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Ahead of Thursday's critical hearing, here's a primer on the legal fight over the Lee statue

Richmond’s Robert E. Lee statue could come down as early as this week, with a critical hearing in the case scheduled for Thursday.

The state-owned statue, the lone Confederate statue still standing on Monument Avenue, has been the subject of three lawsuits since Gov. Ralph Northam announced the state’s plans to take it down in early June. An injunction, which could be lifted Thursday, bars the Department of General Services from taking it down.

In a case filed by a descendant of the family that deeded the property for the monument to the state 130 years ago, Attorney General Mark Herring filed a brief Monday defending the governor’s plans to remove the statue of the Confederate general.

“By removing the Lee statue, the Commonwealth is acknowledging that celebration of the Confederate cause is (and always was) wrong and that state-sponsored displays of racial subjugation and injustice will no longer be countenanced,” Herring wrote in the court filing.

He also asked the new Richmond Circuit Court judge in the case, W. Reilly Marchant, to dissolve the injunction.

“My team and I are working as hard and as quickly as possible to resolve this case and ensure that the Commonwealth can remove this divisive and antiquated relic from its place of prominence,” Herring said in a statement.

A lawyer for the descendant did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday.

Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, here are answers to common questions about the statue and the legal challenge aimed at blocking its removal.

What’s the history of the statue?

Erected in 1890 at the intersection of Monument and Allen avenues, the bronze statue of Lee stands 21 feet tall on a 40-foot-high granite pedestal on a 200-foot diameter circular plot of land. French artist Marius-Jean-Antonin Mercié sculpted the statue, which weighs roughly 12 tons.

It’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2007.

Why does Northam want to take it down?

Saying it represents the “Lost Cause,” the governor announced June 4 that he was ordering the statue to be removed “as soon as possible.” The decision came on the seventh day of protests in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, over the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police.

“When it’s the biggest thing around, it sends a clear message: This is what we value the most. That’s just not true anymore,” Northam said. “In Virginia, we no longer preach a false version of history, one that pretends the Civil War was about states’ rights, and not the evil of slavery. No one believes that any longer.”

The Lee statue has served as the epicenter of the city’s activism, becoming the site of protests, community gatherings and pickup basketball games, among other things.

Why is the Lee statue still standing?

William Gregory, the great-grandson of the people who signed over to the state the land the statue stands on, filed a lawsuit in Richmond Circuit Court on June 8 opposing Northam’s plans. He argues that under the terms of the 1890 agreement and a legislature-approved resolution, the state is supposed to consider the monument and the area around it “perpetually sacred” and “faithfully guard it and affectionately protect it.”

That afternoon, Richmond Circuit Judge Bradley B. Cavedo granted a 10-day injunction, saying there is “a likelihood of irreparable harm to the statue” if it is removed.

What happened to the temporary injunction?

Cavedo extended it June 18, saying “the monument is the property of the people of the commonwealth and that the governor is more of a custodian or fiduciary on their behalf.” Cavedo did grant a motion from the state to dismiss Gregory’s initial complaint over a lack of standing. Gregory’s lawyers filed an amended complaint earlier this month.

The injunction remains in effect.

What is Gregory’s argument?

The 69-year-old’s argument focuses on the language of the deed his great-grandparents signed. In the new complaint, Gregory says he recalls walking with his father around the statue discussing its history and his family, and that he would go with friends from the University of Richmond and tell them about his family’s connection.

“For 130 years his family has taken pride in the Lee Monument and their role in the placement of the Monument on land originally belonging to his family and given to the Commonwealth in consideration for the Commonwealth’s guarantee that it would perpetually care for and protect the Monument,” the amended complaint states.

It also questions the governor’s powers under state law to order its removal. In announcing the removal plans, Northam cited a code section (2.2-2401) that gives the governor the authority to accept a “work of art” on behalf of the state. Gregory believes the next section (2.2-2402), which relates in part to memorials, does not give Northam the power to remove the Lee statue.

