This browser does not support the video element.
DeShaun Davis was still half-asleep Thursday morning when he saw that the Supreme Court of Virginia had ruled that the statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue could come down.
He jumped out of bed to come to the statue, where he and countless others have frequently gathered over the last 16 months, holding space and protesting for racial justice, prompting local and state government officials to call for the removal of all the Confederate statues and monuments in Richmond.
“I immediately started my day because I already knew what was going to happen. People were going to be out here,” said Davis, 30. “You can feel the energy. It’s a nice day out. It’s divine timing.”
More than a year after thousands took to the streets for nearly 100 days of protests following the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, only a handful of people came to the Lee statue after the court published two opinions denying an appeal of Gov. Ralph Northam’s order to remove the state-owned monument.
The state Department of General Services announced Thursday that it would being “moving swiftly” to remove the statue of Lee on his horse, which stands 21 feet tall and weighs 12 tons. The department did not provide a timeline for the removal, but said the schedule along with details about how people can watch the removal would be announced soon.
A crowd of 75,000 to 100,000 people came to see the monument when it was unveiled in 1890. And thousands are likely to watch it come down from its graffiti-covered granite base that’s surrounded by a chain-link fence the state installed in January in preparation for the removal.
However, in the cool, clear-skied morning Thursday, most people who came across the monument were either jogging, walking their dog or commuting to work or class. There were no work crews or other signals that the days are numbered for Lee and his horse to cast their long shadow over Monument Avenue.
Several of the people who said they visit the monument often did not know about the court decision until they arrived Thursday morning.
Juliette Miller, 26, said she started attending the protests last year to advocate for racial justice and police accountability at the circle around the statue, which people informally renamed in honor of Marcus-David Peters, a Black high school teacher fatally shot while in a mental health crisis, by a Richmond police officer in 2018.
Miller, who grew up in Hanover County, said the protests were not about the statues, but that their removal will represent a symbolic victory.
“It feels a bit performative, like, something the government can do that doesn’t really change anything,” said Miller, who came to the statue for approximately 380 consecutive days after the protests started. “At times it felt like the police were protecting the statues over people. They’ve been idolized for so long. ... It’ll be nice to not have Lee looking down on us anymore.”
In Virginia, 36 Confederate monuments have been removed or relocated since last year, according to a Southern Poverty Law Center dataset on Confederate symbols across the nation. Eighty-eight remain.
Richmond removed more than a dozen monuments. Protesters toppled several others. The statue of A.P. Hill at the intersection of Hermitage Road and West Laburnum Avenue remains, as city officials are working with descendants of his family to relocate his remains buried beneath the monument before they take it down.
Georgia now leads the nation with 109 monuments standing. Virginia, which has removed or relocated more monuments than any other state in the country, led the nation before last summer.
Nearly 700 Confederate monuments are still standing across the country after 114 were removed or relocated last year, according to SPLC figures.
Phil Wilayto, of the Richmond-based activist collective Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality, has advocated for the removal of the city’s Confederate monuments with the group for more than a decade.
In a phone interview early Thursday morning, Wilayto said the removal of the monuments are symbolic of a shift toward racial justice in politics, noting that leaders in the Democratic Party had long been hesitant about criticizing the Confederate monuments and calling for their removal.
He said the party’s recent move toward taking them down is reflective of a shift toward a more anti-racist disposition after white supremacist terrorist attacks in recent years, citing the 2015 murder of nine Black parishioners at a church in South Carolina and the 2017 neo-Nazi car attack in Charlottesville that killed one and injured more than 30 people.
With a shift in momentum toward more progressive politics in local and state government, Wilyato said activists must prioritize the elimination of poverty, addressing crises in local public schools and preventing gentrification that’s led to a decline in the percentage of Black people who live in the city over the last decade.
“Symbolism is important, but if we stop now we will miss a tremendous opportunity,” he said.
Alice Massie, who was one of more than 50 homeowners in the Monument Avenue area who signed a court petition earlier this year to support the removal of the Lee statue, came to see the monument and speak with activists there early Thursday.
Massie said she disagrees with many of the political views and causes being promoted by the activists who frequently gather around the monument. However, she agreed that Lee’s time had come, saying that it has become a lightning rod for disruption and conflict in the middle of her community.
She said people have used neighbors’ water and electricity without permission, driving up utility bills. In some instances, people opposed to the removal of the monuments, some of them armed, have fought with the activists near her home. She said a stray bullet hit her house during one such incident last summer.
“Sometimes there’s been respect, and sometimes there’s not,” she said. “It would have been nice if it could have been reinterpreted. That didn’t happen. So they need to come down.”
This browser does not support the video element.
Lawrence West, founder of Black Lives Matter RVA, said although he and Massie agree that the monument should come down, they have different opinions as to why.
“We don’t agree on why it’s a battleground,” he said, describing how he and others had made the area the focal point of protests in June last year.
West said he was excited by the news of the Supreme Court decision and the impending removal of the monument, but noted that the drive for racial justice still requires action from activists and political leaders.
“What we really need to do is to get the police to stop killing us,” he said. “I have two kids. I don’t want either of them to be memorialized other than after they have lived a long live and have had the joy of being fathers, mothers and grandparents.”
“What we want is a better future for our society and for greater Richmond. That’s what we’re working on.”