Richmond’s Statues of Limitation

While the monument’s scene was serene that night, Richmond was not. About a half-mile away, aggressive protesters chanting “We Stand With Portland” engaged with authorities at the Richmond Police Department’s headquarters. A truck was set on fire. Tear gas was thrown.

The crowd scattered, reassembled, and, according to my new buddy Lighthouse, was gunning for the next closest precinct. “This is our home base,” he said while gripping the frame of a firearm concealed by the long T-shirt under his short vest. “When the rioters disperse, this is where they’re gonna come.” That meant the police would also be visiting General Lee later tonight.

Since the Floyd protests started and statues began coming down, the Richmond Police Department has doubled down on its aggression. “After George Floyd, in Richmond, it became about monuments and I think it’s now moving back to looking at the criminal justice system and specifically police behavior,” says Martin, the historian. “What was exposed during the last few weeks is that we have the same challenges with Richmond police as other places do with their police.”

“The statues are symbolic of the movement, but they are not the movement,” says Coleman. “The key here is not to find complacency, but to stay focused on the inequities.”

As Lighthouse and I conversed about Virginia being an open-carry state, a short, stout white woman in a black mask urgently interrupted to inform us that someone in an all-black Chevy F150 allegedly shot at a couple of protesters. No one was hit, but she was concerned that the truck may find its way to the monument later, looking for a bigger target.

“There’s a heat between the past and this demand for change. These two things are rubbing against each other and the sparks are in the air right now.”

Richmond has tried politically, constitutionally, and socially to reckon with its dark past. The city commissioned its artist community to balance the town’s Confederate presence with freshly painted murals and installations. Numerous festivals, museums like VMFA and The Valentine, and the historically African American neighborhood Jackson Ward have committed their spaces to illuminating the city’s prideful diversity. Mere feet from the shameful United Daughters of the Confederacy Museum stands the great Kehinde Wiley statue Rumors of War, an African American male with dreadlocks commanding a horse — a clear equestrian counterpoint to the generals of the red, white, and blue.

While there were originally five Confederate statues along Monument Avenue, the total number of statues was six. The sixth and youngest is of Arthur Ashe. Protesters left Ashe’s memorial untouched, but the day after the Jefferson Davis statue was toppled, the Ashe memorial was vandalized with “White Lives Matter” graffiti. “There’s a heat between the past and this demand for change,” says Martin. “These two things are rubbing against each other and the sparks are in the air right now.”

“We’re about to shoot this out!” Lighthouse and I immediately zone in on another security guard — this one Black — walking swiftly past us, shouting while gripping a semi-automatic rifle. Lighthouse taps his firearm twice — some kind of instinctive switch for him to get into battle form — and without uttering another syllable darts toward his truck for what I can only assume (because I got the fuck out of there) was more artillery. Someone received word that the F150 was headed our way. The Black security guard yelled again: “If you do not have a weapon, you should leave now for your safety!”

Yes, much of Richmond is ready to bury the “ole” from tomorrow’s good days, but when a city’s legacy of slavery and its Confederate roots run deeper than most American cities, its demons will not lay down and forfeit. They will reincarnate and go to extreme lengths — via lawsuits, spray paint, or pistols — to keep Richmond in its yesteryear. There’s a clear line being drawn in Virginia’s capital. Folks just have to decide which side of history they’re on.

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