Who is Judge Cavedo?

Cavedo, who then-Gov. Mark Warner appointed to the court in 2002 and the General Assembly re-elected the next year, lives in the Monument Avenue Historic District. He recused himself from the Gregory case last week, citing his residence. Cavedo said he was “unaware at the outset of this case that I lived in the Monument Avenue Historic District.”

Marchant is now the presiding judge in the case.

Are there other legal challenges?

Six Monument Avenue residents filed a separate lawsuit June 15, arguing that removing the Lee statues and others on the famous street would hurt property values and endanger tax benefits for living within a historic district. That lawsuit has been withdrawn twice, once in federal court and once in state court.

A third case, filed by William F. Davis of Henrico County, is pending. A federal judge ordered Tuesday that Northam respond to Davis’ motion for an emergency injunction before Thursday’s hearing in the Gregory case. Davis also wants the statue’s pedestal, which has been tagged extensively with graffiti during the protests, cleaned.

What about the other Confederate statues?

Richmond, which owns all but the Lee statue, has removed its Confederate iconography, save for a monument of A.P. Hill in North Side. Hill’s remains are in the statue’s 24-foot pedestal and Cavedo, the initial judge in the Gregory case, barred the city from removing more statues after it had already taken down those of Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart, among others.

Are those removals being challenged?

Yes. An anonymous Virginian successfully sought an injunction in Richmond Circuit Court challenging the city’s authority in taking the statues down. A separate lawsuit, filed by longtime Monument Avenue resident Helen Marie Taylor and another resident on the street, also opposes the city’s action and seeks to have the monuments restored.

A hearing in that case hasn’t been scheduled, according to online court records.

What do Monument Ave. residents think?

The Monument Avenue Preservation Society’s board of directors supports taking the statues down.

“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 governing board said in a June statement.

How would Lee statue be removed?

Virginia’s Art and Architectural Review Board approved a plan this month under which workers would cut the statue of Lee and the horse he is riding into three sections for eventual reassembly. Concrete barriers continue to surround the Lee circle.

Once the lawsuit is settled, the state plans on removing Lee “very quickly.”

“From my perspective, as soon as the lawsuit is settled and the way is clear, we will work very quickly to remove the statue from the pedestal,” Joe Damico, director of the Department of General Services, said during the panel’s July 10 meeting.

'That could've been me': How the space around Lee Monument became a memorial to Black lives lost to violence

When André Anderson looks at his 2-year-old son, he sees his mini-me, who wears Vans sneakers that match his and yells, “Hi, Daddy!” if they’re apart for more than a few minutes.

But on a recent Thursday afternoon, as his son giddily balled up his fist and raised it high while perched on the graffitied Robert E. Lee monument, Anderson feared some will one day notice only his son’s skin.

Black men are 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police, and the more than 40 stories of Black lives lost to violence — some as young as 7 years old — that wrap the bronze-steepled landmark are a painful reminder.

“He looks younger than my 2-year-old,” said Anderson, pointing toward the photo of Jordan Baker holding his baby months before a police officer put a bullet in his chest. “He may never even know who his dad really was.”

At the Lee Circle for almost 50 days now, thousands like Anderson have mourned the lives of Black men, women and children they may not have known but to whom they feel connected. They’ve crouched down to read the laminated signs clamped into the ground and plastered on wooden sticks adorned with flowers, Bible readings, “BLM” knapsacks and candles that someone, like clockwork, lights each night.

Each — with the exception of some plucked into the crevices of the concrete barricades that separate the circle from traffic — line the base of the Confederate general’s pedestal, recounting the story of how they were killed by law enforcement or neighborhood watchmen, paired with a photo, age and location. Underneath lie the hashtags “make the change” and “Black lives matter” and a call for prayers of justice for Black communities.

