I can’t pretend to support all of the mayhem I saw coming out of my former home of Richmond after the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a Minneapolis police officer. I can’t get behind anyone who believes that blocking a fire truck en route to a burning building is a noble act. Nor can I support the decision to damage and loot local businesses, one of which reportedly had upwards of $6,000 stolen. Crimes such as these do nothing to honor George Floyd’s death. They merely make a bad situation worse, and give the protesters who were present to honorably rise up against police violence an undeserved negative reputation.
I can, however, appreciate the symbolic vandalism of the Confederate war “hero” statues that loom over Monument Avenue like supreme beings. Let’s be real: statues, historically speaking, are created for one reason: to honor those for whom the statue is a likeness of, to lift that person above the masses, to say — in stone, for all time — that this person embodied virtues that the rest of us should strive to replicate. What virtues, then, did Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson stand for? When these men chose to rebel against their country to support the horrific institution of slavery, what values were they touting? How were they acting in a manner deserving of adulation?
I’m not saying these statues don’t have a right to exist. History shouldn’t be forgotten, and the uglier aspects of our nation’s past should never be erased. But to raise Confederate generals to deity-like status — especially in a city that’s mostly black — is an insult to the personal freedoms that America was founded upon and claims to embody. How must it feel, as a black person, to drive down Monument Avenue and see idealized versions of men who fought to keep your ancestors in chains for their own economic benefit?
“How must it feel, as a black person, to drive down Monument Avenue and see idealized versions of men who fought to keep your ancestors in chains for their own economic benefit?” (Photo: RVA Magazine/Nils Westergard)
So yes, these statues should be allowed to exist, but they have no place standing in the middle of a proud and diverse city. They could instead be relocated to a museum, or some similarly walled-off place, where people can choose to view them, where they stand not as monuments worthy of reverence, but as historical artifacts that serve to teach and inform. After all, a monument in public is an endorsement, but a monument in a museum is an objective piece of history. Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart and their Confederate contemporaries shouldn’t be symbolically glaring down on us with a faux moral superiority that they never actually embodied. They deserve to be tucked away inside a building, where they’re much less visible.
These statues — particularly Mr. Lee’s — have become such well-known parts of Richmond’s aesthetic that it was admittedly shocking to see them covered in graffiti. “Black Lives Matter,” “Stop White Supremacy,” and other, more vulgar, sayings colonized nearly every inch of the Lee monument’s base. And on the night of June 3, a large crowd gathered around Lee’s likeness, upon which George Floyd’s face had been projected, along with the letters “BLM” and the words “No justice, no peace.” Here was a meaningful form of protest: this wasn’t burning random buildings or looting local businesses in the name of quote-unquote retribution. This was an act of inspired disobedience — a statement driven by pointed vandalism — that rose to the level of art and sent a clear message to the puppet masters: these men don’t deserve (never deserved) to be exalted. So why are they still here?
“This was an act of inspired disobedience — a statement driven by pointed vandalism — that rose to the level of high art and sent a clear message to the puppet masters: these men don’t deserve (never deserved) to be exalted. So why are they still here?” (Projection: Dustin Klein. Photo: RVA Magazine/Alexis Delilah)
What’s even more remarkable is that this impassioned act of political protest made a tangible difference: on June 4, Governor Ralph Northam promised to have the monument removed, saying on Twitter that “Yes, that statue has been there for a long time, but it was wrong then, and it is wrong now.” Rarely has an act of political defiance prompted such an immediate change. Northam is right: the statue should never have been erected, and to watch a politician respond, in real time, to the legitimate demands of the people he’s sworn to serve was a momentous occasion. It will go down as one of the most important — and iconic — moments in Richmond history.
Monument Avenue is a beautiful part of a beautiful city, and I hope that, once all of the Confederate statues are rightfully removed, more tasteful works will be erected in their place. I can think of at least one image from the protests that deserves to be etched in stone forever: Robert E. Lee’s great-great grandnephew, Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, shaking hands with Justin Fairfax, Virginia’s lieutenant governor. “Growing up, I always heard this narrative that this statue, this war…everything was done for state’s rights,” Lee told a crowd gathered in front of his great-great-grand uncle’s statue on June 4. “They don’t finish the sentence: it was for state’s rights to enslave people. They [chose] to stand on the side of oppression, and people like you, me and people across the country are waking up to see that that check will not cash anymore.”
The removal of a statue doesn’t bring George Floyd back. Nor Breonna Taylor. It doesn’t mend centuries of tense race relations in America. But it’s a step in the right direction for a country in which change has often occurred incrementally, usually fueled by people who collectively push back against past injustices that should have never been allowed to continue into the present.
Top photo: RVA Magazine/Andre Mags.
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