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With Lee monument case tied up in court, people who transformed 'MDP Circle' are asking: What's the fence really for?

With Lee monument case tied up in court, people who transformed 'MDP Circle' are asking: What's the fence really for?

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With Lee monument case tied up in court, people who transformed 'MDP Circle' are asking: What's the fence really for?

Bedrock Bee can only watch as the garden he helped plant at the epicenter of Richmond’s racial justice movement last year fades.

An 8-foot-tall fence stands between him and the land, informally renamed Marcus-David Peters Circle for a Black high school teacher fatally shot, while in a mental health crisis, by a Richmond police officer.

The state erected the barrier a month ago last week in the name of progress toward racial justice, preparing for the removal of the last Confederate statue standing on Monument Avenue. In the process, it shut Bee out of a space Black and brown people had reclaimed for healing.

“You could just feel it as soon as you stepped on the dirt,” Bee said of the site’s transformation last year. “After that one day just being here — feeling it, seeing it — I came the next day, the next week and the next month.”

The circle hosted a free library, pickup basketball games, Black ballerinas, artistic projections, musical performances and voter drives, a hub of community after spending 130 years defined by the presence of a towering tribute to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Bee is ready for Lee to come down. But with no end in sight to legal wrangling over the Confederate general’s future, people who built community at the monument have questions.

Among them: What is the fence really for?

Government officials cite logistics as the reason for keeping it up, pending the resolution of an appeal over Lee’s removal that will be decided by the state’s Supreme Court.

Some city leaders say they are hesitant to push the matter; the land and monument belong to the state.

Asking to take it down now would be a “performative exercise” that would take the City Council’s focus off other public matters, such as COVID-19 vaccine access, housing insecurity and development of the city’s next annual budget, said 2nd District Councilwoman Katherine Jordan, who represents the area.

“Unfortunately, we’re stuck as the case plays out. The city has no control over the governor’s action at the circle or the court proceedings,” she said. “The fencing is a divisive issue, and I’ve heard from neighbors both grateful for it, and wanting it gone.”

Jim Nolan, a spokesman for Mayor Levar Stoney, said the mayor is committed to making Monument Avenue a welcoming community space but did not say whether Stoney would like to see the fence come down before litigation is resolved.

“We want both Lee and the fence down. The state and the court will determine the timing and order,” he said. “We hope both happen soon.”

What soon means remains an open question. Patrick McSweeney, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case, estimated a decision by the state’s highest court on the suit is still “months, not weeks” away.

The statue itself, overwritten with condemnations of white supremacy, was hailed last year by The New York Times Style Magazine as the most influential work of protest art since World War II.

The ACLU of Virginia last month sent a letter to the Department of General Services asking it to remove the fencing, saying access to it is protected under the First Amendment.

“The community has taken a towering monument to white supremacy and created a nationally recognized and honored space to protest racial injustice and educate people on what it’s like to be Black in America,” said Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia, in an email Friday. “Unless the administration has immediate plans to remove the Lee Monument, this public forum must be open to the public.”

Heilman said the state agency’s director had not responded to the letter as of Friday afternoon.

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Last year, Bee, a 30-year-old who grew up in South Richmond, tended sunflowers, peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes there; watched musicians perform; shared meals at a community kitchen; and reflected on the memorials commemorating Black people killed by police.

McSweeney said he believes the state installed the fencing in part to prevent people from violating local and state regulations and other activities that have disturbed residents in the area.

Dena Potter, a spokeswoman for the Department of General Services, said the state agency did not consider complaints from area residents about vandalism and disorderly conduct when it decided to install the fence.

“While we now know that immediate removal of the statue is unlikely, DGS continues to prepare the grounds,” said Alena Yarmosky, Gov. Ralph Northam’s spokesperson, in response to questions about the fence. “The governor has made it clear that we must be prepared to remove this statue as soon as it is legally possible to do so.”

Kalia Harris, a racial justice activist and community organizer, said the fencing and signs that prohibit anyone from affixing any materials to it also makes it clear that the state will not tolerate any further memorials or art installations on the property.

Allowing the fence to stay up builds further distrust, she said.

“I don’t think that the administration and these other government offices are doing it in good faith.”

Harris said she had felt empowered by the ability to claim space in an area that for so long has represented racial oppression.

“So many people have trauma associated with that area,” Harris said. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with my grandma about how they were erected, and how they made us see ourselves in a certain way.”

Northam pledged to take down the Lee statue in June, but lawsuits filed in Richmond Circuit Court against the state said deeds written in 1887 and 1890 instruct the state to hold the Lee monument and its surrounding land “perpetually sacred.”

The state legislature last year voted to void those deeds. McSweeney maintains that the General Assembly violated the Virginia Constitution by interfering with pending litigation.

For now, Bee and a group of committed caretakers continue to visit the site daily to share food with one another and anyone else who comes by.

He said everything that happened last year has been a blessing to him.

“If I could help it, I would be here 23 hours a day. And that would only be to give me enough time to go get my mattress,” he said.

He wants to continue planting seeds.

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