Most signs were installed after Richmond’s first weekend of protests by anonymous Instagram account “Monumental Memorials,” whose bio reads “we are here to protect black lives and help remember those who have been victims.”

Stories include deaths that roiled a country to nationwide protests in the past six years such as Eric Garner, 43, who wailed “I can’t breathe” 11 times as a New York City officer choked his neck; Michael Brown, 18, who was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Mo.; Philando Castile, 32, who was pulled over by police and shot seven times near Minneapolis; and Breonna Taylor, 26, who was killed in March after Louisville, Ky., officers stormed her home and fired 20 bullets, five of which struck her.

Other placards share the killings that have left Black families mourning and unrecovered for more than 10 to 20 years, such as Alberta Spruill, 57, who died of a heart attack when New York City police executed a no-knock warrant on the wrong apartment in 2003; Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7, who Detroit police fatally shot when they raided the incorrect house in 2010; Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr., 13, who during a game of cops and robbers with his friends was shot in the stomach by a police officer in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1994; and Marco Loney, 21, who was shot in the back and killed by a Richmond police officer in 1995.

Loney’s family planted their own portraits on each corner of the pedestal in June so the city would remember he existed, too. As of Sunday, his was the only Richmond story in the series.

His aunt Stephanie Jackson frequently wanders across the circle, lugging cases of ice cold water to keep folks hydrated and sharing the story of how her family has fought to reopen Loney’s case for 25 years. She knows she’s not alone in her pain, and certainly not in Richmond, where last week, a family lost their mother to gunshots and a 15-year-old, months away from high school, was killed in a drive-by shooting.

Despite the string of recent violence, the Richmond Police Department said in a news conference last Wednesday that homicides were down 10% and overall violent crime 22%.

But the grief lingers amid a wrenching debate on the future of policing and a deep distrust of officers to keep communities safe. Organizers have called to defund the institution and shift money toward schools, housing and mental health resources in the hardest-hit neighborhoods.

The outrage against violence has spilled onto the grounds of the circle, steps from the photos of faces activists say could have been saved.

On a recent night, Jasmine Jones squinted at one of them. The 20-year-old, who has been tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed in protests, said that reading the stories makes her realize that the city and country have a long road ahead.

“It’s way bigger than Black lives matter at this point. It’s Black liberation,” Jones said. “I hope we get the justice we so rightfully deserve after all these years.”

Before settling onto the statue’s steps, Jones took one last glance at the photo of Rumain Brisbon with his two children, who unlike Anderson’s son, would never say “Hi, Daddy” again.

“I look just like them,” she whispered. “That could’ve been me.”

A previous version of this story said Philando Castile's daughter was in the backseat and that Michael Brown had his hands in the air when fatally shot. It has been updated to reflect that the child was the daughter of Castile's girlfriend and that only some witnesses reported that Brown's hands were in the air.

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City of Petersburg reports $8 million fund balance, highest in a decade

Four years after the city of Petersburg teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, city officials announced its largest positive fund balance in over a decade.

The city ended the 2018-2019 fiscal year with $8.06 million in unassigned general funds, Mayor Samuel Parham announced Tuesday during a press conference at the city’s transit center.

The findings, from a delayed accounting of the city’s revenues and expenditures due to the state last fall, marked the second consecutive year Petersburg’s finances ended in the black.

“Today’s word is ‘persistence.’ The formal definition is doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success. There is no other word for what we have accomplished in such a short time,” City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides said Tuesday.

Ferrell-Benavides credited collections revenues and paying the bills on time with turning the tide.

In 2015, the city began to run a deficit in its fund balance, totaling $5 million. The following year the deficit grew to $7.7 million.

City leaders shuttered historic sites, slashed positions, made across-the-board cuts to city departments, lowered Petersburg’s contribution to the school system and more to make a dent.

At the time, only 60% of collections, including residential water and sewer bills, were being paid, Ferrell-Benavides said. Now, 85% of all collections are paid.

