Ahead of a hearing Thursday in Richmond Circuit Court that could decide the future of Richmond’s most prominent Confederate symbol, six Monument Avenue residents who filed a separate suit against Gov. Ralph Northam’s bid to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee have withdrawn their suit in federal court.
The residents are asking that their lawsuit be consolidated with the case in Richmond Circuit Court that’s already led to a temporary injunction barring the state from removing the Lee statue. A Richmond judge’s 10-day injunction expires Thursday.
The legal maneuvering occurred as state workers stationed concrete barriers around the statue of the Confederate general, with state crews preparing for its possible removal.
The future of the 130-year-old monument is at the heart of a fight that has played out in Richmond’s streets and its courts in the weeks since George Floyd was killed in the custody of Minneapolis police. Demonstrations have spotlighted long-standing inequities and incidents of police brutality as well as Richmond’s conspicuous Confederate tributes.
The Monument Avenue residents’ lawsuit was filed Monday in Richmond Circuit Court but Attorney General Mark Herring moved it to federal court. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Patrick McSweeney, said Wednesday that it doesn’t belong there, prompting a voluntary withdrawal and a request to have it considered in Richmond Circuit Court.
“We have not asked to prohibit the removal” of the statue “based on federal law,” McSweeney said. “So there’s no reason for it to be in federal court. It’s a state issue. It should be decided in a state court.”
In response to the filing, Charlotte Gomer, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Mark Herring, said of the Lee statue: “This is a symbol that needs to come down and [Herring] will continue to work to make that happen.”
Herring had the Monument Avenue residents’ case moved to federal court Monday, saying the lawsuit’s arguments, specifically that removing the statue is in conflict with federal law as it relates to National Historic Landmarks, warrants it being heard in federal court rather than Richmond Circuit Court.
The residents, only one of whom, Helen Marie Taylor, is named, argue that removing the Lee statue and others along Monument Avenue, which members of the Richmond City Council say they plan to take down, would hurt property values and endanger tax benefits for living within a historic district.
When Northam ordered June 4 that the Lee statue be taken down, he directed the Department of General Services to do so “as soon as possible.” Before the agency could remove it, Richmond Judge Bradley B. Cavedo issued a 10-day injunction that lifts Thursday, when a hearing is scheduled in circuit court.
That lawsuit, filed by William Gregory, the great-grandson of two signatories of the original 1890 deed that gave Virginia control of the statue and the land around it, claims that under the terms of the agreement, the state is supposed to consider the monument and the area around it “perpetually sacred” and “faithfully guard it and affectionately protect it.”
In a letter to Herring dated Tuesday, Gregory’s lawyers proposed that Virginia hold a statewide referendum posing the question of whether or not the Lee statue should be removed. If a majority of people voted that it should be taken down, then the lawsuit would be withdrawn. If not, the statue would stay.
The offer, according to the letter, expires if it’s not accepted before Thursday’s hearing. Gomer called it a “nonstarter.”
“This random person who came out of nowhere doesn’t get to dictate what the commonwealth does with its own statue,” she said. “The statue needs to come down and AG Herring will continue to work to make that happen.”
In preparation for the statue’s removal, the Department of General Services installed concrete barriers around it on Wednesday. The agency said in a news release Wednesday morning that it’s still working on the plan for the statue’s removal.
DGS said it will continue to work on its removal plan “while we await the outcome of litigation.”
“DGS appreciates Virginians’ patience as we work to carry out the governor’s direction to remove the statue,” the agency said in the news release.
DGS said the roughly 3-foot barriers are temporary and “are intended to protect the safety of everyone speaking out to make their voices heard, as well as the structure itself.” Gaps in the barriers allow people to access the land around the statue, which has become the epicenter of the city’s activism since the killing of Floyd late last month, prompting nationwide calls to end police brutality and racial injustice.
Graffiti has been spray-painted on nearly every inch of the statue’s 40-foot pedestal. While protesters have torn down three Confederate statues and one of Christopher Columbus, the Lee statue is the tallest and heaviest (roughly 12 tons) in the city.