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Activists' Black liberation symbols removal makes Lee statue take down bittersweet

people behind sign for MDPC
In the earliest iterations, signs for Marcus-David Peters Circle were hand lettered and posted on other signs or with metal poles. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from Richmond’s Monument Avenue was greeted with a roar of applause and cheers from a gathered crowd. 

It could have been a moment of pure celebration for the people leading the occupation of Marcus-David Peters Circle for over a year. But at the same time they were commemorating the taking down of a symbol of white supremacy, these leaders were also mourning the removal of several prominent symbols of their movement for Black liberation that once stood in the Circle. 

That’s because by the time the crowd arrived that morning to witness the historic removal of the statue, all evidence of the movement that led to its removal had been confiscated. The night before, the circle of grass surrounding the monument, which was once covered by memorials to victims of police violence, community gardens, and adorned with a sign proclaiming the space Marcus-David Peters Circle, was entirely emptied out by state officials. 

The history of Marcus-David Peters Circle

Marcus-David Peters was a Richmond-area middle school teacher who was killed by a Richmond police officer in 2018. His death sparked a movement calling for justice in his case and reforms to city policies, particularly when responding to mental health crises. 

However, it wasn’t until the uprising for Black liberation following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer that the area surrounding the Lee statue was renamed in his honor. That’s because according to activists, Richmonders recognized that Peters’ death was a local example of the systemic police brutality which also killed Floyd.

“He’s our George Floyd,” said activist Lawrence West. “So I think in Richmond there was just a call for accountability that had been deferred.”

West leads BLM RVA, a local mutual aid distribution and policing watchdog and reform organization that’s been participating in the occupation of Marcus-David Peters Circle since its June  2020 establishment. He says the area became the home base of the movement for Black liberation that swept through Richmond that year. 

“Some of the protests we actually led would come right directly back to Marcus-David Peters Circle. But most times, even if it was dispersed or if the protests’ ending point wasn’t MDPC, you would find a lot of people that were at the protest at MDPC. It was a base, if you will. A home base,” West said. 

Princess Blanding, the sister of Marcus-David Peters and a candidate for governor, said the renaming of the circle by protesters was significant because it represented a reclamation of space historically reserved for celebrating white supremacy and designed to keep out Black community members. 

“Robert E. Lee himself represented everything that we’re fighting against now,” Blanding said. “Monument Avenue is a space where Black people historically were not welcome.” 

Transforming into a community space

Since its occupation last summer, the monument in Marcus-David Peters Circle, like many of the other monuments to Confederates or other institutions of white supremacy in Richmond, is now adorned with graffiti messages proclaiming resistance to white supremacy and support for Black liberation. Lawrence says that was step one in reclaiming the space for the resistance

“The graffiti literally says, ‘Okay, you take this as a symbol of superiority, but I just crossed out your guy. I put a big ol’ X on him. So now how do you feel about him?’ And so, by us not really relinquishing that space, even though neighbors call, police came and so on and so forth, by us staying there and occupying that space, it allowed for people that had the same type of mindset to come and feel free in that space. Because the monument almost became obsolete through the artwork that was put on the pedestal, and even on the monument itself,” West said.

Seeing a blank marble canvas, protesters made the pedestal a colorful explosion of symbols, phrases, and battle cries devoted to the Black liberation revolution. But that’s not the only way the area around the monument was transformed by the occupation and renaming.. 

Since the occupation began last June, the circle has become a community resource center for not only Black liberation protesters, but the wider Richmond community as well. Activists set up a food distribution program dubbed The Kitchen.

“It provided nourishment for some people,” West said. “I know personally people who would come to The Kitchen, because I was part of The Kitchen at the beginning, would come to The Kitchen and say ‘Look I need to feed my daughter. I need to feed my son,’ Or, ‘I don’t have money but I’m hungry,’ and it was one of those things that without saying was like, you don’t need to bring money here. Everything’s free. And that helped solidify it as a hub for people without having the traditional responsibility of having to pay to be in a particular space.”

Even after the protests died down, the organizers maintained the circle as a safe space for Richmonders, particularly those experiencing houselessness. They held clothing and food drives to support community members in need, and set up The Kitchen on a daily basis. 

