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As Confederate Monuments Fall, Will Racial Justice Protests Lead to a Seat at the Table?

Demonstrators gather around the Lee Monument on June 2, 2020.
Demonstrators gather around the Lee Monument on June 2, 2020, one day after police attacked a peaceful gathering with tear gas and pepper spray approximately 20 minutes before the curfew was set to begin. (Photo: Steve Humble/VPM News)

This story was reported by Pam Hervey.

Photojournalist Brian Palmer was on duty the night when a peaceful protest staged at the Robert E Lee monument suddenly changed course.

“The only time I've been in tear gas in the United States was a couple of volleys after the Rodney King disturbances in New York, but it was nothing like this,” Palmer said. 

Police attacked protesters with tear gas and pepper spray, but Palmer didn't see anything that would have prompted that excessive use of force.

“Everything I saw was non-violent,” said Palmer. “I heard angry talk, I heard spirited talk, I heard peaceful rhetoric, loving rhetoric.”

The demands of demonstrators aren’t new. Historian and University of Richmond Professor Dr. Julian Hayter recalls the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s. He says protests were a part of the strategy when other methods failed. 

“Protest is something you do when you don't have a seat at the table,” said Hayter. “The fact that African Americans in vulnerable communities are using the same strategies 60 to 70 years later, speaks to the kind of shockingly predictable continuity of institutionalized racism.”

But these demonstrations are different too. Protesters aren’t waiting for an official process to remove Confederate and other racist statues. In Richmond, three were pulled down by demonstrators in less than a week. Governor Northam promised to remove the six-storey Robert E. Lee statue, which is now being challenged in court. 

Mayor Stoney and Richmond City Councilors all voiced support for passing an ordinance to remove the remaining monuments on city-owned land. But Hayter, who served on the Mayor’s Monument Avenue Commission, says taking down the monuments without addressing systemic issues would be a squandered opportunity.

“Those monuments aren't the only artifacts to the Jim Crow system in Richmond,” said Hayter. “They’re a representation of a larger system and without thinking thoroughly about that system and if you take those monuments down, I think you struggle to think more intently about the Richmond Public School system, the compression of African Americans in public housing units which has in many ways created a problem of generational poverty that this city has found very difficult to wipe away or to deal with in any effective measure.”

The two weeks of demonstrations have been a place of solidarity for those experiencing the trauma of the recent police killings of African Americans. Virginia State Senator Jennifer McClellan said the protests have given her a sense of hope after more than a week of pain and frustration following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

“I remember the night before, being at a very low point in response to the George Floyd murder, and we've been here before and there's been an uprising and then everyone goes back to business as usual,” McClellan. 

She marched with protesters June 2nd, the day after Richmond police attacked a peace crowd with tear gas and pepper at the Lee monument.

“In that march and talking to the protesters and listening to them, I could feel a change. That this is not going to be just a flash in the moment and then back to business as usual. It's almost a commitment to change going forward. And it feels very much like a turning point for our commonwealth and our country,” McClellan said. 

While the protests have pushed policy makers, businesses and organizations to pledge to do more to counter inequities and systemic racism, Dr. Hayter says lasting change will require ongoing pressure on the system.  

“When we walk away singing kumbaya, the forces of restriction are at work. And the forces of restriction have shown that they are most effective when people forget that movements for equality and justice need to be sustained over a long period of time and protected by people who have the energy to move the needle forward. And I think if people walk away from this moment declaring victory, it would be a waste,” said Hayter.

So far, activists don’t seem to be letting up - using this historical moment to get elected officials to back concrete policy solutions for police reform and racial justice. 

Editor's Note: a previous version of this story incorrectly named which statue the Monument Avenue Commission recommended taking down. The statue was Jefferson Davis and the caption has been updated. 

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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