It was 1:59 a.m. on Friday night, May 29th, and the GRTC bus parked at Broad and Belvidere in Richmond, VA was still burning after a full hour. The streets from the arts district to Monroe Park were filled with countless protestors, two burning patrol cars, numerous trash cans set ablaze, and voices fighting persistently, but unsuccessfully, for control of the crowd. The air smelled of tear gas, burnt rubber, and weed smoke. Numerous store fronts throughout the protest area were randomly shattered. Rubber-bullet gunshots and gas canisters were firing indiscriminately. Littering the street were empty water bottles, blunt wrappers, spray paint canisters, grimy bandanas, snack food wrappers, and discarded face masks. Also strewn among the detritus were palm-sized rocks and shards of scrap metal, most about the length of a forearm.
Some in the crowd held 40’s of beer and waltzed down the open road. Others were on their phones, making Tik Tok videos and filling their Instagram stories. Some even ventured guesses about the number of followers they would gain by night’s end.
Were it not for the ominous presence of police officers in riot gear, and the nonselective destruction of windows, windshields, and the still smoldering police cruiser on the corner of North Monroe and West Grace, it would almost have felt like a parade. But rumors of the KKK and the arrival of an armed militia were still spreading, leaving many to wonder whether it was worth the confrontation, whether the police would actually protect them.
Friday’s protest began as a brave endeavor, one for hope and systematic defiance amid a national quarantine, but ended with aimless chaos and decades-old rage that, while warranted, devastated numerous small businesses, many owned by black citizens the demonstrations had intended to support. The unrest has since become a national phenomenon as protesters decry years of black deaths at the hands of police. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?”
One Richmond protestor, who preferred anonymity, threw bottles and random debris at the police, against multiple warnings from others. “We all have our own way of doing things,” he said, in an attempt to sway the boos in the crowd. “We just do things differently.” A clear majority shouted for peace, while others destroyed privately-owned shops, and jumped on cars, despite admonitions from participants who possessed an air of leadership, and made efforts to control the actions of the crowd.
As the night wore on, the protest became increasingly disorganized, devolving into a contest of escalating aggression between protestors and police. Some demonstrators, with an obvious guerilla talent, led smaller groups through alleyways to avoid tear gas, and flank police blockades. Dumpsters along escape routes were set on fire. Sharp words and expletives between the opposing sides were exchanged.
When protesters set fire to a police cruiser parked behind a tire sales store along Broad Street, one demonstrator, after throwing an empty beer bottle at the cruiser, turned to me and smiled. “We should just light this whole city,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be something, to watch this whole city burn?”
It wouldn’t be the first time Richmond, Virginia burned. On April 3, 1865, while evacuating the city, Confederate soldiers set fire to tobacco warehouses. Flames quickly spread, leaving nine-tenths of the city in ruins. It took decades to rebuild.
That Friday, I was tear gassed running to a child who had fallen on the ground, and was crawling blindly and choking; I had watched as an older man, presumably his father, left him and ran to the alleyway where others fled. Several people came back for the child and helped him up, but his father was not among them.
I wondered to myself what the father would explain to him later, to a child no older than 12 with mace in his eyes and tear lines crusted on his face, as to why he would abandon him. I figured he would say something idealistic–that he was busy rallying with other organizers for the next push, or distracting police along a different front to provide their escape. I wondered if he would apologize to him, or remind his child the reason they were out here.
The boy soon recovered, without acknowledging his father had disappeared. He rejoined the swelling crowd, awaiting orders like an army of children. Waiting to be given the word.
Protests continued running amok well into the early morning. Reasons for burning the bus were vague; this bus line offers services to some of the poorest, most underserved parts of the city, and destroying it had no apparent connection to their message.
“The burning of [the bus] was kind of pointless,” one protestor told me, asking to remain anonymous. “There wasn’t any real point in it.”
Another protestor asked if anyone was on board. When he was told no, he responded while laughing with, “that would be going way too far.” This was the first person I met that night who suggested a limit for what would be “too far.”
By 4:00 a.m., most people left to recover from the night.
While many expected the remainder of the weekend to descend further into chaos, Saturday morning had a ‘business-as-usual’ feel, as the city woke to confront the previous night’s fallout. City sweepers, predominantly Black, cleaned up the trash that littered the sidewalks. Along E. Broad Street, people stood on ladders, drilling boards over storefront windows destroyed the night before. Others took spray bottles and wipes to walls of glass, stone, and metal, attempting to clean off fresh graffiti.