After hiring The Robert Bobb Group in 2016 to put out the city’s financial fire, the $7.7 million deficit shrunk below $150,000.

The city had begun that fiscal year nearly $19 million in arrears and with $12 million to cut from its current operating budget.

The firm recommended restructuring the city’s workforce after discovering myriad inefficiencies and questionable practices, including city employees who collected undue overtime or used city dollars to fill up their gas tanks.

In the following fiscal year, the city’s fund balance was $2.8 million, marking the first positive balance since 2015.

By eliminating the deficit and supplementing the fund balance to its current $8.06 million, “in three short years the city has seen an overall increase of $15.7 million in its unassigned fund balance,” Ferrell-Benavides said.

“Petersburg’s financial and administrative turnaround is a remarkable achievement,” Robert Bobb of The Robert Bobb Group, a former Richmond city manager, said in a statement Monday.

Bobb added, however, “there is still much work ahead.”

Hitting its goal of having at least $6 million in its rainy day fund, the city will now shift gears. Annually, the city will budget half a million dollars in savings to the fund balance while spending $500,000 on capital construction projects.

Projects include expanding AMPAC Fine Chemicals, a California-based manufacturer’s plant located off Wagner Road where a future Petersburg Bio-Technical Park is planned to call home.

In May, Phlow Corp., a Richmond-based pharmaceutical manufacturing company, received a $354 million federal contract to make active ingredients for medicines used to treat COVID-19 patients at the Petersburg plant.

Students and teachers anonymously share what it's like to be 'Black At' Richmond-area schools

In Chesterfield County, students report teachers using the N-word. In Richmond, principals have referred to Black students as “ghetto,” with absent parents, and Spanish-speaking students say they’ve been forbidden from speaking anything but English. In Hanover, students of color say administrators did nothing after children were called racist slurs.

These are among hundreds of instances of racism alleged on social media pages that launched last month to safely give voice to those impacted by racism in Richmond-area schools. The accounts, which all are on Instagram and have handles that begin “Black At,” are part of a nationwide reckoning that began over police brutality and has expanded to examine all injustices impacting Black and brown people.

Zoe Spencer, a professor of sociology at Virginia State University, said the pages, which have a combined 12,900 followers, are a powerful tool to get the districts to listen. Social media, she said, has been a driving force in the Black Lives Matter movement from which the pages derived.

“I think it’s because it’s an international platform where you can really gain information in real time,” she said. “It’s also a platform where, like in this case, you can develop pages and get feedback, and even do it anonymously.”

Hanover NAACP president Robert Barnette said the platform was good for the county, because it allowed people to report concerns without worrying about retribution.

“Hanover County is, in my opinion, famous for retaliation against people speaking up. Being anonymous is very important,” he said. “The stories are out there. We’ve had cases where we’ve tried to investigate, but we didn’t want to release names because we knew there would be retaliation from the school system.”

Schools spokesperson Chris Whitley said the district is aware of the postings.

“Recent events have elevated the importance of this work, especially regarding the long-standing issues associated with racism,” Whitley said. “As a result, we are committed to further building and expanding upon our professional development efforts for our staff related to cultural competency, implicit bias and equity through a partnership with the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities and others with expertise in these areas.”

The Hanover, Richmond and Henrico County schools’ “Black At” account creators all declined interview requests for fear of consequences from the school districts.

“Retaliation is real,” Spencer said. “While we want to celebrate and we want to have hope or faith in the authenticity of the administrators, of institutions, oftentimes institutions are designed to simply protect themselves.”

Only Deja Williams, who started the “Black at CCPS” page for Chesterfield County Schools, would tell the Richmond Times-Dispatch why she decided to start the page.

“For me personally, I’ve graduated,” said the Class of 2020 Thomas Dale High School alumna. “I’m not afraid of any backlash that will come from it, whether it’s from the county schools or people who live in Chesterfield County. It’s also starting a lot of conversation.”

