Opinion | We Took Down the Monuments to the Lost Cause. Now We Build.

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By Levar Stoney

Mr. Stoney is the mayor of Richmond, Va.

As I stepped outside City Hall, several thousand people were waiting for me.

They were shouting and cursing and calling me every name but “child of God.” They were calling for my resignation.

I had invited them.

It was about a year ago in Richmond, Va., several months before I had been re-elected. The night before, police assigned to patrol the area around the Lee Circle — home to Richmond’s towering monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — had released tear gas into what had been to that point a peaceful demonstration, following several days of sometimes violent protest in the streets of our city in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. It didn’t matter that the tear gas, as we later learned, had been used unintentionally.

It was wrong.

To me, it was a violation of the social contract and a breach of trust by those assigned to protect us, occurring at the worst possible time. As the leader of my city, I needed to let people know that it was unacceptable. I needed to apologize.

Surrounded by protesters with just a handful of staffers and the police chief at the time, we stayed for more than an hour as the crowd pressed and surged and vented its anger, most of my words being drowned out or shouted down, even with a bullhorn. At one point, someone threw a bag of feces that landed at my feet.

It was clear that the hostility was not just about what had happened the night before. There was a lot of pain on display. Pain from being marginalized, ignored and hurt by the system. Anger and fear, fueled the destabilizing uncertainty of the pandemic, and by a reawakening that the institutions we are supposed to trust to keep us safe have a history of victimizing people of color.

There are two epidemics in America: Covid-19 and racism. One is now 14 months old, the other over 400 years old. Both are lethal. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to cure those issues that day.

  • William Barber II and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove believe that “the Trayvon Martin generation has come of age and is pushing the nation toward a Third Reconstruction.”
  • Hakeem Jefferson and Jennifer Chudy, two political scientists, look at the charts that answer the questions: “Did George Floyd’s death catalyze support for Black Lives Matter? If so, for how long and for whom?”
  • Elizabeth Hinton, a historian, writes that “the history of Black rebellion demonstrates a fundamental reality: Police violence precipitates community violence.”
  • Levar Stoney, the mayor of Richmond, Va., reflects on taking down the Confederate monuments that “cast a long, dark shadow over our city.”
  • Talmon Smith, a Times Opinion editor, writes that the past year’s racial reckoning was “disproportionately experienced by privileged Americans.”
  • David W. McIvor, a political theorist, recalls the “wild swings between hope and anguish, possibility and anxiety” of last summer’s protests.
  • Six young Americans reflect on how the past year has changed them: “I’ve been a lot louder these days.”
  • 14 conservative voters discuss their feelings on race, politics and why “we are so divided right now.”

My election in 2016 as the youngest mayor in the history of the city marked a generational shift in leadership. I had run on a platform committed to creating an inclusive and welcoming city where your God-given talents could thrive. But I was also aware that Richmond was still grappling with its long and shameful history with race; from the buying and selling of human beings as the second largest slave-trading hub in the antebellum South, through the Civil War as the capital of the Confederacy, and the ensuing Lost Cause mythology, symbolized by monuments and enshrined by Jim Crow.

Over the years, Richmond largely avoided the violence that had accompanied protests in other cities over injustice, and instead maintained an uneasy coexistence with inequity. But as the documented record of lethal encounters with the police among people of color has risen in the national consciousness, the fabric of trust that had been carefully stitched together between these communities and their police departments had begun to tear. After the incident at the circle, it needed to be stitched back together.

The only thing I could think to do, with the protesters on the steps of City Hall, was to march with them, if they’d have me. So that’s what we did. A diverse mix of citizens made our way from Capitol Square to the Lee Monument in a spirit of unity, peace and shared grief. I had run around the circle many times during the city’s annual Monument Avenue 10K, but as a Black man I never had a desire or reason to set foot inside it.