Many of those in the clean-up crews wore all black, with bandanas and headgear still hanging at their waistlines from the night before.
Waller and Company Jewelers, a 120 year old black-owned business, was smashed, ransacked, and looted during the Friday night protest. On Saturday, a cleanup and fundraising effort run by 100 or more men and women from a nearby historically black fraternity and sorority was underway. “We can’t let other people come in and tear down what these people have built up,” a volunteer said. “This really hurts.”
“Very unfortunate due to the positive effects of people trying to protest,” said David Waller, 82, owner and manager of the store. “Some people who didn’t have good intentions decided to use this opportunity to do break-ins and break glass and be violent.”
“I’m definitely a supporter of Black Lives Matter,” said Leonetty Grey, 39, Waller’s niece. “But tearing down what your own people built up — that does not make sense. My mother marched in the March on Washington. For this.”
Never had its windows been busted in or its counters ransacked. A sign was subsequently posted to the window by the door stating the establishment is a “small black-owned business,” and immediately below it, “Please don’t break our windows, thanks.”
The remainder of the day was relatively productive, and though Saturday night saw large crowds gathering again, they lacked the intensity and vitriol of the previous night’s demonstrations.
In a statement made Saturday, GRTC CEO Julie Timm announced a citywide suspension of bus service until Monday morning, stating they “will only provide service when we determine it is safe.” Timm also said GRTC may have service delays or an early end to bus lines, depending on the nature of the protests.
Around 1:40 a.m., the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), situated at the corner of Monument Avenue and Arthur Ashe Boulevard, was ablaze. Its front face burned in the center of a facade marred with graffiti that read, “police are creepy,” and, “stole from us,” among others. The word “abolition” sat alone on the otherwise pristine steps. Similar paint jobs were given to the Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, and Robert E. Lee monuments. Police exchanged more tear gas for protesters’ firecrackers and burned out dumpsters, leaving most of the main streets in a morass of suffocating fog.
The UDC helped finance the erection of several monuments well after the war, in an effort to rewrite Civil War history and aid the “Lost Cause.” The monuments have been a choke point in the former capital of the Confederacy, and a cause for protest for a number of years.
But the insistent nature of current upheaval forces Richmond to a critical choice: move forward as a role model for other cities, states, and nations, exemplifying reconciliation and reversing the daily infringement upon and persecution of Black America, or remain a racially divided pariah of complacency and contradiction. Many citizens would sooner see a city on fire than endure another ten years of empty promises and perfunctory rhetoric.
“I believe the removal of Confederate Monuments in Richmond and elsewhere in the nation has the potential of providing a measure of catharsis,” said Michael L. Dickinson, PhD, Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. “For African Americans, these statues have long stood as structures of white supremacy. We must remember that one of the central motivations for erecting these monuments in the Jim Crow era was to remind African Americans of their subordinate place in society. That said, removing Confederate Monuments could provide opportunities for reconciliation and grappling with Richmond’s and the nation’s legacy of slavery and systemic racism. I hope we make the most of such opportunities.”
On Sunday, a morning protest-march began at 10 a.m. on Brown’s Island. This march, like the others, followed an established pattern, from the head through the belly to the straggling tail of the procession. From my initial place at the front of this march, I could see those leading were young, no older than 21-years-old, laughing and joking and expressing mild disbelief that they, of all people, led the day’s demonstration. They appeared optimistic, and regularly looked over their shoulders at the crowd, calling out instructions and initiating chants with confidence.
I stopped periodically to photograph individual demonstrators and watch the procession pass. The crowd densely occupied three city blocks before thinning out. Stragglers hung at the back, loosely gathered. Too far removed from the front to properly hear instructions, they spoke amongst themselves of how they were unafraid of the police, and even hoped for a chance to prove it.
They finally gathered by the 17th Street Farmers’ Market. Impromptu speakers at an open mic read poetry, offered in-person voter registration, and made fervent appeals for police accountability. One woman offered a public, blanket apology for Friday night’s destruction: “I just want to make it to 30,” she said, bowing her head as she broke into tears.
Missing from these events was Richmond’s controversial mayor, Levar Stoney, who seemingly abdicated all command over the weekend, and distanced himself from the protests. In contrast, city leaders in Petersburg and Norfolk walked alongside their citizens and heard out their grievances.