She created the Instagram page after she saw a similar page for Henrico. At the encouragement of members of Chesterfield’s NAACP, she felt empowered to start conversations. The stories haven’t shocked her. She said most of them seem to be coming from Cosby High School.

“[There are] teachers and administrators using the N-word in class to students. Students [are] using the word in front of faculty with no repercussions,” she said. “Instead, the students who experienced it are being punished.”

There are also accusations of teachers telling Black students that their natural hair is unkempt, an English teacher allegedly forcing students to read the N-word aloud in “How to Kill a Mockingbird,” and a teacher at Meadowbrook High School allegedly calling a Black student a “stupid monkey.”

Education advocates say they want districts to come up with more transparent ways to investigate these sorts of complaints.

“I’ve read a few [posts] where I don’t know how to conduct an investigation if I don’t know what building they’re in,” said Carrie Kahwajy, the education chair for Chesterfield’s NAACP. “I would like for [Chesterfield County Public Schools] to develop a process so that the children feel comfortable reporting these instances.”

Chesterfield and Henrico have started holding conversations about race that were in the works prior to the release of the pages.

“The leadership of HCPS is reading and reflecting on every post that appears on the @blackathcps Instagram account,” said Henrico Public Schools’ Chief Equity Officer Monica Manns. “We’re also working to find new ways to encourage diverse perspectives and innovative solutions. This includes our Community Conversations panel series and a new partnership with the NAACP to facilitate small group discussions with current and former students.”

On June 17, Chesterfield held a talk about race, which was moderated by NBC 12’s Anthony Antoine. Chesterfield’s “Black At” page was launched four days later on June 21.

When asked what tangible steps the Chesterfield school system would take regarding the page, spokesperson Shawn Smith said the district was “steadfast” in its commitment to racial equity. Prior to the page’s launch, the school board adopted an anti-racist resolution, along with many other school systems across the country.

Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras said in his newsletter that he wants to hold listening sessions in July in direct response to the “Black At RPS” page and hopes that those who have posted anonymously will come forward and talk to him about their concerns. He also said he’s requiring staff to go through a “Leading Across Difference” training paired with anti-bias training.

“We want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to create a culture to prevent those experiences from happening in the first place,” he said.

Kamras was adamant that if students, teachers and parents come forward with their grievances, they shouldn’t fear any retaliation from central office.

Many Black staff members submitting to the city page reported instances of Black teachers being pushed out of schools, some in gentrifying areas. The Times-Dispatch reached out to a few Black teachers to talk to them about their experiences in RPS, but they were also afraid to speak for fear of retaliation.

Kamras said that fear stems from actions of past administrations.

“I have tried to model in my own leadership by asking for feedback, being transparent about things I don’t know, by owning up to mistakes I have made, by asking the public to come and share their frustrations and why they may not trust RPS. My hope is that by doing that, along with some of the policy matters that we are undertaking … will get us to a place of greater comfort.”

Spencer said things like anti-bias training can be useful if done properly, which requires putting all cultures on an even playing field.

“The concept of difference means that you’re learning something other, but the question is: does that disrupt your ideology of what is normal?” she said. “If this Eurocentric white supremacy culture is normal, then when you do training of difference, it doesn’t remove people from their own ideologies.”

All of the creators of the pages have listed their own demands for racial equity within each school system.

Most of the pages asked for an anti-racism policy that will directly punish anyone who commits racist acts against anyone affiliated with the school system. On the “Black At Hanover Public Schools” page, a petition to change the names of Lee-Davis High and Stonewall Jackson Middle schools was shared. The Hanover School Board recently voted to change the names of the two schools as they are currently named for Confederate soldiers.

The Chesterfield page shared a petition demanding equal funding in all Chesterfield public schools. All pages have listed school board member contacts to demand change.

“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” Williams said.