A group of protesters pulled the Davis statue off its pedestal a little after 10:30 p.m. Wednesday and dragged the paint-splattered figure across the road. Police surrounded the fallen statue a short time later. A small crowd gathered, many of them holding signs from demonstrations against police brutality toward African Americans that have swept Richmond — like other cities around the country — for nearly two weeks.
In Portsmouth, a man was knocked unconscious when a falling statue of a Confederate soldier hit him in the head, according to local and state police. The man was taken to a hospital with what state police said was a life-threatening injury.
Northam (D) on Thursday appealed to protesters to stop trying to tear down the “very large and very heavy” statues themselves.
“We all came together to create a process to do that safely. We need to let that happen,” he said in a press briefing. “Pulling them down is not worth risking someone’s life. Let’s do this the right way and keep all Virginians safe.”
Republicans on Thursday charged that Northam was surrendering Virginia to “mob rule” and called him “unfit to lead.”
They also slammed Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D) for failing to prevent the destruction of the Davis statue just one night after protesters pulled down a statue of Christopher Columbus — reviled for his treatment of indigenous peoples — and chucked it into a lake. Earlier this week, protesters tore down a statue of another Confederate figure, Williams Carter Wickham, in Monroe Park at Virginia Commonwealth University.
City police said they are investigating the incidents but didn’t directly answer questions about whether they have softened enforcement after being criticized for gassing peaceful demonstrators early last week. Richmond police spokesman Gene Lepley said the department does not discuss patrol strategies but said police are “aware of the ongoing situation and are constantly adjusting our methods to address it.”
Stoney, who is African American, tweeted Thursday that Davis was “a racist & traitor,” but he urged protesters to stop taking matters into their own hands. “For the sake of public safety, I ask the community to allow us to legally contract to have the remaining ones removed professionally,” he tweeted.
Stoney and all members of the City Council have said they will support an ordinance to remove the four Confederate statues on city property along Monument Avenue, including Davis. He cautioned Thursday that the statues are mere symbols of a bigger issue.
“Jefferson Davis is gone this morning, but it’s going to be a lot harder to dismantle the racism he and his peers embodied and institutionalized. That’s what this city will keep working toward,” Stoney tweeted.
In a text message obtained by The Washington Post and verified by the department’s spokesman, Richmond Police Chief William C. Smith said the monuments have a “short life span,” given the council’s plans to remove them. But he also said police, who were initially responding to reports that protesters were trying to pull down the Lee statue, attempted to reach the Davis monument in time to stop the vandalism.
“By the time we had personnel respond to Davis, the statue had already been toppled,” Smith texted to a Monument Avenue resident. “Our biggest concern is for life safety followed by private property. The monuments have, based on city council, a short life span, with Jeff davis monument already contracted for removal. We are most concerned about large monuments that could injure someone.”
A Richmond work crew on Thursday removed the city’s police memorial statue from Byrd Park, the same area where the Columbus statue had stood, about 2½ miles away from Davis. A city official said the memorial is being repaired and restored after damage inflicted during recent demonstrations and will be returned to public display.
Northam had begun efforts last week to take down the Lee statue, which towers 60 feet over a giant traffic circle and is the only one on state property. But a Circuit Court judge granted a temporary injunction late Monday to halt the removal for 10 days as part of a suit challenging Northam’s authority to take it down, filed by the descendant of a family who deeded the land.
It was after that action that protesters began acting to take down statues on their own.
“Keep people waiting long enough, and something like this is bound to happen,” said a 24-year-old man, who would only give his name as Thomas, who had bicycled over to see the fallen Davis statue late Wednesday.
One witness said a small group with tools and ropes had brought the statue down using a car. When a flatbed tow truck arrived and workers and police began sizing up how to remove the figure from the street, a crowd of several dozen began a short chant of “na na na na, hey hey, goodbye.”
But not everyone was cheerful.
Marcus, 34, who like others declined to give his last name, said he had grown up seeing the statues and as an African American had hoped they would come down.
“But not like this,” he said. “It would’ve been nice to see this stuff come down without having to protest for it. You shouldn’t have to kill someone and get a riot behind it to have some action.”
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.