On Sunday afternoon, Stoney held a press conference. “The past two nights I’ve been disappointed. A peaceful protest was hijacked by people who do not care about our city,” Stoney said. “And today, I saw an example of what protest should look like, marching down Broad, letting their pain be heard. That is protest. That is peace.”
The mayor noted a curfew would be implemented at 8 p.m. inside city limits, and that Governor Northam had indicated 380 units of the Virginia National Guard were available if needed.
Over the course of the weekend, and as day shifted to night, protestors’ rage incrementally abated, while Richmond Police ramped up their aggression, in accordance with posted curfew rules.
On Sunday night, May 31, officers pepper sprayed violators, including journalists and camera crews, without warning, and ran traffic signals without sirens or cruiser lights, often coming within inches of hitting pedestrians in the street. And still, protestors defied Stoney’s curfew order and continued to march, increasing their numbers by the day.
Among protestors, a shift in self-control emerged as participants began to police each other, encouraging peaceful demonstration, and scolding even the smallest gesture of misbehavior. They walked only on the sidewalks, despite having marched in the streets earlier in the day. I observed as a few individuals picked up and tossed a number of newspaper stands into the street. When the other protestors noticed, the march halted, and several of them reproved the behavior. Together they moved the stands back to their original positions on the sidewalk. They made a concerted effort to stay together.
“This is what they want, for us to be separated,” said one woman, who appeared to emerge as the leader. “Tighten up!” she shouted. “We need to make sure we are staying together- no one goes into the road- stay on the sidewalk!”
Passengers in passing vehicles warned demonstrators of police blockades. The crowd, not looking to engage the police, responded by moving in the opposite direction. Sunday night proved that the protest had evolved in its ability to check its own worst impulses and stand for something other than ambiguous carnage.
Business owners stood or sat outside their businesses, supporting the march while guarding their vulnerable storefronts. Shop owners embraced demonstrators and joined protestors’ cries. Other shops posted signs reading “Black Lives Matter,” like lamb’s blood above their doors.
Later that night, a formation of VCU police officers in riot gear stood guarding the entrance to their downtown headquarters. The crowd, heading their way, crossed to the opposite sidewalk to avoid confrontation. They halted, staring at the police and waiting for a signal to move.
A few defiant individuals in the crowd threw water bottles at the officers, but were quickly escorted away by fellow protestors. A single cyclist who had helped scout routes for the march began picking up the water bottles and handing them off to the police chief in charge, and the two began to chat. Then the chief, in an apparent gesture of concession, raised his arms to the crowd to show he meant no harm. Others followed suit, until everyone, protestors and police, approached each other with arms raised. They shook hands, and embraced. The crowd cheered. Some even cried.
“This is all we wanted, all we ever wanted,” one protestor said, as he embraced a VCU police officer.
The VCU police made no attempt to disperse the crowd, and instead told them to continue heading west along Broad Street, warning that they could not control what city law enforcement, coming from the ambiguous east, would do if protestors got too close.
The crowd continued along W. Broad Street toward the VCU campus. Just as they edged into campus, Richmond police formed a barricade along Broad and Belvidere, pushing at a jogging pace. The protesters turned the corner and entered the alleyways between parallel Broad and Grace Streets, only to be met with three flanking barricades of Richmond police from all directions.
Police immediately fired tear gas into the crowd, macing stragglers trying to flee. Although the destruction of private and public property agitated tensions between protesters and police on Friday, it wasn’t until protesters began to march in an orderly fashion, without intention of confrontation and destruction, that police were able to control and dominate them.
Richmond police have a dubious past. The city established a full-time police force only after the failed slave uprising of Gabriel Prosser in 1800, encouraging other Southern cities to follow suit. The uprising included myriad supporters, such as poor white farmers, Quakers, Methodists, and doubtful Republicans. And though the revolt was foiled and no whites were killed, the State of Virginia, with its new police force, asserted itself by executing 27 Black Americans, including Gabriel Prosser, by public hanging.
As one black member of the failed revolution explained before he was sentenced to death, “I have nothing more to offer than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put to trial by them. I have adventured my life in endeavoring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice in their cause.”
At 7:22 p.m., protestors rallied at the J.E.B. Stuart monument. Speakers took turns stressing the necessity for peace within their movement, repeating simple mantras like, “Love, not hate–that is what we are here for,” and, “Do not give them a reason to attack us, remember peace.”
