Levar Stoney’s hands shook as he tried to steady the megaphone.
Facing a charged crowd of more than 1,500 on the steps of City Hall, Richmond’s black mayor tried to atone for why his police force had fired tear gas on Black Lives Matter protesters standing with their hands raised beneath the Robert E. Lee monument a night earlier.
After emerging to a chorus of boos, he tried to relay the apology he had rehearsed. Jeers drowned him out. Some sought to quiet the crowd to give him a few minutes to speak. Others had already heard enough.
“Yesterday we violated [the social] contract,” he said, to shouts of “Yes you did!” A woman grabbed another megaphone and screamed for resignations. Others shouted profanities. An 8-year-old girl who wanted to talk said she was afraid to speak up (she did).
What he thought would be a public apology became a public reckoning for Stoney, a Democrat with well-publicized ambition for higher office who’s up for re-election in November. A confrontation that could have derailed his political career set in motion a historic decision he would announce a day later.
At a point he looked down to see wet clumps spilling out of a brown bag labeled “BAG of SHIT for BAGS of SHIT,” tossed within inches of his navy blue sneakers.
Words had failed him. They wouldn’t be enough, he told the crowd.
Then what will you do, they demanded.
After facing them for an hour, he ducked back into City Hall and broke down.
Later that night, he marched with protesters to the Lee monument — his first visit there, he said — a gesture meant to demonstrate his solidarity with demonstrators. It did little to appease some he marched alongside. They booed him as he left.
Back home that night after one of the most painful days of his term, he realized he had to embrace his emotions instead of fighting to control them. More tears had followed his encounter with Lee.
“The reason I cried, the reason I became emotional was the pain that I felt out there was more than just — as a collection of grief, I thought, that is more than just police brutality,” Stoney said in a brief interview on Friday. “It’s racism, it’s injustices. Folks who feel like people have been marginalized for too long.”
The uprising over systemic racism and policing landed on Richmond’s streets in what already had been a trying year. In the midst of a pandemic that’s spotlighted the city’s disparities, Stoney still is recovering from the failed Navy Hill downtown redevelopment bid, targeted by activists and ultimately torpedoed by the City Council.
On Tuesday, when he leaned into his personal experience as a 39-year-old black man who understands racism, the crowd outside of City Hall shouted him down.
“You’re not saying anything and that’s why we’re not listening. We want actions. We want concrete actions,” Princess Blanding, sister of Marcus-David Peters, who was killed by a Richmond police officer while in mental health crisis two years ago, said into a microphone. “We don’t trust you.”
The crowd cheered wildly as she held eye contact with him while he stood quietly two feet away.
Within 48 hours, even his fiercest rivals had conceded that his call for removing the four city-controlled statues on Monument Avenue was right for Richmond; a breakneck turnaround in a dizzying week that had challenged his political future.
“I know that as my job I’m the face of local government here,” he said in an interview Friday, of facing the crowd. “I think folks were just fed up with government in general, I mean, all levels, and I happened to be the closest person to them. And sometimes you have to put yourself out there to get knocked down a little bit, and I’m willing to do that for my city.”
Instead of retreating, he accepted an invitation to join marchers, and ultimately embraced activists’ demands, including an alert named for Peters that would tap mental health professionals as the first responders for people in mental health crises, not police.
He also is establishing an independent civilian review board to oversee Richmond police. The department is now facing a federal lawsuit over the tear gassing incident and has yet to detail a review or disciplinary actions Chief William Smith on Monday said were being considered.
Friday afternoon, he said the week had “put a mirror in front of us and we have to ask ourselves: ‘Do we approve of the image that has been reflected back?’”
Although Stoney has said he personally believes the monuments should come down, his administration has not pursued that course aggressively before this week.
In 2017, after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, he seated a panel of historians, preservationists and others to chart a course on the long divisive issue. That panel said the following year the Jefferson Davis statue should come down, but the city should add context to the others.
As for the state-owned Lee statue, it was out of the city’s hands.
Stoney said he’s jogged and driven by the statues but never stood to face the 60-foot-tall tribute to Lee, whose own descendant said in public remarks Thursday was an “idol of white supremacy.”
“When you are in its presence and you look straight up it is daunting, it’s intimidating. That struck me,” Stoney said. “I’d never done that, but why would I? I’m a black man. Why would I go to see a Confederate monument?”
Stoney said he struggled Tuesday night to explain to protesters why the city couldn’t take immediate action, a concern he relayed that evening in a Facebook Live event hosted by the Metropolitan African American Baptist Church.
“They don’t recognize the systems in which we work, that there’s a process to everything we do,” a visibly tired Stoney said in a split-screen with pastors and other local officials. “Frankly, they want action today, they want action now. And as we all know as students of government is that it doesn’t work that way. It just does not work that way. We don’t get change tomorrow.”
But Richmond could have it, beginning July 1, thanks to a bill passed by the newly Democratic-controlled legislature that hands control of war memorials over to localities. All nine members of the City Council said they would support his call for removal following the events of the last week.
Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday ordered the state-controlled Lee statue removed from Monument Avenue within weeks.
Stoney wasn’t sure whose decision came first but said he hadn’t run his Wednesday removal announcement past Northam.
“I don’t know if they let us know first and didn’t know what our thinking was,” Stoney said. “My chief of staff was talking to his chief of staff.”
At the official announcement Thursday, Stoney said tears rolled quietly behind his face mask. He and Northam expanded on the decision to take down the statues, now covered in graffiti from protesters demanding police accountability and calling for an end to systemic racism.
He declined to detail any threats related to the announcement but said he’s been inundated with support from family and from friends of all racial and political backgrounds, saying “number one what you did on Tuesday was courageous, but I could not be more proud of my city and my leadership in my city after the [Monuments] decision.”
“When they are removed it will be a watershed moment,” Stoney said. “Not just in Richmond history but in American history.”