A fence enclosing the circle around the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond was installed Monday as part of the Virginia Department of General Services’ plan to remove the statue. The department made clear that the statue would not be removed Monday, but it’s unclear how long the fence, or the statue, will remain standing.
With the state still seeking permission from the courts to remove Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from his pedestal, the appearance of the fence on Monday left the group that has called the circle home since June on the outside looking in.
“It don’t make sense,” said Jeffrey Peters, the uncle of Marcus-David Peters, who was killed by Richmond police in 2018. The now-inaccessible circle around the monument was informally renamed by activists last summer in honor of Marcus-David Peters during protests against police brutality. “Why would you put up the fences when you don’t even have a date to take it down?”
Plans to remove the statue were delayed in July when five residents near the 130-year-old statue filed a lawsuit. In October, Richmond Circuit Judge W. Reilly Marchant ruled against the plaintiffs, but he suspended lifting an injunction barring the statue’s removal while an appeal is pending.
On Monday, the plaintiffs filed a petition for an appeal of Marchant’s ruling with the Virginia Supreme Court, alleging half a dozen errors in the case.
Attorney Patrick McSweeney, who is representing the plaintiffs, said in an email Monday that he had heard about the fencing.
“We’re looking into it,” McSweeney wrote. “The [Virginia Supreme] Court will decide in a few weeks whether it will take the appeal.”
He added that “the injunction still is in force. This may be nothing more than [Gov. Ralph] Northam’s posturing to save face and suggest that the removal is inevitable. We don’t think so. Our petition is strong.”
Attorney General Mark Herring has asked the state Supreme Court to expedite the appeal, according to a statement from his office on Monday.
“Attorney General Herring remains committed to taking this divisive relic to Virginia’s racist past down as quickly as possible, so that the community can begin to heal and reclaim a space that has stood as a symbol of oppression for too long,” the statement said.
Since last summer, the circle around the monument has been an informal headquarters of the racial justice movement in Richmond. Marches often started and ended there. Concerts and basketball games were played. A kitchen serving free food was built. A garden was planted. Memorials to those killed by police were installed, and a sign bearing Peters’ name staked its claim of the space.
The pedestal upon which a depiction of Lee sits atop his horse has been tagged and painted with anthems and art of the movement.
“Once we get the green light, we want to be able to move as quickly as possible,” said Dena Potter, spokeswoman for the Department of General Services.
There was no mention of what would happen if the state loses the legal battle.
Potter said the statue would go, but the base would stay, at least until the state decided what to do with it.
The fence, which is about 8 feet high, was put in place for the safety of visitors and is not intended to be permanent, Potter said. The department needed to “stabilize” and prepare the statue for its removal, she said, but the group that gathered Monday morning as the barrier went up wondered if it was there just to keep them out.
“It’s to stop the movement,” Jeffrey Peters said. “To break our backs. But we’re not going anywhere.”
Lawrence West, who is part of the Black Lives Matter RVA group that has had a presence in the circle for months, said he’s also worried about the art and memorials that were created around the reclaimed space. He said several tents and the basketball hoops were torn down and trashed before he arrived Monday.
Potter said the department plans to gather the makeshift memorials and art, and preserve them until it can be determined what to do with the space. Potter said she was unsure whether the garden could remain untouched as trucks would need to drive into the circle in order to remove Lee.
Many who visited the area on Monday said they’d like to see Lee dethroned, but the pedestal stay and the space preserved.
“This is a unifying space,” West said. “This is our capitol. Our home base. Our home.”
Peters and West, like many who have recently frequented the circle on historic Monument Avenue, said they’d never visited before last summer. They’d often pass it on their way elsewhere.
“There was no reason to stop because of what it stood for,” Peters said. But now, he said, its meaning has changed. “I hope they leave [the base] the way it is. So people can see it, to rally around.”
Tommy Moore, a Henrico County resident who often brings his dog and walks in the area, said the monument has become a destination beyond what it was before.
“It’ll be a shame not to capture that,” he said, if the pedestal is removed. Of the statue’s removal, Moore said: “It’s a huge step forward to protect the dignity of many in Richmond. It’s a step forward toward the common good.”
Trista Grigsby brought her 6-year-old son, Lloyd, to the statue on Monday for a lesson on racism and what it can look like, and how he can work against it. Grigsby said her husband’s family may have had a hand in bringing the Lee monument to where it now stands.
“We want him to see it come down,” she said, “to right that wrong.”
“This monument represents a lot,” Grigsby continued, adding that its removal is just a start in a long process of reconciliation. “Putting things on pedestals means something. It has to mean the same thing to everyone or else it’s meaningless.”
DGS to install fence around Lee Monument to prepare site for statue removal. Statue will not be removed today.— VA General Services (@DGSvirginia) January 25, 2021