Heated Words, But No Violence, at Virginia Confederate Statue Rally

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Heated Words, But No Violence, at Virginia Confederate Statue Rally

Kate Andrews

Seven were arrested, but the day went without physical clashes, despite widespread worry that the protest would be a repeat of the deadly August 12 chaos in Charlottesville.

Fewer than a dozen people on Saturday in Richmond, Virginia, showed up to oppose the removal of monuments dedicated to leaders of the Confederacy, while several hundred counterprotesters shouted at the out-of-state Confederate supporters to “go home.”

Within two hours, the most vocal of the pro-monument protesters had voluntarily left the scene of the Robert E. Lee monument, escorted by police for safety.

No one was injured, although police made seven arrests, and two tires were slashed on a pickup truck driven by the out-of-state pro-Confederate organizers, delaying their exit from the city Saturday afternoon. A short-lived GoFundMe page raised a total of $220 for the stranded activists, as well as many jibes from Richmonders opposed to the group.

Hundreds of anti-monument protesters remained on Monument Avenue for a few more hours, and later in the afternoon, a couple hundred counterprotesters gathered at nearby Virginia Commonwealth University and marched to the Lee monument area, carrying banners and chanting.

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Four people wearing masks were arrested, a felony charge in Virginia meant to combat KKK face coverings. Two men with felony convictions were charged with carrying weapons, and the first arrest of the day was of a young woman who was charged with a misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct.

The day went smoothly, despite widespread worry that the protest would be a repeat of the deadly August 12 chaos in Charlottesville. No injuries or deaths were reported Saturday.  

The day’s first arrest caused controversy, as a young woman who was inside a protest zone east of the monument was detained by police and later charged with disorderly conduct. A counterprotester, 29-year-old Brittany Bush, of Petersburg, Virginia, engaged in an argument with a man wearing a pro-Trump shirt who declared himself part of Black Lives Matter and the Three Percenters, a “patriot” organization that opposes what it considers government infringement against the U.S. Constitution.

In an Instagram live video that is no longer available, Bush does not appear to have made physical contact with the man, who is several inches taller than she is, but is seen talking to him before police take her away. A fellow counterprotester who goes by Todd Safi observed the conflict.

“This tall, African-American guy came out with a weird hat and was furious that we weren’t being nicer to the racists,” Safi said in an interview with Rewire. In the video, another woman wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt responds angrily to the man, saying he is defending white supremacists.

A couple minutes later, Bush, wearing a green T-shirt with the Green Lantern magic ring on it, steps closer to the man, talking face to face with him. An older woman appears to attempt to intervene, standing next to the man and facing Bush, whose back is to the camera. Suddenly, Bush is taken away by police. Other protesters shout “Let her go!” and “Who do you serve?”     

Safi, who was standing nearby and took photos, said, “I don’t know why she got taken away. She didn’t touch him.” Richmond police officers put her in a squad car that did not leave right away, he said. A National Lawyers Guild legal observer, wearing a trademark electric-green cap, briefly spoke with Bush, according to several people who saw the incident.   

Corey Byers, a spokeswoman for the Richmond police department’s joint information center, said Bush was observed “being combative, loud, and threatening to a member of the public” but did not say that Bush was physically combative.  

Bush was not being held at the Richmond City Jail as of Saturday night.

The Gray, the Blue and the Rest

On the west side of the Lee Monument, three members of the little-known, Tennessee-based CSA II: The New Confederate States of America, stood with their backs to the Lee Monument beginning at about 10 a.m. Joining the trio were a few sympathizers from Richmond and surrounding localities.

A line of police officers wearing helmets and bulletproof vests stood between the pro-Confederates and hundreds of counterprotesters carrying signs (among them “Smash White Supremacy” and “Take Them Down”) and chanting slogans. Other people came to Monument Avenue simply to see what was going to happen, despite warnings from police and elected officials to stay home.

The CSA II members — Tara Brandau, of Florida, and Thomas and Judy Crompton, of Tennessee — said last week that they were coming to Richmond to “protect” the Lee Monument, because Virginia’s governor, Richmond’s mayor, and other officials have discussed removing statues of Confederate leaders after the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) declared a 90-day ban on mass gatherings at the Lee Monument as a pre-emptive safety measure, and a Richmond-based Confederacy group announced it would not have an event on Monument Avenue, despite having a permit to do so on September 16 granted before Charlottesville’s rally. CSA II leaders said they would have a protest without a permit, posting a Facebook event about three weeks before.

Richmonders, including many concerned about violence and property damage, hoped the event would be canceled. But with the CSA II promising to arrive in Richmond and counterprotest groups vowing to be there, Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham said last week that he and a team of officers from his department and other authorities, including the Virginia State Police, had to prepare for the worst.

Anti-monument protesters gather in Richmond, Virginia. (Kate Andrews)

As the Saturday protest grew closer, Durham announced there would be “protest zones” on Monument Avenue in areas within sight of the monument, although not in the immediate vicinity, and street closings for about 36 hours.  

Inside the protest zone, sticks, flagpoles, tripods, helmets, and other things that could be weaponized were not allowed, but because of Virginia’s permissive open-carry laws, guns were permitted. A few people, mainly pro-Confederate protesters, carried firearms.  