They spoke on the need for tangible changes within the city, like better job opportunities, and better schools.
In January, The Virginia General Assembly voted to increase Virginia’s At-Risk Add-On program, which would direct resources to school divisions with the highest concentration of students from low-income families, helping address Virginia’s long-standing inequity in school funding, including $91.5 million for renovating preschools and $10.6 million for increased access to school meals.
After COVID-19, Gov. Northam and state lawmakers temporarily suspended $490 million for this and other school programs. According to a report by researchers Chris Duncombe & Chad Stewart at the Commonwealth Institute in Richmond, the suspension cut twice as much funding for school divisions with the highest child poverty rates as those with lowest-poverty, with an average $261 in the highest poverty lost per student compared to $131 in the lowest.
“The research is clear that reductions [and increases] in school funding have the largest impact on outcomes for students from low-income families and the current proposal has dramatically larger reductions in aid for the students in communities with the most poverty,” researchers said. “Rather than sweeping unallotments, a different approach is needed, and lawmakers should take into consideration the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic impacts of their proposed changes to school funding.”
The Monday crowd moved toward the Lee statue. They walked halfway before a few lingerers stopped to debate with one another. They decided to tear down the Stuart monument.
Ropes were soon tied to the horse’s legs; one protestor pulled out miter drills, as well as two hand saws, and they started cutting. Onlookers from the crowd linked arms as a barricade against police. And though crowd leadership had taken the majority with them to the Lee statue, this crowd of roughly 400 was adamant that today was the day this monument was coming down. Within minutes, police surrounded from all sides. At 7:32 P.M., the first shots of tear gas were fired by state police both on foot and from armored vehicles.
There was no verbal warning before the shots, citing an earlier warning sent via Twitter requesting protesters cease their actions. Protesters surrounding both statues broke into full sprint to avoid the tear gas and flashbangs. I witnessed a child being carried away by their mother, crying and struggling to catch a clean breath.
Tuesday and Wednesday were both peaceful in contrast to the weekend. After widespread criticisms of the Richmond Police and their aggressive use of tear gas on Monday, Mayor Levar Stoney and the Richmond Chief of Police Will Smith each issued apologies to the protestors. Smith announced that an investigation is underway concerning the unseemly event by the Commonwealth’s Attorney, Colette McEachin.
“I support this investigation and we are working quickly and thoroughly to ensure cooperation and full accountability,” Smith said. “Again, I apologize for the release of tear gas last Monday. It should not have happened. I will provide the public with an update on the investigations and any disciplinary steps taken once they are complete and a determination is made by the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office that allows such discussion.”
The crowd responded to both speeches with ‘boo’s’. During Stoney’s speech, he looked down to see a bag labeled, “BAG of SHIT for BAGS of SHIT,” tossed within inches of his navy blue sneakers, wet clumps spilling out.
Mayor Stoney joined Tuesday’s 6 P.M. march. The crowd booed him again as he left in time for the 8 p.m. curfew.
The march Wednesday night ended at Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War statue, which features a Black man in a top knot, sweatshirt, and jeans on a horse facing the United Daughters of the Confederacy building. The walls remained covered in spray-painted quotes: “abolition” still stood out on the front steps. One protestor, who preferred to remain anonymous, told me Wednesday night’s protest and others throughout the week were organized by members of the 381 Movement, a new demonstration in Richmond based on the historical Montgomery Bus Boycotts, organized by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
It was surprising to hear someone reference Dr. King’s boycotts. Raids and arrests in the past worked with horrific success. They thwarted efforts by Dr. King and Malcolm X. But protesters now say that aggressive responses by the police are only reinforcing their commitment to return to the streets. After police used flash grenades and tear gas to clear peaceful protesters from the Robert E. Lee monument, even more people joined, including one of Lee’s descendants.
“A new day is coming, not only for the Commonwealth, but for the United States and for the world,” said Robert W. Lee IV, the fourth great-nephew of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. “To those of you who might be hedging your bets that this is not the time to do this, when will be the right time? When will it be right to address the white supremacy and racism that we have made an idol of my uncle out of?”
Lee stood with Governor Ralph Northam and state leaders as they announced the removal of the statue that runs along Monument Avenue in Richmond’s Fan District. Northam, unlike his predecessor Terry McAuliffe, who wasn’t interested in removing statues, is open to the monument’s removal. “When it’s the biggest thing around, it sends a clear message,” Northam said. “This is what we value the most. But that’s just not true anymore.”
