About a thousand protesters gathered around the city’s monument to Christopher Columbus in Byrd Park on Tuesday evening to stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples.
Protests across the country have prompted national reckoning with the historical injustices perpetuated against African Americans. At Tuesday’s protest, activist and founder of Marijuana Justice Chelsea Higgs-Wise reminded attendees that, amid these discussions, “We have to start where it all began — we have to start with the people who stood first on this land.”
A few protesters stood at the base of the paint-spattered Columbus monument. “This land is Powhatan land,” read one’s sign. Another: “Columbus represents genocide.”
After about seven speakers, the crowd began to march down Arthur Ashe Boulevard, chanting “take it down.” Less than two hours later, they did just that.
Upon returning to Byrd Park after the march, protesters used ropes to pull down the approximately 8-foot statue, then moved it some 200 yards across the road at the Arthur Ashe Boulevard entrance and submerged it in Fountain Lake. According to a social media post, the statue was briefly set on fire.
A police helicopter was circling above the park after the statue was torn down, but there was no immediate visible police presence at the park, although Richmond police were aware of the incident.
Tamara Jenkins, spokeswoman for the parks and recreation department, said that the statue was removed Wednesday morning from the lake. She said she could not disclose where it was taken. She said she had not received any report on possible damage.
Richmond police said Wednesday there were no arrests at the park related to the incident.
The Columbus statue, which stood next to the tennis courts at Byrd Park, was the first statue of Christopher Columbus erected in the South, according to an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
In the early 1920s, Richmond’s Italian-American community wanted to gift a statue of their kinsman to their adopted home and hoped it would go on Monument Avenue. But their request was quickly rejected by a city committee, according to the newspaper. In June 1927, ground was broken on the Boulevard. The statue was dedicated in December 1927.
Earlier during the protest Tuesday, Vanessa Bolin, a member of the Richmond Indigenous Society, stood on a truck bed in the shadow of the statue and spoke to the crowd. She pointed out the parallel struggles of indigenous and black people in America.
“This continent is built on the blood and the bones of our ancestors, but it is built off the backs and the sweat and the tears and the blood and the bones of Africans,” Bolin said.
“We’re not here to hijack your movement. We’re here to stand in solidarity.”
Joseph Rogers, another speaker, began by proclaiming “this is Powhatan land,” which prompted applause from the crowd. Rogers tied the plight of African Americans to that of indigenous peoples, portraying their respective struggles as unified against white supremacy and institutionalized racism.
“We cannot fight white supremacy without recognizing and uplifting one of its earliest victims on this continent,” he said, in reference to genocide committed by white colonizers against Native Americans.
Guadalupe Ramirez, who descends from the Maya people and owns AlterNatives Boutique in Carytown, came out to the protest to stand in solidarity with both black and indigenous communities.
She roamed through the crowd with Ben Blevins, director of the Highland Support Project, which seeks to support and empower indigenous communities in the Richmond area. They passed out white candles — which are often used in Mayan ceremonies.
“There’s a notion that you burn a white candle when you want the winds to blow out change, blow out the bad to bring forth the good news,” she said.