Will the Last Confederate Statue Standing Turn Off the Lights?

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RICHMOND, Va. — Until three weeks ago, Lee Circle, which is named for the 130-year-old statue of General Robert E. Lee that stands some 60 feet high at its center, attracted few visitors beyond the occasional tourist or weekend sunbather.

But as protests over police brutality and racism, ignited by the killing of George Floyd while he was in policy custody, have spread across the country, and Confederate monuments have been torn down in many cities, crowds of people have been showing up to this little park on Monument Avenue every day.

At first, it was to protest. Now, the crowd resembles something of a block party.

Children and families mill about and take photos. Food stands, voter registration tents, portable basketball hoops and a lending library have popped up. And there is often music and dancing: On a recent weekday afternoon, a woman sat in a folding chair playing a cello in front of the statue, while a Beyoncé song blared from a portable speaker in a booth where volunteers were handing out water bottles.

One night, a local band covered Rage Against the Machine songs for a crowd of moshing young people. The R&B star Trey Songz held a candlelight vigil there on Juneteenth. And the next morning, a Saturday, newlyweds posed on the statue in white wedding attire. A crowd gathered and cheered when the couple raised their fists.

The towering bronze and stone Confederate statue still stands at the middle of it all, despite an order by the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, that it be taken down. The move has been blocked by a temporary injunction from a Richmond circuit court, and the situation is complicated further by a new state law that goes into effect on July 1 that gives local governments the authority to remove monuments on their own. The governor is still promising to remove the statue.

But the monument’s appearance has changed dramatically. Over the last few weeks, visitors have tagged the statue’s enormous base with a kaleidoscopic array of graffiti, including with the protest messages of “stop killing us” and “defund the police.”

Paint canisters are left for others to use, and new words appear every day. At night, an artist named Dustin Klein, who produces visual displays for EDM concerts, projects images of figures including Harriet Tubman and George Floyd on the monument’s surface. The park’s grass has turned brown and patchy from so much use.

Even as protesters elsewhere in Richmond continued to clash with police, Lee Circle had become something of a round-the-clock community space — a site of “public gatherings that never before existed,” as The Richmond Times-Dispatch put it.

That may change abruptly. On June 22, state and local police announced that the grounds would “close to the public from sunset to sunrise” and that “unlawful activity” in the park was prohibited, including “climbing on the statue or its steps,” and affixing “additional banners, flags, posters or other objects” to the statue. (This morning, President Trump tweeted his intent to pass an executive order authorizing “the Federal Government to arrest anyone who vandalizes or destroys any monument, statue or other such Federal property in the U.S. with up to 10 years in prison.”)

Within an hour of the announcement, more than a hundred activists gathered at the park, preparing for a clash with the police. As lightning flashed overhead, they stood on the statue’s stone steps, many carrying firearms or makeshift shields. Police lights were visible down Monument Avenue in either direction.

“I’ll be on the front lines,” said Brian Jones, 32, referring to the possibility for fighting. “How would I explain it to my kids if I wasn’t?”

Ultimately, the police did not try to enforce the curfew, though many people believe they will do so this week. Those who have created a new community base at the park said they plan on resisting the crackdown as long as they can. “This is my family,” said one activist, who declined to give her name. “This is a safe place for us.” She had tears in her eyes.

Last week, Travis and Tori Sky, 32 and 29, brought their son Major, 4, to the monument to celebrate his graduation from kindergarten, coaxing him to raise a fist in front of the altered statue for a photo. “Even if he doesn’t remember, we can tell him that he was here,” Mr. Sky said.

Asked what he thought of the graffiti beneath his feet, Major said: “I like all of the colors.”

“Does any of this mean anything to you?” Mr. Sky asked.

“Mmm … no,” Major said, grinning.

Several weeks before, on May 30, hundreds of activists marched down Monument Avenue, which is one of Richmond’s wealthiest streets, calling for the removal of the five Confederate statues that give it its name.

On the evening of June 1, the police tear gassed a protest at Lee Circle about half an hour before a curfew, initially claiming protesters were violent before later apologizing. The marches continued, and then people started showing up all the time, even outside of organized marches.

One of the people tear gassed was Ida Allen, 32, who works as a bartender. The incident galvanized her to set up a tent in the park, to hand out water bottles and snacks to protesters. From there, she and a friend, Ashley Cottingham, 29, organized their efforts into a new group called Richmond Action Alliance, which aims to support the protest movement and register people to vote in order to create “a real change,” Ms. Allen said.

ImageFamilies and children reading laminated memorial placards in Lee Circle on June 20.
Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York Times

“It’s a place where we have cookouts, we have great conversations,” she said of the new community that is forming at Lee Circle. “It’s just a place of love and where people with like minds can congregate.”