Lee, a local pastor, gave his blessing for the removal of the Lee statue, calling it a symbol of hate and racism in the Commonwealth. The monuments have become a cultural choke during times of social strife. Now, after the death of George Floyd and many others at the hands of oppression, racism, white supremacy, and police brutality, Lee noted that the world now casts its attention on Virginia, that the state must set the precedent for tackling symbols of white supremacy.
Because the Lee statue is state property, its removal requires a gubernatorial act. Northam has sanctioned its removal, a date for which hasn’t been determined beyond “in the coming weeks.”
In 2017, Northam made a similar plea at the MTV Video Music Awards. “Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on,” he said. “We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women’s March in January, and, especially, Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville.”
The administration of Mayor Stoney also introduced an ordinance, in tandem with City Councilman Michael Jones, to remove all city-controlled monuments come July 1. Richmond leaders until Wednesday had not committed to a course of action involving the four Confederate monuments that the city soon will have the local authority to control, a power recently given to Virginia’s new state Democratic majority.
The 6 p.m. march on Thursday met at Monroe Park, before heading to the fourth police precinct in Northside, Richmond. Dripply Vapes and Nutty Butter Coffee Shop were both designated by march organizers as bathroom stops along the way.
Tangible demands were made of the Richmond Police by protest organizers. They demanded that the cops that tear gassed the crowds and spit on detained individuals, something RPD refuted, should be fired.
“The charges against the protestors need to be dropped,” she said. “The national guard needs to go home.”
They listed off several more demands: They want independent, civilian oversight over who the Richmond Chief of Police picks for citizen review boards. They want subpoena power. They want the ability to make recommendations and to see those recommendations follow through, with disciplinary action. “Let’s not forget… every last statue needs to go,” she added before passing off the mic and issuing to the crowd it was time to move.
Police and the National Guard were already lined along both sides of the entrance to the back parking lot of the precinct. Police stood with their hands grasping their vests high on their chests. One officer stood in full riot gear, holding a fully loaded M4, his finger resting just above the bolt catch. This officer seemed particularly impervious to the crowd’s emotion, and he consistently, quietly scanned the crowd, turning his head, watching, without expression.
Two National Guard humvees were parked diagonally facing the incoming march; National Guard units watched the crowd from inside their bullet resistant interiors. Those who left the vehicles to walk over to the police were questioned and heckled by protestors over their reasons for being there. Many called them “citizen soldiers,” and asked them to throw away their uniforms and join them.
The protest lasted a couple hours. Demonstrators began speaking with police, chanting, and making demands of police accountability. There were many arguments among protestors, fighting for their turn to speak. Protest leadership struggled to control the crowd while directing them to sit or stand or step back. Dialogue began between protestors and police, against the wishes of organizers.
One Black officer removed his helmet and began to argue with protestors, contesting their claim that he didn’t do enough for his community. He spoke intently of being a community leader and a youth soccer coach, among other examples. Police pulled him back after he began to lose his temper. Some police and protestors shook hands. Some hugged.
The crowd eventually dispersed and rallied at Monroe Park around 9:30 p.m., where protest organizers went over some of the mistakes made during the protest. “We should not be fighting each other in front of the media,” one protestor exclaimed, repeating for emphasis. “We should not be arguing with each other in front of the media.”
During this open mic discussion, I sat down with Hakeem Royster, one of the march organizers, to discuss damage to one of the monuments. “And they spray painted the mess out of it too man… I gotta find out what the name of it is,” he said, leaning back in deep thought while mapping out the layout with his hands. “The statue before you get to Robert E. Lee–the one you can climb up on.”
Royster described the location and descriptive particulars of the J.E.B. Stuart monument. I told him what it was. Though to be fair, I had only learned of Jeb three days ago, and I had lived in Richmond for four years.
I asked him about the protest on Friday. “Friday weren’t a protest,” he said. “That first day and the day George Floyd, Blacks and whites–together–came out here and f*cked shit up, because a man died. A human being died. And you have Blacks and whites together, marching the streets on Friday, but also looting shit across the country. The first day for everybody’s city was bad. So when you kill a Black man, and then you burn a building down, whatchu expect? You killed a Black man, for nothing. We seen it with our own eyes–everybody got two eyeballs–that George Floyd video went quick, spread like a virus. So yes, the first two days, at least after Friday, there was so much fucked up shit that motivated some people to be like, ‘let’s go out here and be peaceful.’”
