On Wednesday, a host of new Virginia laws went into effect. One of those new measures gives localities the ability to keep or remove Confederate statues as they see fit. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney wasted no time in putting that law into action.
Using what he calls his “emergency powers,” on Wednesday, cranes appeared on Monument Avenue to comply with the mayor’s order to take down the statues. Stonewall Jackson became the first fallen Confederate icon, with crews spending the afternoon working to remove it from its graffiti-covered pedestal.
Hundreds gathered at the intersection of Monument and North Arthur Ashe Boulevard, braving a drenching rain to witness another tribute to the Lost Cause tumble.
In a YouTube video, Stoney gave two reasons for his decision to take the statues down with his emergency powers. He says the urgent need to protect the public and prevent the spread of the coronavirus justifies the removal.
Stoney says his second reason to remove the memorials is because “it is past time.” The burden of Richmond’s role as capital of the Confederacy has weighed too heavily on the city’s residents of color, he said, claiming it’s his responsibility to ensure that minorities have a place at the city’s table.
Further, the mayor urges the city “to let us move forward together.” He quotes the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in saying “never be afraid to do what’s right.”
No one should be afraid to do what is right. But, we wonder, is the mayor following his own advice?
He introduced a resolution in a virtual Richmond City Council meeting Wednesday morning to remove the statues. But although the mayor might have majority support from council members, the City Council did not have the authority to vote on the resolution Wednesday.
Under existing law, the resolution needed a 24-hour notice and was required to be entered on the council’s agenda. Neither happened.
We understand Stoney’s desire to remove the statues. He also is up for re-election this November, and he’s been under fire for the city’s bungled response to the ongoing protests. The new police chief — the third he’s hired during his term — reported for duty on Wednesday.
It’s a miracle that no one has been seriously hurt as protesters took matters into their own hands in recent weeks when they toppled statues of Jefferson Davis, Christopher Columbus, Confederate Gen. Williams Carter Wickham, the Richmond Howitzers and the First Virginia Regiment.
A man was seriously injured as protesters in Portsmouth sought to topple a statue this past month. The incident prompted Norfolk to accelerate its plans to take down a Confederate statue on public display. Citing concerns about public safety, Farmville Town Council pre-emptively agreed to remove a Confederate statue in its downtown two weeks ago.
Days after riots ravaged downtown Richmond and the statues early last month, Stoney announced he wanted to remove the city-owned Monument Avenue figures. An effort to remove the state-owned Robert E. Lee monument, which has become the epicenter of the daily protests against systemic racism and police brutality, is tied up in litigation.
We also believe Richmond officials wanted the Rebel flashpoints gone by the Fourth of July weekend to avoid potentially violent protests. But we wonder at the wisdom of acting in such haste — without council approval and against the advice of his interim City Attorney Haskell Brown.
Brown told the RTD that his office had not reviewed the resolution before the meeting. He says the contention that Stoney possesses the authority to remove the statues without following proper procedures surely would contradict legal advice. Is that why Stoney sought to extend a state of emergency declaration in Richmond?
The issue here isn’t whether the statues should be removed. These icons to men who took arms against the United States of America in their failed attempt to perpetuate slavery do not belong in our 21st-century city. They represent racism and oppression, and are not unifying symbols that bring us together.
As we’ve said before, removing the Confederate statuary won’t solve the chronic problems facing Richmond’s beleaguered public schools, roads, and shortage of safe and affordable housing.
Stoney said it would cost about $1.8 million to remove the statues, and that money would come out of the Public Works budget that went into effect Wednesday. That money would be reimbursed via a private fundraising effort, he said.
Once the statues are gone, we call on the mayor and City Council to turn their energies to the overwhelming issues facing Richmond. We’re in a global pandemic. Riot-ravaged businesses are struggling or closed. Our schools are figuring out how to safely reopen this fall. It’s time to put the past behind us and focus on the present and the future.
— Pamela Stallsmith and Robin Beres