Eli Swann, a volunteer for the Richmond Action Alliance, has spent many of the last 15 days in the park, he said, handing out water and helping people register to vote. He said that the altered statue “looks greater than it ever did.”

On June 8, a lawsuit against Governor Northam was filed by William C. Gregory, who is described in the legal filing as the great-grandson of the couple that transferred the Robert E. Lee statue from private property to the state.

His lawsuit argues that the state, through the deed and an 1889 resolution of the General Assembly, agreed to “faithfully guard” and “affectionately protect” the monument — and that removing it from Lee Circle would breach that agreement. A Virginia judge issued an injunction against any state action while the court battle plays out.

On June 15, a group of homeowners on Monument Avenue filed a separate lawsuit, claiming that removing the statue would end the neighborhood’s designation as a National Historic Landmark district, causing them to suffer “the loss of favorable tax treatment and reduction in property values.” (While the Lee statue is owned by the state, the other four Confederate statues are owned by the city; the mayor of Richmond, Levar Stoney, has promised to remove them too.)

Only one of the homeowners is named in the Monument Avenue suit: Helen Marie Taylor, 96. She recently gave an interview to the The Washington Post in which she called the protesters “scoundrels” and “graffiti goons.” A phrase tagged on the Lee statue in the days after the article was published seemed to offer a rejoinder: “YOUR TAX STATUS IS RACIST.”

Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York Times

The attention to the park has drawn a spectrum of characters, onlookers and counterprotesters. One morning an older black man stood on the statue ledge with a placard and a megaphone demanding that people acknowledge Robert E. Lee’s contribution to the Mexican-American war. Another day, four men sat silently at a table passing out literature, their T-shirts promoting a Jews for Jesus website.

Virginia is an open-carry state, and firearms are not an uncommon sight at Lee Circle: On a recent Saturday morning, several different armed groups met in front of the statue for an impromptu gun show, comparing high-caliber rifles with elaborate scopes. Two men with pistols on their belts showed up on another morning, holding American flags to mock anti-racism protesters, yelling “loot and riot” in the same cadence many people use to chant “Black Lives Matter.”

Activists say they have tracked threats posted by white supremacist groups on Facebook, and early on the morning of June 20, a SWAT team arrested a man with a gun for trespassing on the roof of a building overlooking the park. He was later identified as an officer with the Richmond International Airport Police Department. On another occasion, police detained several individuals who were armed with assault-style rifles and handguns after a pickup truck ran into a group of bicyclists near the statue. One of the individuals was later arrested and charged with possession of a firearm by a felon, according to The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Partly in response to counterprotesters, some individuals have begun showing up armed to keep the peace and protect the community, they said. On July 1, a previously passed ban on carrying firearms into public parks and buildings within the city of Richmond will go into effect.

Whether the statue stays, it seems the public has decided that the space will continue to serve a different purpose than as a shrine to the Confederacy. A large wooden sign on the park says: “Welcome to Marcus-David Peters Circle,” a reference to a man who was shot and killed by police in Richmond in 2018 during a mental health crisis.

Dozens of laminated memorial placards have been posted in a circle along the outer rim of the park and the base of the statue. Each has the name, photo and brief biography of a black person killed by police, including George Floyd and Eric Garner, as well as George Stinney, a 14-year-old boy executed in South Carolina after an unfair trial in 1944. Visitors leave flowers and candles and stuffed animals there.

On Juneteenth, hundreds of people attended the celebration and candlelight vigil at Lee Circle organized by several local groups as well as Trey Songz, a native of Petersburg, Va. “I’m scared for my son,” he told the crowd, from the base of the monument. “They’re taking our lives as if they can and keep walking. They keep living their life, go home to their families after they take one of ours. I ain’t going.”

Before he spoke, a D.J. warmed up the crowd as the sun set. Four elementary-school-aged boys danced to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” on the monument’s ledge. A black family posed on one side of the monument with fists raised, wearing shirts that read: “I am my ancestors’ wildest dream.”

On another side of the statue, two young women posing in cap and gown celebrated their high school graduation. And across the street, a man named Darryl Jones served up free pulled-pork sandwiches from a grill. In a message on the mobile payment platform Venmo, he described his mission as “providing for the protesters,” adding an emoji of a black fist.

Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York Times

As the gatherings at Lee Circle have continued, some Richmond residents are even visiting the statue for the first time. “Before now, I would have just driven by this, not giving it no mind, because, you know, it’s a Confederate monument,” said Michael Weaver, 22, an urban planning student at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Now he doesn’t want to leave the park. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said of the statue. “How it looks right now, with all that artwork on it? That’s a history piece right there.”

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