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No longer untouchable, statue of Lee becomes focus of civic outpouring in Richmond

Brian Wells, left, and his wife Crystal Wells raise their fists toward the statue of Robert E. Lee during Virginia's 5000 Man March Against Racism on Saturday.

JOHN MCDONNELL/THE WASHINGTON POST

By GREGORY S. SCHNEIDER | The Washington Post | Published: June 15, 2020

RICHMOND, Va. — The Robert E. Lee statue that soars over Monument Avenue was designed to seem untouchable. But now that it might come down, the figure has connected with the community below in surprising ways.

People scale its graffiti-covered granite base to make speeches, take photos, dance. On Sunday, a gospel band played in its shadow. A man lit wax candles in the shape of the monument to watch them melt away. Preachers pray, children play and residents from every neighborhood come to see the sights and talk about change.

"We want to create a peaceful atmosphere to protest," said Jasmine Kelley, 29, who heads a group called Tuko Pamoja — Swahili for "we are together." She and other volunteers gave away colorful poster board, markers and other supplies this weekend so people could make signs.

The statue's transformation after 130 years of idealizing the Lost Cause began 18 days ago, when Richmond erupted like other cities across the country in protest over police brutality against African Americans.

It was at Lee's feet that city police tear-gassed peaceful demonstrators on June 1, and it was along the traffic circle surrounding the statue that a police SUV drove through a crowd of protesters Saturday night, bumping into several. Both events set off ferocious nighttime demonstrations. Early Monday, after an hours-long standoff at police headquarters, officers in riot gear fired tear gas to disperse the angry crowd.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced earlier this month that he will remove the Lee statue from state property, saying Virginia "can no longer honor a system that was based on the buying and selling of enslaved people." A judge has temporarily halted the effort because of a lawsuit, prompting demonstrators to pull down three other statues in the city. But Lee — towering 60 feet — would be a challenge for even the largest and most energetic crowd.

Still, the myth of Lee's invincibility has been broken. Now he is the unlikely centerpiece of a daily open-air civics forum and street festival. Cars cruise the traffic circle, horns honking. Canopies ring the lawn. One offers voter registration. Others, free water and snacks.

On Sunday, workers from Oakwood Arts, a nonprofit that provides arts education in low-income communities, set up a booth where visitors could create cloth squares bearing images or words from the monument protests. The squares will be made into a quilt in a traditional Tree of Paradise style representing the passage of life.

"It's to honor those . . . whose life was cut short," said Sam Page, 23, who came up with the idea.

Kelley, with Tuko Pamoja, said it's important for the area to be a "safe space" for people to speak and children to learn. "You're looking at this space evolving," she said. The first two weeks of protest were about venting rage and drawing attention. Now it's "music, mediating, networking, helping."

On Friday, the civic spirit was tested when a man in a pickup truck attempted to power-wash graffiti off the statue's base. Tempers flared, police arrived, and the man eventually left.

Later that day, a white woman approached the statue wearing a straw hat and a hoop skirt reminiscent of the Civil War era. Escorted by a man in modern clothes, she drifted past homemade memorials to African Americans killed by police and knelt on the colorful graffiti of the statue's base. She kissed her fingers, then touched the monument reverently.

Onlookers stared.

"I am a Confederate woman during the 1860s, and I support Lee," the woman said when asked about her dress. "We wanted to see this monument before they take it down. I'm very sad to see the marking on it. It's such a beautiful piece of history. There was nothing racist about Robert E. Lee."

The couple would not give their full names, but said they were from North Carolina. She identified herself as Lauren, 24, and he said he was Joshua, 36.

One woman came up and hugged them. Another leaned over and said, "I'm a descendant of Lee."

As the couple strolled slowly around the traffic circle, Pascal Guirma, 59, a black man from New York, approached them. He said he was interested in hearing their beliefs.

In a low Carolina drawl, Lauren began listing Lee's positive qualities: He was humble, he hated tyranny, he taught his slaves to read.

"But the operative word is 'his slaves,' " said Guirma, a wealth management adviser who was in Richmond to visit his daughter, a ballet dancer. "As a black man, if I'm going by the statue, which is in remembrance of a guy who fought to maintain a system to own me — that's not something I could feel proud of."

But the statues are history, Lauren said. Take them down, and people forget. "What I want to know," she said, "is what Lee ever did wrong."

"What he did wrong was, he was fighting for a system that fought — " Guirma began.

"He was fighting for freedom," Lauren said.

" — to give people the right to own — " Guirma continued, but Lauren was talking over him, professing Lee's goodness.

At this point, Guirma's 20-year old daughter, Danielle, had heard enough. "Justify that — he's a good man because he's fighting for freedom under a system that wants to keep people enslaved?" She turned to her father. "You can be calm and patient, but I'm not. I'm sorry."

Lauren looked on implacably and said: "We're not your slave masters, and you're not our slaves."

"Are you kidding me?" Danielle said. "Do you think that's insightful, you're not my slave master? Oh my god! I gotta walk away. I'm shaking."

Guirma turned back to Lauren. He appreciated her honesty in expressing her views, he said. Conversations are "what we all need to have."

But when he mentioned George Floyd, the black man killed under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, Lauren dismissed Floyd as "a druggist" — apparently meaning drug-user.

Guirma's daughter overheard and dove back in. "You should be ashamed of yourself!" she said.

Guirma stepped back with his wife and daughter. It had been a perfect echo of the dynamics playing out around the statue: The urge for civic engagement clashing with the sense among some, especially young people, that enough is enough.

"It just reinforces my idea that I have to try harder," Guirma said. "You see how my daughter feels. I have to go a step further because somehow there has to be a conversation. The reaction of force begets force, violence begets violence — somewhere the cycle has to break."