The Monument Avenue statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, in its current graffitied state with overlaying condemnations of police violence and white supremacy, has been named the most influential work of protest art since World War II by The New York Times Style Magazine.
The list of 25 works released Thursday was assembled by artists, museum curators and magazine contributors and focused on visual art, with each participant asked about the works’ impact, endurance and meaning.
One called the Lee space “a reclaimed location.”
“There were projections on it, it became an activist site. The transformation of that space, to me, felt like exactly what protest art is,” said Catherine Opie, an artist and professor of photography at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“The day I was there, I had a big camera with me, so multiple families would ask me to take their portrait in front of the statue, which I would do with their cellphones — and just in that way, it became activated,” Opie said.
Another deemed it a “kaleidoscopic display of communal, collective action.”
“People who once avoided the statue now make pilgrimages to see what has become an emblem of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as a newly diverse public gathering space,” wrote Zoë Lescaze, an art critic for The New York Times.
In the midst of protests that lasted more than 100 days, eyes turned to the former capital of the Confederacy as the city saw its effigies of Confederates toppled and the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy lit on fire by protesters.
On July 1, Mayor Levar Stoney invoked emergency powers to remove the Confederate statues that protesters hadn’t already taken down.
Lee, the only state-owned statue on Monument Avenue, is embroiled in a lawsuit that bars its removal. The trial is set for Monday. At 61 feet tall, the bronze equestrian statue is the nation’s largest Confederate monument.
The statue is surrounded by a circle that has been informally renamed after Marcus-David Peters, a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate and high school teacher who was having a mental health crisis when a Richmond police officer fatally shot him in 2018. A sign with Peters’ name rests to the side of the general and is surrounded by a makeshift garden.
Projections coated the monuments with videos of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, with BLM flashed onto Lee’s horse. In the weeks following, the looping projections of Black faces lost to police violence — Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice and George Floyd among them — garnered national attention.
People began viewing it as a reclaimed space; a source of healing; what the monuments could be.
“Ever since the Civil War, there’s been a real attempt by white supremacists all over the country to reinsert and reinscribe white supremacy as the ideology and the visual culture of America,” said Dread Scott, an artist who focuses on the experiences of African Americans. “These statues are all over. ... But the way [Opie] is talking about people reclaiming those spaces and that being protest art is an interesting place to start.”
A Richmond activist pleaded no contest Friday to conspiring to incite a riot and assaulting a police officer during a Black Lives Matter demonstration that turned violent outside city police headquarters in June, but the judge deferred a decision in the case until May to give the defendant an opportunity to make amends.
Michaela G. Hatton, 22, entered her felony pleas before Richmond Circuit Judge Beverly Snukals, who ruled there was sufficient evidence for a finding of guilt.
But under terms of the plea agreement, the judge deferred a decision on final disposition and sentence until May 27. The agreement calls for Hatton to complete 50 hours of community service, successfully complete a monthlong Richmond Police Department Citizens Police Academy, and write an essay that reflects on her decision to disparage a Richmond police officer in a Twitter post in August.
In the posting, which displayed a photo of the officer on the job, Hatton wrote, “Can we get the name and badge number of this big boy right here? He really gets off being overly aggressive. Maybe he thinks he’ll get extra points from massa.”
The judge noted that if Hatton successfully completes all of the agreement’s requirements, the two felony charges against her will be reduced to misdemeanor offenses and the accompanying jail time will be suspended.
This summary of evidence in the case was provided by Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Caitlin Robb Kelly:
Shortly after 9 p.m. on June 14, a crowd estimated at 400 people assembled outside Richmond police headquarters at 200 W. Grace St. The crowd used bicycles and vehicles to block traffic coming to and from the building. A police line was established to ensure the crowd remained at a safe distance from the building, as people in the crowd had already attempted to set fire to dump trucks and threatened to burn down the police station.
The description of the person trying to light the dump truck on fire was identical to the physical characteristics of, and the clothes worn by, the defendant, Kelly’s summary said. By 9:45 p.m., the crowd was throwing glass bottles at police. People on bicycles set up a perimeter blocking traffic going to and from police headquarters. By 9:47 p.m., police declared that it was an unlawful assembly and that the crowd needed to disperse.
Instead, the crowd made its way to the parking lot across Grace Street from the main entrance to headquarters. Hatton was one of the individuals leading the crowd. She encouraged the crowd to break through the police line. Shortly after 10 p.m., she disregarded police instructions and proceeded into the street. As she broke away from the assembly, she attempted to pull a bicyclist past the police line with her, but he remained.
The defendant was able to make her way past the first line of police officers, who were focused on maintaining control of the crowd, Kelly’s summary continued. The defendant shouted into her megaphone and signaled for the crowd to join her in crossing the police line. The first officer to reach the defendant attempted to place her under arrest. The defendant tried to flee; however, the officer was able to grab her wrist. The defendant turned back toward officer P.B. Campbell and struck him repeatedly in the arm with her megaphone.