Rashawn Dawkins led The Kitchen. He says they operated on donations, and served community members everything from steak to seafood free of charge. The unity that his organization created among the protesters and the houseless community built a family among strangers, according to Dawkins. 

“It created a family,” Dawkins said. “We created a space for people that the city didn’t create a space for. And that was probably more comfortable for them than sleeping over on Broad Street.” 

Blanding agrees, and says that not only were people able to access essential resources at the circle, they were also able to find a community there. 

“The Marcus-David Peters Circle was a space for unity, inclusiveness,” Blanding said. “It celebrated diversity, we helped each other, we made sure our community members were fed. We had clothes drives. It was a very inclusive space, the opposite of what Robert E. Lee stood for and what Monument Avenue stood for.”

Harassment from police and other government officials

At the same time that these community leaders were transforming the circle into a gathering place and resource center - with everything from a community garden to a radical library to a basketball hoop - they say they were also facing continuous harassment from the Richmond and Virginia Capitol police and the Virginia Department of General Services. Ray and Lawrence both say occupiers were repeatedly fined, arrested, and their belongings confiscated in an attempt to dismantle the community space.

“The police executed strategies to try to get us to leave,” West said. 

According to West, the main strategies police used to try to get occupiers to leave the circle were intimidation, charges of encampment, and the destruction of their community resource centers like The Kitchen. 

“They started to charge us with encampment, when we wouldn’t even be sleeping out there. Maybe somebody that was homeless might have slept out there but they would charge us with encampment,” said West. “We didn’t care that they stole our stuff. What we cared about was continuing to maintain that community space.” 

Dawkins agrees that through his work distributing food through The Kitchen, he’s faced harassment from the police as well. More than ten times, he said government officials confiscated his and the other occupiers’ supplies for the community. 

“We had chairs and tables and stuff set up, coolers and food,” Dawkins said. “In the mornings, they’d come there with big earth-moving trucks and just basically take all the stuff and throw it on the trucks.” 

In December, members of the Capitol Police began justifying this treatment of the occupiers by disseminating new, stricter rules at Marcus-David Peters Circle that protesters said were designed specifically to hinder their efforts to sustain the movement for Black liberation. Those rules prohibited everything from community fundraisers to homemade posters in the circle, in addition to banning the tents, tables and cooking equipment that occupiers had been using to erect The Kitchen every day. 

A Capitol Police spokesperson said last year that those rules came from “another body,” but would not specify who created the rules or directed the department to enforce them. The Capitol Police don’t have the authority to establish their own rules for the Circle and are overseen by the Joint Rules Committee. But, none of the members of that committee have come forward to confirm that their body directed the Capitol Police to enforce new rules last year. 

A sign to the community

Despite this harassment, organizers continued to solidify the circle’s new identity as a symbol of Black liberation. 

The first Marcus-David Peters Circle sign marking the Lee monument as a reclaimed space appeared on June 3, 2020. The sign was originally written on poster board and stuck into the ground on two thin metal spikes. 

When that sign was destroyed or lost, a larger timber sign replaced it. In August, that sign was hacked down by government officials after they pushed occupiers out for the night, according to West. 

“Once we left that particular area… you can hear a saw. You can hear someone cutting the Marcus-David Peters sign down,” West said. “That’s what this is about. That’s what the show of force was.” 

Afterward, activists enshrined the sign in concrete in an attempt to preserve it and more permanently mark the space. That was the sign that was taken down two weeks ago, the night before the Lee statue came down. West says that once again he and his fellow occupiers were pushed out of the area, just far enough away that they couldn’t see but could hear the Marcus-David Peters sign be dismantled. 

“They did the same thing that they’ve done all along. They came to us in a moment's notice and expected us to move,” West said. “All of a sudden you hear these axe sounds, like somebody’s just hacking away at something. And I’m like ‘Oh man...the whole reason why they were putting us out from that area is they didn’t want us to see them cutting down that sign.’” 

Not only was the sign removed, but the memorials to victims of police violence were also confiscated by the Department of General Services. Blanding says the removal of both is a signal from the government that they’re not willing to reckon with the real legacy of white supremacy, as opposed to tackling the symbols of it. 

