there.”

The possibilities are endless, but I can’t think of a better choice than Mitchell, a fearless anti-lynching crusader who organized a successful streetcar boycott in Richmond — a half-century before the Martin Luther King Jr.-led Montgomery bus boycott — and ran for governor of Virginia on a “lily black ticket” that included Maggie Lena Walker.

That we are at a moment no one saw coming is due to the Black Lives Matter protesters who cast an unflinching light on the ugly symbolism behind these monuments. Few images are as powerful as the light projection of George Floyd’s face onto the graffiti-marked Lee monument, as was done Wednesday night.

“It is young people, a new generation, that are leading us,” said Robert Johns, a relative of Barbara Johns, who as a 16-year-old schoolgirl in Prince Edward County became a heroine of the civil rights movement in Virginia.

Richmond’s monuments survived the martyrdom, at the hand of white supremacists, of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., and Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. But the national revulsion and furor unleashed by the torture of Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers landed at the doorstep of Monument Avenue.

The graffiti handiwork of the protesters, in its rawness, connected the dots of modern-day policing to its slave patrol roots. But what those monuments represent is far more vulgar than the graffiti. They send a clear message that black lives don’t matter at all. The legacy of enslavement and treason has bled into our present.

“Richmond is no longer the capital of the Confederacy,” Mayor Levar Stoney said Thursday. As if to remove all doubt, that message was repeated by a descendant of the man on the monument.

“The Lost Cause is dead,” said the Rev. Robert W. Lee IV. “A new cause is upon us, one of equality and justice and peace and concord.”

Stoney summoned the words of the always-eloquent James Baldwin: “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

Richmond has become so fixated at carrying the weight of history that it failed to realize what a burden it was, until the demonstrators made it impossible to ignore.

Northam spoke of how a little girl might feel upon standing in the 100-foot Lee circle and gazing up at a 12-ton monument, six stories high. “When it’s the biggest thing around, it sends a clear message: This is what we value the most.”

The monument, by its sheer scale, was designed to evoke shock and awe. It gave white supremacy a symbolic imperviousness — and worse, a veneer of virtue.

“In 2020, we can no longer honor a system that was based on the buying and selling of enslaved people,” the governor said.

The oppression of black folks will not end with the removal of these monuments. As Northam noted, racism is a system that touches every person and every aspect of our lives. But it’s a start.

The grassroots Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality cheered this turn of events in a statement Wednesday. It quoted member Joseph Rogers, a descendant of James Apostle Fields, who rose from enslavement in Hanover County to gain election to the Virginia House of Delegates, a year before the Lee monument went up.

“If we can dismantle the symbols of white supremacy, it means we can dismantle the legacy of white supremacy,” Rogers said. “We can save and improve public housing. We can fund underfunded schools. We can address police brutality. We can do it for Black folks, indigenous people, people of color, working-class whites.”

There will no doubt be resistance, because nothing progressive happens here without it. But allow us this moment of optimism amid a season of trauma. Moving ahead, the possibilities are endless in a space previously reserved for the celebration of oppression. We might salute the spirit of collective dissent that made this happen. Or we could pay a fitting and ironic tribute to Mitchell — a spiritual progenitor of the Black Lives Matter movement and a man who saw this moment coming.

“I think he would say ‘I told you so,’ ” his great-great-nephew said. “Sometimes, prophesy can be justice.”

And when the time comes, “I would fight to be one of those hands to bring that statue down.”