One supporter of the monuments cried.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D), bucking advice from the city attorney and relying on emergency powers, dispatched a crew to take down the statue after the City Council delayed a vote on removing it along with three others owned by the city along the avenue. The fifth Confederate statue is owned by the state.
Once the equestrian statue was lifted from its base and lowered to the ground, just after 4:30 p.m., Stoney compared the moment to the end of the Cold War.
“The Berlin Wall fell, but also the system fell with it,” the 39-year-old mayor said. “Now for us, as elected leaders, alongside our community, it’s our job to rip out the systemic racism that is found in everything we do — from government, to health care, to the criminal justice system.”
Since the outbreak of national protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in late May, crowds have gathered nightly in Richmond, denouncing the statues and demanding their removal.
In early June, Richmond protesters toppled a figure of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, though the bulk of his enormous, columned monument remains.
Demonstrators across the country have seized on Confederate monuments — some erected during the Jim Crow era to intimidate black people — as instruments of the same racial oppression they see in the death of Floyd under a white officer’s knee.
They have not stopped at icons of the so-called Lost Cause, turning their sledgehammers and spray paint to tributes to historic figures of all sorts. A statue of Christopher Columbus, the explorer reviled by some for mistreatment of native peoples, was ripped off its base and thrown into a pond in a Richmond park.
Protesters in the District have vowed to bring down the Emancipation Memorial, which shows President Abraham Lincoln holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation as an African American man in a loincloth kneels at his feet. Critics say the portrayal of African Americans is demeaning.
President Trump has seized on the defacing and fanned a culture war, objecting most strenuously to vandalism of a statue of Andrew Jackson, his favorite president, who is criticized today for his treatment of Native Americans.
“This is a battle to save the Heritage, History, and Greatness of our Country!” the president tweeted Tuesday.
A white man offended by the vandalism of Richmond’s Confederate monuments took revenge recently by painting “white lives matter” on a statue of African American tennis legend Arthur Ashe, who grew up playing on the city’s segregated courts.
Stoney had tried earlier Wednesday to get the Richmond City Council to vote on immediately removing all four city-owned Confederate statues, but the city attorney said procedural hurdles stood in the way.
A state law that took effect Wednesday allows cities and counties to act on their own to remove Confederate memorials. But it does not empower them to do so immediately. The law requires cities and counties to jump through numerous hoops, including public comment periods, before taking anything down.
Stoney relied on an emergency declaration for the city — which Gov. Ralph Northam (D) extended this week at the mayor’s request — to assert that those steps could be skipped in the interest of public safety. He said leaving the statues up presented a danger because protesters could be hurt or killed if they tried to topple them on their own. He also said that as a magnet for continued protests, the monuments could contribute to the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“I am the emergency management director,” Stoney said. “In that role, I’m responsible to protect life and property. We’ve had 33 consecutive days of protest and civil unrest, and public safety has to be the top priority.”
Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), chairman of the General Assembly’s Black Caucus, called the removal “long overdue.”
“The tearing down of statues by activists puts their health and safety at great risk, and I support his decision to mitigate those risks,” Bagby said in a statement.
In addition to Jackson and Davis, the other two city-owned statues on the avenue honor Confederate figures J.E.B. Stuart and Matthew Fontaine Maury. The mayor’s spokesman, Jim Nolan, said those statues, and the rest of the Davis memorial, will come down next.
“We’re going to remove as many monuments as we can, as soon as we can,” Nolan said.
The Republican Party of Virginia called “Stoney’s stunt” illegal and said it would fuel “the flames of the violent and chaotic protests.”
“Richmond is no longer run by the rule of law — it has devolved into anarchy,” GOP Chairman Jack Wilson said in a statement. “Caving to mob rule tells the mob that their violence and looting is the way to make change and that law and order is irrelevant.”
City Councilman Michael Jones, who joined the crowd at the Jackson site, told Stoney he’d “stand with” him if he acted despite the city attorney’s advice.
“I believe the moral thing to do is to act,” Jones said as workers used power tools to loosen the statue from its base. “So I stand with him. We’ll fix everything else on the other side.”
Northam’ spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said the governor’s office would not address questions about when and how localities could act to take down Confederate tributes.
“But make no mistake — Robert E. Lee is next,” Yarmosky said in a statement.
Northam tweeted that the removal of the Jackson statue “begins the important process of removing these painful symbols of our past.”
Stoney, who is African American, commissioned a city study in 2018 that recommended removing the Davis statue but leaving the others and including more signage for context.
Since the protests began, he has pledged to take all the statues down. Stoney made no announcement Tuesday, but word spread on social media, and an enormous crowd gathered around the Jackson statue, at the intersection of Monument Avenue and Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
The roads were blocked by Richmond sheriff’s deputies and city public utility work trucks. No police officers were in sight. The crane trucks were from a Connecticut company.
One man helping to supervise the work crews, who declined to give his name, said a local firm served as general contractor but was unable to find a crane company in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina or the District willing to handle the job.
As the crew got to work, a white man ran up to the base with a large flag that urged people to “respect and protect” Confederate monuments. Protesters soon swarmed him — some protecting him from the crowd, others stripping the flag from its pole and setting it on fire.
“Burn that s---!” a woman called out.
Sheriff’s deputies hustled the man into a car moments later. He was crying and saying, “I’m just so sad about the whole thing.’ ”
With the crowd cheering and chanting below, workers rode a cherry picker onto the statue and used power tools to grind away at the bolts holding the bronze figure onto its base but seemed to struggle to cut them loose.
The effort dragged on for several hours, and dark clouds rolled in, along with thunder and flashes of lightning.
As workers made final checks on straps and chains securing the statue, Melvin Shelton, 27, led a chant of “Black Lives Matter!”
“I feel inspired,” Shelton said, just as rain began to fall. “I feel like what we’re doing is making a change. This is not the end — far from it. But I’m hopeful.”
Moments later, the skies opened up with torrential rain.
“Black lives matter in inclement weather!” one person yelled.
“This is history! This is history!” another said.
The work crews waited for the thunder and lightning to ease, then rode the cherry picker up for one final check of the straps securing the statue. With rain pelting down, one worker wound his arm in circles to signal the crane operator to begin. The crowd cheered.
The statue rose off its base and swung to the side, just as a huge clap of thunder hit. The crowd’s roar grew deafening.
Latorria Mason, 42, of Richmond said the sight of the statue coming down was a relief.
“I feel good that people of color — our voices have been heard by other people who recognize what we meant when we said that these statues were painful,” she said. “This is really healing. I wish my grandfather was here to see this.”