Six Monument Avenue residents have filed a lawsuit in hopes of blocking Gov. Ralph Northam’s attempt to remove the Robert E. Lee statue.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in Richmond Circuit Court, argues that removing the 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.
“Removal of the Lee statue or any significant alteration of it or any of the other monuments within the Monument Avenue Historic District will result in the loss of National Historic Landmark designation of the district, which will have a substantial adverse impact on Plaintiffs, including the loss of favorable tax treatment and reduction in property values,” the complaint reads.
“Plaintiffs will also suffer injury as a result of the loss of a priceless work of art from their neighborhood and the degradation of the internationally recognized avenue on which they reside.”
Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, who has moved the new case to federal court, say the governor has the legal authority to take down the state-owned statue.
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said Monday: “Governor Northam is committed to removing this divisive symbol from Virginia’s capital city. We’re confident in his authority to do so, and look forward to winning in court.”
While some residents of the street are suing to block the statue’s removal, the governing board of the Monument Avenue Preservation Society said in a statement over the weekend that it supports the removal of the Confederate monuments from the street.
“For too long, we have overlooked the inherent racism of these monuments, and for too long we have allowed the grandeur of the architecture to blind us to the insult of glorifying men for their roles in fighting to perpetuate the inhumanity of slavery,” the society’s board of directors said.
It added: “If our silence has been perceived as approval of the intimidation implied by the monuments, we apologize. Hear us now: we support the decisions of the governor, the mayor and city council to remove the monuments. We look forward to being a part of the re-envisioning of the future of our avenue.”
Of the six residents who are pushing for an injunction to the state’s removal plans, only one, Helen Marie Taylor, is identified in the lawsuit. Taylor stood in front of paving machines in 1968 to prevent the road’s cobblestones from being covered with asphalt; she is 96.
The other plaintiffs, who are represented by Patrick McSweeney, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, asked to remain anonymous in the lawsuit in fear of public backlash.
A motion filed Monday says Taylor has been harassed by protesters at her home, “causing the other plaintiffs to be concerned about their personal safety and the safety of their families and residences.”
The motion also claims that some Monument Avenue residents have faced “serious personal injury” that required medical attention “simply because those residents commented to the (proponents of taking down the monuments) as they were damaging public property that those actions were unlawful or inappropriate.”
The monuments, especially the Lee statue, have served as a gathering place for people protesting police brutality and racial injustice over the past two weeks following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. Protesters have sprayed graffiti on the Confederate symbols and last week pulled down the Jefferson Davis statue.
The anonymity request also cites an incident last week in which a group of protesters gathered outside the office of the lawyers representing a defendant in a different case that also opposes the Lee statue’s removal, a lawsuit that resulted in a 10-day injunction.
During that incident, according to the complaint, protesters cut off power to the office and tried to “frighten the attorney and his employees.”
In a separate motion, also filed Monday, the six residents asked that their lawsuit be consolidated with the case filed by William Gregory, a descendant of two signatories of the 1890 deed that gave Virginia the land around the monument. Richmond Circuit Court Judge Bradley B. Cavedo granted the temporary injunction last week.
The Gregory suit hinges on language in the deed signed in 1890 giving Virginia control of the statue, which says the state is supposed to consider the monument and the area around it “perpetually sacred” and “faithfully guard it and affectionately protect it.”
The new lawsuit cites that language, which is also in a legislature-approved resolution.
In motions filed Monday afternoon, Herring said the new 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.
With the motions, the new case is now in federal court, said Herring spokeswoman Charlotte Gomer. A third lawsuit, filed last week, also cites the statue’s historic status and is already in federal court.
A judge has not yet consolidated the Gregory and Taylor suits.
A hearing in the Gregory case is scheduled for Thursday in Richmond Circuit Court.