More than 40 clergy and leaders representing dozens of faiths gathered Tuesday at the foot of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue to condemn police brutality and racism.
The members of the group, called Clergy Action RVA, said they stand firmly on the side of demonstrators who, for more than 30 days, have taken to the streets in Richmond and across the nation following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police and who often have been met with the very force they’re protesting.
“We share your outrage. We echo your anger. We stand with you and we pledge to fight alongside of you, yesterday, today and tomorrow,” said Rabbi Michael Knopf of Temple Beth-El in Richmond.
“We therefore have a message for our city and state police: Stop hurting our people. Stop hurting your people. Stop hurting God’s people,” he continued, receiving resounding applause and cheers from the crowd, both behind and before him. “Violence against nonviolent protesters is immoral. Violence against protesters is unconstitutional. It is an affront to God and an assault on our democracy.
“It’s gone on far too long and we, people of faith and people of conscience, call on heaven and earth as our witness today, that we will not stand for it anymore.”
Police, too, have said they have been injured in at-times violent clashes with protesters, with some being hit by bottles or bricks, and city leaders have criticized those who have damaged property and businesses during the demonstrations.
Referencing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Lasette Cross, pastor of Restoration Fellowship RVA, said: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
“We have to realize that we live and move in an imperfect and unfair system,” Cross said. “We must realize that the global reckoning that Richmond has caught ahold to did not start the day George Floyd died. It is not continuing 30 days later because Floyd died. ... We did not land in this moment, we did not arrive in this space, this statue did not get here by happenstance.”
Meanwhile, on Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam quietly signed an executive order extending a state of emergency declaration in Richmond that could further heighten tensions, allowing the administration to deploy additional state resources including emergency funding and activate the Virginia National Guard.
The extension was first reported Tuesday, unbeknownst to the clergy members who held a news conference at the same time as it was made public and at the very site where many of the conflicts began.
It was requested by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who told the governor in a letter that the city has “minimum funding to cover costs” tied to the protest response and that “the bandwidth of our personnel will reach its limit.”
Cross and the Rev. Jamie Lynn Haskins, chaplain for spiritual life at the University of Richmond, said many of the faith leaders have worked together on other advocacy projects through the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. But they came together to create this new group and plan of action after protesters noted their absence.
Their plans include using “their bodies and their voices to advance the movement; offer spiritual care to those in the movement; and advocate for changes to racist laws and systems through direct engagement with those in power.”
Many faith leaders said they have already individually reached out to city and state officials to voice their displeasure, but now they will go together to City Hall and the Virginia Capitol to demand change, and they hope more will join them.
“Silence is not right. Silence is not good. Silence is not God,” said the Rev. Donte McCutchen, pastor of Love Cathedral Community Church. “I am clergy. I am a protester. I am Black. My life matters.”
Corey Goss, a youth pastor at Hill City Church, said he was near the same spot protesting a few weeks ago when police tear-gassed the crowd. On Monday, he brought his youth group to visit the space around the Confederate general.
Protesters have reclaimed the circle around the statue in the name of Marcus-David Peters, a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate and high school teacher who was killed by a Richmond officer in 2018 while having a mental health crisis.
“The kids couldn’t seem to understand why people didn’t care for others,” Goss said. “That’s why I love working with kids. They are so innocent. They get the simple concept of ‘My brother or my sister is hurting, we have to go comfort them.’ That’s the call that we have to abide by today. ... Be like the kids.”
When the faith leaders asked if the crowd had any questions, 7-year-old Davis Ramseur raised his hand and asked: “When is the statue coming down?”
The crowd chuckled, but had no definitive answer.