Richmond police closed Bryan Park for about three hours Thursday morning after an activist group hung eight effigies of clowns dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes from a tree.
The art collective INDECLINE, which released a video showing four masked men dressed in black hanging the clowns overnight, said in a news release the action is intended as a “protest of the White Nationalist uprising in the United States.”
The secretive group founded in 2001 is responsible for controversial and graphic street art installations across the country, most recently placing statues of a naked Donald Trump in a variety of large cities including New York and Las Vegas.
Intended message aside, Richmond political leaders broadly condemned the display.
“When you look at something like that, whether you consider it art or not art, lynching is not something that we’re in agreement with at all,” said James “J.J.” Minor, the president of the Richmond branch of the NAACP. “We do not support any groups that support violence.”
Bernice Travers, the president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, the city’s oldest African-American voter advocacy organization, said what INDECLINE “does not understand is the pain black people endured then, and still feel today, about hangings.”
Mayor Levar Stoney’s press secretary, Jim Nolan, said in a statement that “there are many ways to express a point of view. As a city we don’t condone breaking the law to do so.”
Richmond police quickly responded to the area Thursday morning, cordoning off a large area around the tree in crime scene tape and then closing the park.
A spokeswoman for the department, Chelsea Rarrick, said the department removed the display and is investigating. She said no arrests have been made. Police did not say what laws they believe were violated.
In a news release, INDECLINE said it chose Richmond for its latest action because it is the former capital of the Confederacy and Bryan Park because it’s the site where Gabriel Prosser plotted a famous slave rebellion in 1800.
A sign hung around the neck of one of the clowns read, “If attacked by a mob of clowns, go for the juggler — INDECLINE.”
This is not the first time the group has used imagery of hanging figures. In 2012, the group vandalized billboards in Las Vegas, writing “hope you’re happy Wall St.” and “dying for work” on them and dangling a mannequin from a noose off the side.
City Council President Chris Hilbert, whose district includes Bryan Park, said he supports the right to free speech but wishes “people would use it in a more prudent fashion.”
“Bryan Park is a beautiful park and people deserve better than someone coming in and defacing public property with a very hurtful and distasteful imagery — regardless of the intended message,” he said.