Upon reaching the pedestal of the 60-foot-tall bronze and granite centerpiece to the Lost Cause, now adorned with graffiti and draped with demonstrators, I realized just how imposing and intimidating it must have been to previous generations of people who looked like me. Like the rest of the Confederate icons that defined Monument Avenue, it cast a long, dark shadow over our city. First erected in 1890, as part of a real estate development on the outskirts of downtown, the actual purpose was pure Jim Crow — to put Black people in their place. And that place never included the chair behind the desk in the mayor’s office.

Democrats had worked for several years to see a law passed in the Virginia General Assembly that finally granted localities the authority to determine the fate of Confederate statuary, which state code had protected under the definition of “war memorials.” The new law was due to take effect July 1, 2020. But as the protests continued throughout June, the monuments remained flash points for violent demonstration and a public safety risk. Protesters had already toppled several of them, including a life-size figure of Jefferson Davis. In Portsmouth, a demonstrator was seriously injured when a dismantled monument crashed onto his head. After all the pain these symbols had inflicted on our people, I did not want to risk a life being lost. They needed to come down.

My office had been warned by the city attorney not to take any action until the Richmond City Council had proceeded in accordance with the ordinance, which prescribed a 30-day process. I was also advised by my own legal team that I was risking legal action personally.

But on July 1, I acted. On live television, we watched a 100-ton crane lift Stonewall Jackson from his pedestal. Cheers erupted from hundreds who had gathered in the rain to witness its removal. Like other residents in our city that day, I cried. Over the next week, contractors removed 14 pieces of Confederate iconography throughout the city.

In the three weeks that followed, protests were largely peaceful and the city experienced no significant incidents of violence. My office received hundreds of calls; many praising the decision, but also scores objecting to what we had done and a number leveling personal threats, some profane, or hurling racist slurs. These threats had been preceded by a group of around 200 protesters, some of them armed, who had shown up outside my apartment one night, defacing the building and demanding I come outside to address a list of demands that included defunding the police.

Today, only the Lee Monument, which is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and whose removal order by Gov. Ralph Northam is being challenged in court, remains on Monument Avenue. The bronze figures of Jackson, Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, and Matthew Fontaine Maury are gone; only their pedestals remain. Also remaining on the avenue is the monument to the Richmond native and tennis legend Arthur Ashe. Erected after much controversy in 1996, his statue represents the only true champion on that block.

But while most of the monuments are gone, and protests have largely diminished, much of the work to ensure that Black Lives Matter remains, in our city and across America. It had begun long before the tragedy of George Floyd, or the shootings of Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor. Last summer, we heard the outcry of Americans of all races and backgrounds demanding justice, and the pain and trauma of the last 400 years was palpable. So where do we go?

The year 2020 was one of reckoning. Like many cities across the country, we held a mirror up to ourselves and asked whether we approved of the reflection staring back. We didn’t. But amid this reckoning, as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, we have a chance for atonement. Less than a week after the last city-owned monument on the avenue came down, we announced the formation of a community task force to reimagine policing. We are creating a civilian review board to ensure accountability among our officers. Our new police chief embraces the idea that our goal is not policing, but public safety, and that we must ensure that the same department that shows up in the West End of our city also shows up in the East End.

But recovery also means looking at all the systems that have historically worked against, rather than for, people of color, be it housing or education. Over the next four years, I recognize that we must empower communities experiencing injustice by removing barriers to success and opportunity.

We now have a responsibility to erect new monuments to the diversity, inclusivity and equity we celebrate as values in our city — and I as mayor must lead the charge. That means new schools and community centers and parks. Affordable housing and eviction diversion. Economic opportunity through jobs for returning citizens or guaranteed income for families living on the margins. This is my job over the next four years.

Richmond is no longer the capital of the Confederacy. The Lost Cause has lost. But becoming a capital of Compassion and Justice is now the challenge before us and every city and town that experienced unrest in America. A summer of protests inspired change, a just guilty verdict in Minneapolis brought temporary peace, and maybe even hope. It is not enough.

Delivering justice, actually healing and atoning, requires coming together to do the hard work. It takes time. It demands we listen. And for me, last summer, it required an invitation and an apology.

Levar Stoney (@LevarStoney) is the mayor of Richmond, Va.

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