With the assistance of another officer, police eventually were able to gain control of Hatton and place her under arrest. Lighter fluid and matches were found in the backpack she was wearing.
In Richmond Times-Dispatch coverage following the incident at police headquarters, witness Jimmie Lee Jarvis, who attended many of the protests, said the crowd was hostile, and while he couldn’t see everything, he didn’t see protesters throw objects until after officers used pepper spray. Jarvis then saw people throw water bottles, a jug, water balloons and a can of beer or soda, and he said broken bricks or cinder blocks were thrown at the windshields of dump trucks.
Sunday, June 14 was the 18th night of sometimes-violent protests in Richmond after the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
After Friday’s hearing, Sara Gaborik, Hatton’s attorney, said she and her client appreciated that prosecutors were willing to provide an outcome that would allow the felony charges to be reduced to misdemeanors, “since the General Assembly failed to take up the bills that would have allowed for a judge or a jury to reduce it to a misdemeanor, under circumstances where there is no injury.”
Consequently, “we really didn’t have any option other than to negotiate,” Gaborik said.
In reviewing what took place on the night of the protest, Gaborik said her client pleaded no contest instead of pleading guilty “because we don’t believe there was an assault on law enforcement.” A no contest plea is essentially a guilty plea that means a defendant will not fight the charges but does not admit guilt.
“But the risk was too high [to take it to trial], since [Hatton] faced a six-month mandatory sentence if found guilty,” the attorney said. “So we entered into this agreement.”
Police said three officers were injured during the rioting. Several city vehicles, including city dump trucks, sustained significant damage. Several privately owned buildings in the area were also vandalized. Numerous dumpster fires were set with the intent to destroy public and private property.
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The General Assembly all but ended the strangest legislative session in modern memory on Friday by fulfilling the two central purposes for calling legislators to Richmond 60 days earlier — adopting a budget to cope with the economic meltdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and approving criminal justice reforms after a summer of protest over police conduct.
The two missions came together on the final day of the special session with the adoption of a legislative compromise to create a new system of responding to people in psychiatric crisis without police force and a revised two-year budget to pay for it.
It also came the day after what would have been the 27th birthday of Marcus-David Peters, a high school biology teacher who was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer during a mental health crisis in May 2018. His name, a rallying cry for protesters in Richmond during a summer of unrest, will be memorialized by the Marcus Alert system that Virginia will begin to create in the next 14 months with $14.9 million included in the budget to carry out legislation adopted by both chambers.
“Although it has taken a number of weeks to get here, this is still a great budget for the people of Virginia,” said Senate Finance Chair Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, who championed the spending plan for responding to the public health emergency, accompanying “economic upheaval” and social unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis at the end of May.
But it’s still not over. The assembly recessed the special session but did not adjourn, giving time for voters to decide the fate of a constitutional amendment on political redistricting and for Gov. Ralph Northam to propose budget language to enact it if the measure passes.
The special session was conducted under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected four legislators — two of them during the session, all of them recovered. After convening the first day at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center in Richmond, the House conducted all of its business online, while the Senate convened its floor sessions and many of its committee meetings at the Science Museum of Virginia.
“I am proud to say, the House of Delegates has met the challenges of the moment,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said before declaring the House in recess at 7:30 p.m.
The $141 billion budget passed the Senate and House of Delegates without debate, two months after Northam proposed a spending plan projected to have $2.8 billion less revenue than the budget the assembly adopted on March 12, the same day the governor declared the public health emergency. The vote was 23-15 in the Senate and 63-35 in the House.
The budget includes $46 billion in the general fund, financed by state income, sales and other taxes to pay for core public services such as education, public safety and health care. Those investments include spending on behavioral health to reduce pressure on Virginia’s overcrowded mental hospitals and bolster community-based services across the state.
It provides almost $23 million for criminal justice reforms adopted by the assembly, provides a $500 bonus for law enforcement officers and $7.5 million for police departments to recruit and retain officers.
The budget uses a new tax on electronic skill games to replace lost sales tax revenue for local school divisions, provides $60 million to colleges and universities to keep tuition stable, and sets priorities for spending more than $1.2 billion in federal CARES Act funding.
The budget restores a portion of the $2 billion in new spending that Northam had proposed to cut after the economy almost shut down because of the pandemic. Net new spending would increase by $240.3 million, which the assembly would pay for with a combination of savings and $187.3 million in cash the governor had left unappropriated to hedge against economic uncertainty.
