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UPDATE: Richmond judge bars removal of Lee statue on Monument Avenue for 10 days

UPDATE: Richmond judge bars removal of Lee statue on Monument Avenue for 10 days

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A Richmond judge has issued a temporary injunction barring the state from taking down the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue for 10 days.

The injunction, issued Monday afternoon, came after a complaint was filed earlier in the day objecting to the monument’s removal. Gov. Ralph Northam announced last week that the state would take down the 130-year-old statue, which it owns and maintains, after a week of protests against police brutality and racism.

Earlier Monday, state workers inspected the monument before its planned removal. The Department of General Services said in a statement that a date for the statue’s removal had not been determined. Northam asked that it be taken down “as soon as possible.”

In the injunction, the judge, whose name could not be identified at press time, said there is “a likelihood of irreparable harm to the statue” if it is removed as proposed by Northam and DGS Director Joe Damico, the two defendants in the lawsuit.

“It is in the public interest to await resolution of this case on the merits prior to removal of the statue by defendants, and the public interest weighs in favor of maintaining the status quo,” the injunction reads.

Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said the administration is still reviewing the order.

“Governor Northam remains committed to removing this divisive symbol from Virginia’s capital city, and we’re confident in his authority to do so,” she said.

Joseph Blackburn Jr., a lawyer for the plaintiff, confirmed the judge’s ruling, but declined comment.

The 381 Movement, one of the main Richmond groups organizing protests, did not immediately return a request for comment in response to the injunction late Monday.

In a statement on its Facebook page, the Monument Avenue Preservation Group described William Gregory, the plaintiff in the case, as a “descendant of a donor of the Lee Monument fund.” The statue, erected in 1890, is the largest on Monument Avenue and has served as the epicenter of Richmond’s protests in response to the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minnesota.

Like the other Confederate statues on Monument Avenue, it has been tagged with graffiti during the protests. The Lee statue in particular has served in recent days as the site of mass gatherings, with protesters singing, dancing and registering to vote.

State workers were there Monday inspecting the statue before its planned removal.

While protesters have toppled some other Confederate statues and some cities have moved swiftly to remove what critics see as symbols of white supremacy, this monument won’t be so easy to take down.

Officials said the removal of the Lee monument must be done safely, given the memorial’s weight and height.

“The massive statue weighs approximately 12 tons, stands 21 feet tall, and has been on a 40-foot pedestal for 130 years,” the Department of General Services said in a statement. “Meticulous planning is required to remove an aging monument of this size and scale safely.”

Northam ordered the removal of the Lee monument last week amid nationwide protests sparked by the death of Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who died after a white officer jammed his knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes.

While the Lee statue is on state property, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and the City Council, meanwhile, have committed to taking down four additional Confederate memorials on city land along Monument Avenue. Together, they are among the nation’s most prominent tributes to the Confederacy, and their planned removal has been widely praised by black leaders and activists.

Police officers blocked off streets leading up to the traffic circle that surrounds the Lee statue around 7 a.m. Monday. Others ringed the monument with their vehicles.

Several top state officials, including Northam’s chief of staff, were on the scene as a cherry picker hauled in on a flat-bed truck hoisted workers up to inspect the statue. The work appeared to take only about an hour, and the scene was soon cleared.

Motivated by a bystander’s video of Floyd’s agony, demonstrators around the world have vowed to sustain a movement focused on addressing racial injustice and police brutality. In the American South, they’re also advocating for the swift removal of Confederate monuments, with or without the approval of authorities.

Opponents of the monuments say they celebrate white supremacy and gloss over the nation’s history of slavery. Others who advocate for keeping them say they have historical or artistic value and their removal amounts to erasing history.

Authorities have removed other symbols since protests erupted two weeks ago, including a massive obelisk in Birmingham, Ala., and a bronze likeness of Adm. Raphael Semmes that had stood in a middle of a downtown street near the Mobile, Ala., waterfront for 120 years. In Fredericksburg, a 176-year-old slave auction block was removed from the city’s downtown, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy removed its statue from Old Town Alexandria.

In other cases, protesters aren’t waiting: In Richmond over the weekend, protesters toppled a statue of Gen. Williams Carter Wickham in Monroe Park, and in Bristol, England, a statue of slave trader Edward Colston met a watery end.

Times-Dispatch staff writer Justin Mattingly contributed to this report along with The Associated Press’ Steve Helber and Sarah Rankin.

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