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State Puts Up Fencing Around Richmond’s Lee Monument

Lee monument seen through fencing
The Robert E. Lee monument now stands behind fencing as state officials prepare to remove statue, though it's unclear when that may happen. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

State officials erected fencing around Richmond’s Robert E. Lee monument today, in preparation to remove the statue. The area now enclosed was dubbed Marcus-David Peters Circle by racial justice protesters this summer.

The traffic circle around Lee has been a site of protest since last summer, when thousands took to the streets of Richmond following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The New York Times recently ranked the Lee statue, transformed by spray-painted messages, as the No. 1 piece of American protest art since World War II. 

The Department of General Services and Capitol Police arrived at the statue Monday morning around 6 a.m. to block off the monument. Dena Potter, a spokesperson for DGS, said the state had disposed of all items within the circle, except for two basketball hoops that they are offering to return to their owners.

“I can't say yet how long the fence will be in place, but it is not intended to be permanent,” she told VPM.

Potter also said the memorials to victims of gun violence, printed onto placards and staked in the ground around the Lee monument, will be left in place for now.

“A decision hasn't been made on what will happen to those,” Potter said. “If we are able to proceed with the statue removal, DGS is prepared to remove and store the memorials until such time a decision is made as to their final disposition.”

While the area around the Lee monument has been a site of protest, it’s also been a gathering place for the community.

Grammy-nominated artist Trey Songz, from Petersburg, held a rally and performed on top of the monument’s base during a Juneteenth celebration last year. And local artists Dustin Klein and Alex Criqui have projected the images of numerous prominent Black figures onto the monument in an effort to recontextualize it. 

Kalia Harris, a community organizer who put together some of the racial justice protests this summer, said she doesn’t agree with the decision to block off the space when removing the monument could be still a long time away.

“People come to visit the memorials of people that have been killed by police brutality,” Harris said. “They also come to water the plants, to pass out coats, food for people who need it. So it’s also become a place of mutual aid, as well as healing.” 

Harris said she sees the fencing as a physical representation of the barriers activists have encountered in their calls to end racism and police violence.

“Since we’ve been protesting, there have been barriers to even getting our demands met, whether it’s just getting a monument down or getting the police defunded,” she said. “This is just so symbolic of the barriers they’ve been putting up.”

A group of Black activists have also organized a free kitchen and community garden within the circle. They’ve held barbecues and collected coats for Richmond’s homeless.

The man who has been watching over and caring for the garden, who identified himself only as “Bee,” said the state's decision to fence off the area will hamper them from serving the community.

“No plants get watered, no jackets get collected, so there will be less food to eat and more people cold,” he said. 

It’s currently unclear when the statue to Lee will be taken down. It’s been the subject of multiple lawsuits from descendants of the monument’s owner and homeowners. 

A Richmond Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of the state, which wants to remove the statue, back in October 2020, but kept a restraining order in place pending an appeal by homeowners to the Supreme Court of Virginia. The court has not said whether it will take up that appeal, but Attorney General Mark Herring’s office said they expect the case will move forward after the plaintiffs filed a new appeal this afternoon. Herring says he remains committed to taking the statue, a “divisive relic to Virginia's racist past,” down as quickly as possible.

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