Hours after police dispersed peaceful demonstrators from the grounds of the Robert E. Lee statue, about 300 protesters returned Wednesday evening vowing to defy this week’s announcement that police would enforce closure of the space at sunset.
The atmosphere early Wednesday evening looked much the same as the peaceful nights preceding it: Families gathered, free food was handed out, children tossed a football among themselves. A woman played a cello.
Ladirah Jackson, a Black woman, was there with her 11-month old son, Christopher Jr.
“It’s a risk,” Jackson said, acknowledging past events at the circle, “but I wanted to be here. It’s history.”
Richmond has seen nearly four weeks of demonstrations over police brutality and systemic racism, spurred by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Authorities in Richmond declared unlawful assemblies at different sites Sunday night, early Tuesday morning and early Wednesday morning.
Richmond police declared an unlawful assembly at the Lee monument at 2:39 a.m. Wednesday and cleared the area at 2:46 a.m., according to an RPD Twitter post.
Because the statue sits on state property, Capitol Police led the response, in conjunction with Virginia State Police and RPD, to the unlawful assembly, which Capitol Police public information officer Joe Macenka said was declared because the area is closed between sunset and sunrise.
According to Virginia state law, an unlawful assembly may be declared whenever “three or more persons assembled share the common intent to advance some lawful or unlawful purpose by the commission of an act or acts of unlawful force or violence likely to jeopardize seriously public safety, peace or order.” The assembly “actually tends to inspire persons of ordinary courage with well-grounded fear of serious and immediate breaches of public safety, peace or order.”
Macenka did not specify why the unlawful assembly declaration came at 2:39 a.m., as opposed to hours earlier or anytime after sunset.
“Capitol Police do not discuss operational specifics with the media,” he said.
Unlike early Tuesday morning, when state and city police officers released chemical irritants into a crowd at City Hall, the roughly 50 remaining protesters at the monument were dispersed without use of force.
Macenka said that those inside the circle dispersed “immediately and without issue” after being told their presence amounted to an illegal assembly.
“Nearly all of the officers walked up to the circle from various directions, and those inside the circle walked away into the night,” Macenka said.
Crews from the Department of General Services then cleared the area around the monument — which demonstrators now refer to as Marcus-David Peters Circle.
Peters, an Essex County biology teacher and Virginia Commonwealth University honors graduate, was naked, unarmed and experiencing a mental health crisis when he was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer in 2018. The shooting was deemed justified by the city’s former police chief and prosecutor at the time, because Peters threatened to kill the officer as he charged him.
Macenka referred questions about “the garbage that those inside the circle left behind” to the Department of General Services, which said items retrieved from the monument grounds will be kept until the end of the week, while the department works with owners to return them. Those whose items were retrieved by DGS may call (804) 786-3311 to begin the return process.
New regulations for gatherings at the Lee monument were put into place in 2017.
Following the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville in August 2017, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe temporarily barred gatherings at the Lee statue on Monument Avenue. He then imposed emergency regulations in November 2017, which became permanent last year.
The regulations prohibit tents, tables, scaffolding or staging on the monument grounds as well as “banners, flags, posters or other objects” from being placed or affixed to the monument.
State officials on Monday announced that authorities would enforce rules already on the books barring gatherings on the monument’s grounds from sunset to sunrise. For the second consecutive night Tuesday, demonstrators remained at the monument for hours after sunset.
Those present at the monument remained undisturbed by law enforcement until early Wednesday morning, when more than 100 state and city police officers descended on the area to clear the monument, The Commonwealth Times reports.
On Sunday night police had descended on Stuart Circle just before 9:30 p.m. to intercede after protesters tied ropes around the J.E.B. Stuart statue, a tribute to the Confederate general near the heart of Richmond, in an effort to bring it down.
Officers in riot gear shouted down people yelling “F--- the police,” declaring the gathering an unlawful assembly and threatening to deploy chemical agents.
On Wednesday morning, a group present on the Lee monument grounds who asked to remain anonymous said they returned to set up their tents after law enforcement dispersed. The individuals said they were among the small group of protesters at the monument when an unlawful assembly was declared.
They estimated fewer than 15 individuals were in the grassy circle in the early hours of the morning, when a large number of officers arrived on scene in riot gear, threatening use of chemical agents if demonstrators didn’t leave.
They see the increasingly militarized police presence, unlawful assembly declarations and ordinance restricting activity at the monument simply as “creative ways” to curb demonstrators’ First Amendment rights.
The group has been staked out at the monument nearly every day, they said, to pass out snacks and water bottles.
On Wednesday evening, Ikeisha Taylor was out with her young children and nephew in the circle around the Lee monument and echoed the importance of them being present for this moment.
“This is history. … I’m proud we’re coming together. It took too long, but everyone is finally coming together,” Taylor said.
She added that, even if the monument becomes too dangerous or gets shut down as the central gathering spot, “we, the people, will just go somewhere else.”
Chelston Howell-Freeman, a protester who has frequented the space the last few weeks, said he’s willing to endanger himself in order to exercise his First Amendment rights.
Despite the welcoming environment Wednesday evening, as sunset approached, the hum of an overhead drone and intermittent revving of motorcycles illuminated an underlying tension percolating through the circle.
A man selling Black Lives Matter pins asked nobody in particular: “Are they gonna come and arrest us tonight?”