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Unrest in Richmond, Lee Monument Coming Down, and Virginia Enters Phase Two: Political Analysis for Friday, June 5, 2020

A cartoon image of Craig Carper and Jeff Schapiro with a microphone between the two.

Jeff Schapiro from the Richmond Times-Dispatch joins VPM News Director Craig Carper for this week's political analysis. Topics include the protests in Richmond in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Governor Ralph Northam orders the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue, and most of Virginia moves into Phase Two of easing restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Craig Carper:  From VPM news in Richmond, I'm Craig Carper, and joining me now is Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist and VPM’s political analyst, Jeff Schapiro.  Jeff, good morning.

Jeff Schapiro:  Good morning, Craig.

Carper:  It's been a dramatic week in Virginia, one like no other.  In the throes of a pandemic, the state is confronting another virus of sorts, institutionalized racism.

Schapiro:  Now, of course, COVID-19 brought into focus, you know, gaps in healthcare for minorities in Virginia and elsewhere, but more significantly, or at least more recently, a backlash over the death of George Floyd during a police arrest in Minneapolis is a stirring reminder of tensions between law enforcement and African Americans.  And of course, both of those issues played out in Richmond's streets, occasionally violently, this week.  One of your colleagues was involved.

Carper:  Right, it's worth noting that peaceful protesters were tear-gassed, and two VPM journalists were pepper-sprayed by Richmond City police officers.

Schapiro:  But of course, thousands took to the streets of Richmond.  There was looting; there was destruction of businesses, black- and white-owned.  There was a fire in Broad Street.  Firefighters couldn't get to the fire.  It was a fire in which a child was trapped.  The fire department was fearing for the safety of emergency workers.  This was 1968-type street-level unrest not seen nationally, at least since the King assassination.  Of course, the Democratic national convention in Chicago that year.  Then as now, illustrative of a national division on a profound scale.  In Virginia, curfews were ordered by Governor Northam at the request of a number of mayors, including Richmond's Levar Stoney.  After last weekend's violence, Stoney requested National Guard troops.  They were never deployed here, but we did see them milling around the Capitol a bit.  And of course, as you mentioned, Roberto's situation, police violence flaring at the Lee monument when officers shoot tear gas at peaceful demonstrators.  They claimed they were attempting to rescue an officer who had been threatened by demonstrators; that was untrue.  Stoney apologized later, expressed solidarity with the protestors, even marching with them.  Of course, what we were hearing from the out-of-power Republicans who were watching this very carefully is that Northam should be criticized for allowing chaos in the streets.  And of course, this sort of recalls Richard Nixon's “law and order” pledge in 1968.

Carper:  And the reaction of the political class, which is ordinarily a group that does not move quickly, was swift and stunning.

Schapiro:  Yes, and those monuments, of course, were covered with graffiti, much of it attacking police and decrying racism.  That, of course, is spotlighting the bigotry towards blacks with which these statutes were synonymous, as Jim Crow era symbols of white supremacy.  Now Levar Stoney, facing reelection challenge from Kim Gray, a member of city council whose district in which those monuments stand and who has actually supported their preservation, was out quickly on Wednesday with an endorsement of a proposal before city council to take down those statues as soon as possible under a new state law that gives localities the option to do so.  So down will come J.E.B. Stewart, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury, the “Pathfinder of the Seas.”  By the way, this is all unfolding at the same time - I guess the Confederate crowd was observing the anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis.  He was born on June 3rd, 1808.  The governor's office in short order leaked word that Northam would be ordering the removal of state-owned Robert E. Lee.  Of course, it was the first of the five statues on the avenues and went up in the early 1890’s.  This has been roundly applauded by minorities, youth, even some businesses.  Northam is hinting at the possibility that someone will inherit Lee’s perch.  My colleague, Michael Paul Williams, is suggesting that perhaps John Mitchell, Jr., the enterprising black editor, who would oppose the statue deserves to stand there at a Monument Avenue.  Mitchell, 130 years ago, decried the tribute to Lee as a wrong-headed expression of prejudice and more evidence of the Old South's preoccupation with the past.  One would note that the absence of these statues means an important antidote to them, Kehinde Wiley's Rumors of War standing over at the art museum, will be denied the counterweight of those Confederate figures that makes his work even more powerful.  And of course, the artist was among those who believed that Richmond was an appropriate and important setting for both.

Carper:  And though it's been pushed off the front pages by the civil unrest across Virginia and the nation, we should not forget that the Northam administration is continuing to dial back COVID-19 restrictions.

Schapiro:  And we know, as well, that Richmond and Northern Virginia are still about two weeks behind.  The Phase Two dial-back to which you have referred means that restaurants, for example, can operate indoors at half capacity, gymnasiums and workout clubs at one-third.  Museums can open, and social gatherings, which had been limited to 10, can now expand to 50.  I guess, you know, one could have a small wedding now.  Northam is still behaving very much as the doctor-in-chief, despite criticism of his recent management of the crisis as clunky and unclear.  Heard a lot of that from the Republican legislative leadership.  But George Floyd's death and its aftershocks are a distraction, clearly a distraction from all that.

Carper:  Alright, thanks to Jeff Schapiro, political columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Jeff, we will catch up again next week.

Schapiro:  Be safe.



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