However, the assembly eliminated hundreds of millions in proposed contingency funding, except for almost $98 million to pay for bonuses for state employees, adjunct college faculty and state-supported local employees if revenues are sufficient at the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
House Appropriations Chair Luke Torian, D-Prince William, said the spending plan addresses legislative priorities in a fiscally responsible way that protects Virginia’s coveted AAA bond rating and serves the public “in these very difficult times for the commonwealth.”
The Marcus Alert system, sponsored by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, and Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, would bring together state behavioral health and criminal justice agencies to establish guidelines for police in responding to and interacting with people in psychiatric crisis or who have a developmental disability, such as autism.
Funding for the new system will come from different parts of the budget to create protocols for state and local law enforcement agencies to adopt by mid-2022 to participate in regional crisis response networks. Those networks will include mobile crisis units and crisis stabilization centers for short-term care rather than potentially deadly confrontation with law enforcement.
The first five networks — one in each region — would be rolled out by December 2021. Five additional ones would be rolled out by July 2023. All localities would be served by one by July 2026.
“Frankly, this is a bill that is going to save people’s lives,” McPike said before the Senate voted 26-12 to approve the legislative compromise on Bourne’s bill.
The Senate later voted 25-13 to approve the same compromise on McPike’s bill. The House already had approved the compromise on Thursday.
The Marcus Alert system will build on STEP-VA, an ongoing state initiative to provide resources to community services boards across Virginia to serve people with mental illness or other behavioral disabilities. The budget would restore $30 million to the initiative, including $6.8 million for mobile crisis services and $4.7 million for crisis dispatch that will help create the Marcus Alert system.
“We’re still waiting for people to come to us,” said Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, a nurse practitioner who was among a handful of Republicans who supported the bill. “This gets help to people who need it.”
The only drama on the final day came in a Senate showdown over legislation proposed by Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, to allow criminal defendants to ask for sentencing by a judge after trial by jury.
Morrissey, a criminal defense lawyer, said the legislation would end what he called “the jury penalty” that defendants risk when they are convicted and sentenced by jury, which can recommend sentences that he and other critics say far exceed what they would have received under sentencing by judges under sentencing guidelines.
For example, Morrissey said that in Hanover County a jury “could light you up for 30 years in a New York minute.”
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, said, “Many Virginians are taking plea deals because there really are no good options.”
But other lawyer-legislators said the legislation would disrupt Virginia’s court system and require major state investments that the budget does not include, such as electing more judges, prosecutors and public defense lawyers.
“What we’re doing here is wrong,” Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, told the Senate.
The House Appropriations Committee had included a re-enactment clause that would require the assembly to pass it again before it could be signed into law, but the House and Senate reached a compromise that would delay the effective date until July 1.
However, Torian said he now supports the bill because money has become available to pay for it. He said Northam has pledged to support the compromise, which passed the House 55-43 and the Senate 22-16.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct age Marcus-David Peters would have been on his 27th birthday; and the correct votes of the House on the budget.
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With temperatures expected to dip below 40 degrees Saturday night, the city of Richmond will see a test of its overhauled emergency shelter program, which no longer includes a large single cold weather shelter long considered a place of last resort for the city’s unhoused.
The city instead will put those in need in hotels. In the past 30 days, 426 people were placed in private hotel rooms, officials said Friday. In this past week, 45 households were provided shelter.
Last year, 607 people spent at least one night at the Annie Giles Center in Shockoe Valley, according to figures previously provided by the city’s Department of Social Services.
The center at 1400 Oliver Hill Way has been both a refuge and a disappointment for those experiencing homelessness on cold nights between October and April; many dozens of people last winter chose to erect tents in its shadow instead of going inside, citing privacy and comfort among reasons to opt out.
The facility, which as a rule opened if the temperature or wind chill factor dropped below 40 degrees, did not provide food or supportive services or welcome people under the age of 18, families with children or people with pets, according to the city.
The city is piloting the redesigned shelter program with the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care, a regional network that aids people experiencing homelessness.
Although advocates for the unhoused have long found fault with the city’s emergency shelter, some fear people who need the facility will fall through the cracks of a patchwork system without it.
People in need of support who lack access to a phone can visit several locations across the city to either connect with the crisis line or speak with someone on-site to receive a hotel room.
However, a hotel room cannot be guaranteed.
“We cannot offer a guarantee [for a hotel room] night to night for those who call,” said Sam Schwartzkopf, a spokeswoman for Stoney. “We are attempting to expand the number of hotel rooms that we have.”
“A hotel room is the first step, it’s an entry point into a broader system of care,” said Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney at a news conference Friday about the city’s plans, naming job training and substance abuse counseling as examples of secondary steps.
Those in need can contact the crisis line at (804) 972-0813 between 8:30 a.m. and 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the weekends.
“Here’s the bottom line: We need all of Richmond to wrap its arms around our neighbors who experience homelessness,” Stoney said.