According to Royster, rumors of KKK and neo-confederates were more than rumors. Apparently they had, throughout the week, poisoned water supplies along their march routes. “Whoever it was, they were trying to put poison-water out,” he said. “Whoever did it was conniving, because they knew people would be thirsty when they got done protesting.”
Royster is optimistic; he believes people don’t get mad, but rather become far too passionate.
“My dad made me realize, ‘You can’t just assume that he is not rocking with us because we do not do exactly what we say, at a protest or whatever. You gotta talk to him, make him understand what’s going on, make him understand who he is, what skin color he is, and he must be the one that rises.’”
We spoke on Stoney’s condemnation of the protests last Friday that resulted in criticism. “I hope, me personally, he is saying he is against it, because I look deeper into that, I’m optimistic about it,” Royster said. “I look at it like, ‘they lootin’ and sh*t, they wildin’ out,’ but I look at it as it was ours first anyway. I feel like he wants to do something–because he wouldn’t have come out there. I could see on his face that he cared.”
A movement is always graded upon its ability to transition its abstract ideals to tangible change; laws must be created, norms must be adjusted, wars must be ended, and forgiveness must be extended. But even significant changes will not remove or obscure the past. Richmond will always be the former breeding ground of secession and white supremacy.
Instead, Richmond must address its existing problems. Richmond is still in the midst of a housing crisis, beginning with widespread poverty that existed before Covid-19. Minimum wage earners cannot afford the majority of available housing in the city, and Richmond still has the second worst eviction rate in the country, particularly among African American communities. Public city schools are deplorably underfunded. Police officers still have qualified immunity when someone dies in their custody. Richmond courtrooms make it all but impossible for those without sufficient time and money to achieve proper justice.
The statues should be removed. Place them elsewhere, anywhere, contextualize their origin and history. Disempower them. Reveal why they were built. It will do far more for healing than their absolute erasure.
My concern is that after their removal, protestors will become complacent. A year from now, maybe less, after another obscene death or wrongful conviction of a Black person, we will be here again, protesting the same things, until city officials offer us another superficial token of progressive goodwill.
“Certainly, the removal of Confederate monuments signals tangible progress,” said Dickinson, VCU history professor. “However, complacency is always a concern with any movement for equality. Improving access to opportunity for African Americans and in African American communities would be, of course, more influential than symbolic actions like removing monuments. This is not to understate the value of removing Confederate monuments, which constitutes the culmination of long and hard-fought efforts to remove physical structures of white supremacy. But attacking systemic structures of oppression can prove even more difficult, especially given the historical limits of black calls for equality.”
Past protests have spurred specious changes, such as implicit bias training and body cams, though no evidence has suggested they are working, despite claims by city officials and recommendations by the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police (VACP). And even then, the training offered by VACP is online and not necessarily required. What will significantly change the quality of life in this city, as with most of the nation, is something I am afraid no current politician in their right mind would subscribe to.
It is a lot easier and a lot cheaper to remove a monument, or even four at once, than to renovate a single school. Yet that is the change that matters. The serious, systemic problems that existed well before the riots on Friday. And now there are fresh, new hurts to address, and soothe, and heal.
The massive gatherings for racial justice across the country have achieved a scale and momentum not seen since the Civil Rights Movement. Covid-19 and its economic devastation have already cleared schedules. VCU is closed and many students have nothing but time on their hands. Streets and public plazas are filled with people who have few breweries and restaurants to occupy, and are forced to go outside for social interaction. These are the circumstantial building blocks for a new, civic revolution.
But for a city that now presents itself as a progressive paradise–a cool, hipster ‘Portland of the East’ brands alcoholism as culture–makes hollow claims of reconciliation for a former secession leader, and endures a mayor who put a new stadium before new schools. Richmonders are looking to solidify those claims. And if city officials are not on board, they will be removed.
Richmond is unique, as it exists at the apex of racial tension, a difficult past, revisionist history, and an opportunity for stunning reconciliation going forward.
Friday, One Week of Protests in Richmond
It is 6:50 p.m. on Friday night and no one, at the time, is marching. Life has ostensibly returned to normal. Around the city, new posters for local offices are posted on lawns, next to BLM signs. Elections are coming up. There is no helicopter in the sky. People are eating at PBR. Two men are fixing a car outside their house. The homeless are begging for pocket change, with BLM signs in their hands and people are still passing them, not noticing the difference. Few are wearing their masks around the city despite the ruling. My mask smells like sweat and tear gas, and I wouldn’t mind taking it off.
