A molotov cocktail that burned up a portrait of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Monday has also broken the fragile peace that city leaders reached over the divisive display.
State and city leaders are united in condemning the act of vandalism. But City Council member Sa'ad El-Amin, the most vocal opponent of the Lee portrait, told the Associated Press that a replacement image of Lee should not be hung at the Canal Walk along the James River.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans, the display's loudest advocates, are demanding its replacement and are urging police and prosecutors to treat the vandalism as a hate crime against "southerners," particularly because it occurred on a state holiday that honors Lee.
"The city should not treat this as a normal crime. They should treat it as what it is, a hate crime," said Brag Bowling, central Virginia commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which claims 3,000 members in the state. "The heritage of a lot of southerners has really been violated."
Richmond police say they have no suspect. A spokeswoman said someone threw a molotov cocktail--typically a bottle filled with a flammable liquid --at the portrait shortly after 4 p.m. Monday, which was Lee-Jackson-King Day in Virginia. The holiday is a combined celebration for Lee, Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
The Richmond Riverfront Development Corp., which produced the floodwall gallery of historic banners along the Canal Walk, said it hasn't decided whether to hang a new banner of Lee.
In June, city leaders removed an earlier Lee banner after El-Amin denounced it as a celebration of the Confederacy and threatened to lead a boycott of the Canal Walk. Under a compromise, a new Lee banner was hung that also showed a black Union soldier and Abraham Lincoln. Only the section showing Lee was burned on Monday.
Federal and state hate crimes laws impose additional penalties in criminal cases in which victims are selected because of race, religion, color or national origin. Authorities said that attacks on churches or abortion clinics also can be designated hate crimes but that the victim is most often a person.
FBI agent John Donahue, who investigates hate crimes for the bureau's Richmond office, said "southerners" is not generally regarded as a federally protected class under hate crime laws.
Richmond police say they do not consider the burning of the Lee banner a hate crime. City Mayor Timothy M. Kaine scoffed at the suggestion by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
"They need to understand the difference between a piece of cloth and a human being, and I don't think they do," he said.
But the Capitol Police, whose jurisdiction includes statues on Richmond's Monument Avenue, are investigating an act of vandalism this month at the Lee statue there as a hate crime because someone wrote in paint, "Kill the white devil" and drew a pentagram. That incident happened the night of Jan. 4.
"It is being investigated as a hate crime," said Maj. George W. Stephens, of the Capitol Police. "The language is designed to institute hatred from one ethnic group to another."
CAPTION: The portion of a Richmond banner depicting Gen. Robert E. Lee was burned Monday, Lee-Jackson-King Day in Virginia.