“Those memorials out there, the Marcus-David Peters sign out there, that was too powerful. It made the city, it made the state have to face all of the blood that was on their hands,” Blanding said. “They made such a big to-do about it, that their goal, in my opinion, was to have people celebrate this symbolic celebration, right, this very empty, symbolic celebration. So that while we were in the midst of celebrating, we wouldn’t recognize that they were removing those memorials. That they were removing the Marcus-David Peters sign. That they were removing the community garden.” 

Dena Potter, director of communications for the Department of General Services, said the sign and memorials were taken because they would otherwise have been damaged by the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. 

“Working with our contractors, we determined that if the memorials were not removed they likely would have been destroyed during the statue removal. Additionally, for the safety of our workers, we needed to remove all obstacles on the site,” Potter said. 

According to West, if preserving these memorials and the sign were the department’s goals, they would have collected the memorials immediately instead of leaving them in the circle after erecting fences around it. He said this prevented organizers from protecting and maintaining the memorials for months. 

He also says that as a traffic circle, there were many ways for the cranes that removed the Robert E. Lee statue to reach it besides going through the spot where the Marcus-David Peters sign stood. 

“There’s just so much area that they didn’t have to approach it from that side. But they chose to and I think they chose to so they could take down the MDPC sign,” West said. 

What happens to the memorials

On the day of the statue’s removal, the department announced the memorials on display at the base of the monument would be catalogued and turned over to the Library of Virginia. 

However, they’re not being transferred to the library in order to be displayed. Instead, Library of Virginia Communications Manager Ann Henderson says the department asked the library to store the memorials temporarily until a determination is made about what to do with them permanently. 

According to activists, they don’t want to see those memorials shut away in a library storage closet. 

“It’s a definite suppression of Black history. There was a revolution on Monument Avenue,” West said. “The system needs to acknowledge what happened.” 

While Dawkins said he'd like to see those memorials and the Marcus-David Peters sign on display in the museum, Blanding does not agree. 

“I don’t want to see those memorials up in a museum, nor do I want to see the Marcus-David Peters sign put up in a museum,” Blanding said. “They need to be returned to the scene where they belong, and that is the Marcus-David Peters Circle. That name needs to stick because that’s not a name that came from my family, that is not a name that came from the city or the state. That is a name that the people adopted.”

According to Potter, the memorials still haven’t been transferred to the library. She says they’re still being repackaged, two weeks after removal, for transport to the museum. 

The sign is another story

The fate of the sign, on the other hand, is even less certain. According to the department, they’re storing it themselves until another decision is made about where the sign will permanently reside. 

“That likely will be determined following a community-driven effort to reimagine Monument Avenue, spearheaded by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, on behalf of the commonwealth, and the City of Richmond,” Potter said. 

According to Potter, the sign was not moved to the Library of Virginia with the other memorials because “it was large and very heavy.” The Library of Virginia is located about a half mile from the Department of General Services office.

Activists were skeptical that the weight and size of the sign was the determining factor. 

“Come on,” West said. “I think the Robert E. Lee statue was heavier. It still got moved. I bet you the accumulated weight of that fence was just as heavy, if not heavier. And it was moved into place.” 

“How many millions have they spent on Monument Avenue so far? And how many millions do they plan on spending on Monument Avenue? They can preserve the things that are important to us. They have the resources to do it. They have the space to do it,” West said. 

What happens next

Lawmakers agreed earlier this year to invest $1 million in 2022 towards transforming Monument Avenue. This plan was spearheaded by Gov. Ralph Northam, who originally proposed a $25 million investment in the initiative. The final, smaller sum has gone to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which has been assigned the task of reimagining the avenue. 

Meanwhile, the fences that the Department of General Services erected around Marcus-David Peters Circle in January remain standing. The department originally said the fences were built in preparation for the Lee statue’s removal. Now, Potter says they’re protecting the site while the ground is repaired. 

“The ground needs repair from the heavy machinery used to bring down the statue, and all debris and other materials must be removed from the site,” Potter said. “This may take several days, and fencing will remain in place around the circle to enable this work to proceed safely.”

Activists say that despite everything, they’re continuing to provide a safe space for the community to gather on Monument Ave, even if they’ve been pushed outside of Marcus-David Peters Circle and into the medians for now.

Members of the public seeking information about artwork removed from the circle can contact the Department of General Services at (804) 786-3311 or by email.

CORRECTION: We misidentified one of the photos as depicting a final version of a sign. It has been corrected.