A peaceful crowd is gathered at the Robert E. Lee statue. People stand at folding tables offering free hot dogs, condiments, snacks, and beverages. A live church band plays music. Two ballerinas, Kennedy George, 14, and Ava Holloway, 14, perform before a small crowd. People are sitting down on the lawn and on the base of the monument, from which they fled in fear just days ago. The atmosphere is loving, but subdued–not unlike a going home celebration. Signs read ‘Happy Birthday Breonna Taylor.’ A prayer station is set up in the roundabout median, where I once watched a mother pick up and carry away her child, both struggling to breathe from tear gas.
Children and couples walk around wearing BLM shirts. Newly graduated high schoolers in caps and gowns pose for photos. Flowers are dropped thoughtfully under pictures of George Floyd and other slain Black Americans propped up in a row against the foot of the monument. Speakers use the monument’s base as a stage and take turns on the mic, reciting poetry and occasionally asking who still doesn’t have a candlestick. A vigil is planned.
They speak of Breonna Taylor, killed by police officers in Louisville, Ky., and Tony McDade, a Black trans man killed in Tallahassee. They reminded the crowd that police officers have not been charged in either case. They remind them why.
One girl, as we stood before the picket signs and rose petals, told me that this was the closest she had ever stood to the Lee statue. She had lived in Richmond for four years.
After the vigil, the crowd begins to form a line and chant. The casual warmth of the day’s gathering is replaced by a waking sense of purpose. A route is set and corrals are formed: cyclists in the front, then cars, followed by organizers and people on foot. As many stand up, they brush grass from their shorts, and stretch carefully. Everyone registers some measure of fatigue. It has already been a long week, and 374 days, or over 53 weeks, are left in their march.
Those weeks mark impending contention. Northam’s announcement for the removal of the 130-year-old Lee statue prompted a lawsuit by an apparent descendant of the monument’s builders. The lawsuit claims the Commonwealth promised to “affectionately protect” the statue. The monument’s pristine base is now covered with graffiti and treated as an anti-racism pulpit.
Organizers remind the crowd they are heading to Monroe Park, the recurring homebase for this movement. Further east, outside Capital Square, National Guard units are posted. And with them, guaranteed confrontation, which the marchers seek to avoid. Confrontation is no longer a part of their agenda, which they vocalize among themselves. There is no expressed regret over Friday’s actions. But moving forward, they refuse to return to that place, to let anger dictate their actions and remind one another that solidarity in peace is the only effective method in bringing about the change they seek.
One recurring theme reflected in these protests is the cynical but real belief that the only power poor people and people of color have to effect change in this country comes from direct confrontation, forceful demonstration, and open conflict. Too often, movements of this nature are interpreted by the government and law enforcement as ‘unruly behavior,’ public nuisance, and base threats to order; so it was in Los Angeles, in 1992, Ferguson, MO, in 2014, Baltimore just a year later, and Minneapolis, in 2020. Where police see disruption, protestors see resistance. This is the cycle, until we accept these disruptions are symptomatic of a larger, systemic cancer in our socio-economic and political structure.
Protests have come and gone and still Black Americans are dying. Older demonstrators encourage the rising Black generation to carry forward the torch, but to make it a better one. I think of that boy I saw the first night, and of what his father may have said to him. I wonder if I will see him, years from now, in another march, after another death, holding another sign. Or perhaps, he will be leading.
I hope tangible change is made in this city, well after this first week, well after the end of 381 days, and well beyond the foreseeable future. I hope that families facing eviction will not be removed from their homes after the end of the city moratorium. I hope what is in the air today will linger long after the last traces of tear gas and burnt rubber dissipate. I hope children will have better schools, adults have better homes, and no one has to fear driving down the wrong roads or walking along the wrong streets, and no one fears any part of the city.
I hope people, Black Americans especially, are able to protest in peace, without fear of anyone attempting to shoot them, arrest them, tear gas them, or run them over. I hope solidarity becomes more than a trend. I hope businesses bounce back, the glass is swept up, and something beautiful, something inspiring is placed along Monument Avenue, on the spot where “that one monument near Lee” used to be.
My vote is Edgar Allen Poe. He is, after all, a Richmond native.