At the protest, Brandau wore a black and white cap saying POLICE and an NRA T-shirt, while recording video on her phone. A member of the Florida Three Percenters security group, Brandau advertised the protest as “Heritage Not Hate.” Two people held a banners saying, “Respect, Protect, and Save Our Confederate Monuments,” while another man, identified in the Richmond Times-Dispatch as Pedrio Rios, wore a homemade “I support Trump” sign.

Rios, a Richmond resident, hurled insults and curse words at counterprotesters, while Brandau told him to watch his language. Police later asked Rios to keep the level of rancor down. He responded by saying “I love you” repeatedly to his opponents before returning to insulting them.

Officers ordered counterprotesters to step back a few feet from the pro-Confederates several times. There was no physical contact between the groups. Dozens of journalists carrying cameras and microphones were in attendance, and drones flew, shooting video of the event.  

After about an hour, police escorted the pro-Confederate protesters away voluntarily, and around 11 a.m., a second group of protesters arrived, including a woman who declared she was Jewish and wore an armband with the star of David. Another woman showed up carrying her poodle, joining other pro-Confederates behind the police line.

Counter protesters started shouting and taunting the four pro-Confederates, chanting, “What a shitty hobby!”

The second group left within 20 minutes, also with a police escort, leaving a few lower-key monument supporters in the crowd, some arguing their points with counterprotesters. Police and protesters took a brief break to refresh themselves with water and snacks.     

Among the anti-monument protesters were three Richmond women who handed out white roses made from coffee filters, a symbol of opposition to Nazis dating back to 1942 Germany.

“I’m disappointed to be here, but we have to be here,” said Lauren Smith.

“Ignoring it doesn’t work,” added her friend, Rachel Robinson. “Richmond needs to set an example, being that it was the capital of the Confederacy.”

On the pro-monument side of the debate was Matt Davis, a resident of King William County, northeast of Richmond. Along with an Arizona Cardinals backpack and cap, he wore a T-shirt with a Confederate flag while standing on the sidelines of the pro-Confederate group.

“I’m sick and tired of this politically correct nonsense. It’s trying to destroy everything we support. They’re already going after Jefferson and Washington and Teddy Roosevelt,” he said. “These fascists need to just grow a pair, get a spine. Some of these statues have been here since the 1800s, and now it’s a big deal. It’s got nothing to do with race. Our group doesn’t talk about race. The only people talking about race are antifa and Black Lives Matter.”

Davis said he doesn’t consider every person who supports Confederate monuments a white supremacist. “I know people are going to talk about Heather Heyer, who was killed in Charlottesville, but not everybody who is associated with preserving history is a Klansman,” he said. “It’s just like you say anyone who follows Islam is a terrorist. That’s a prejudiced generalization.”

Bruce Ferris, who lives a couple of blocks away from the monument, said he came to observe the protest. “I mostly wanted to see it for myself,” he said. “Looks like the police did a good job.” Ferris added that he hopes the final outcome on Monument Avenue is “not a binary decision. I’d like to hope we can find something between ‘They must be here’ or ‘They must not be here.’”

Mayor Levar Stoney announced a Monument Avenue Commission this summer to decide how to “add context” to the statues, which depict Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, Matthew Fontaine Maury, and Lee, but said that removal was not among the options. After the the deadly hate rally in Charlottesville, however, Stoney broadened the commission’s focus to include the possibility of removing the monuments.

Richmond resident Edward Perry stood out as one of a handful of Black monument supporters. He wore a white Trump cap and a small stars-and-bars flag tucked into his holster belt next to a gun.

Addressing “liberals and Black people” opposed to the monuments, he said, “Just leave it alone.”

Perry said the real problem facing Black folks in Richmond is “black-on-black genocide,” referring to the week before last, when nine fatal shootings took place in eight days within the city’s limits. “There are more things to be worried about.”  

Indeed, Richmond police have lifted a heavy load since the rally last month in Charlottesville, including an unusually high number of homicides and preparations for the Saturday protest. During a public meeting Thursday night for Monument Avenue residents, Police Chief Durham said he wished the organizers would “stay home in Tennessee with that nonsense.”

Along with many Richmonders at the protest were some out-of-town members of social justice and progressive organizations who came to support the anti-monument protesters.

Washington, D.C., resident Jacqueline Luqman, a member of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality, joined her Richmond-area colleagues, who have advocated for Richmond jail inmates and protect a downtown burial ground for enslaved people. They rolled out banners opposing the monuments and spoke about the legacy of memorials to oppressors, while standing about 100 yards from the pro-Confederate group.  

“I’m tired of the narrative of the ‘honorable Confederacy,’” Luqman said. “We’re absolutely fighting for our brothers and sisters for their right to be,” referring to Black Richmonders who have to pass the monuments every day. 

Luqman said that despite Saturday’s peaceful outcome, “the pro-Confederates are violent. They have no problem making their point with violence.”

Austin Gonzalez, a member of the progressive Democratic Socialists of America organization, lives about 40 minutes north of Richmond and participated in the Charlottesville rally. He said the police appeared to be well prepared Saturday, and that he “saw an amazing display of solidarity” in Richmond — especially compared with violence “everywhere you looked” in Charlottesville.

Hawk Newsome, president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, set off for Richmond around midnight Friday with 11 fellow members, arriving by 5 a.m. Saturday. He said they were planning to attend the “Mother of All Rallies” protest in Washington, but “we changed our minds,” given the disturbing rhetoric surrounding Richmond’s protest. Newsome said his group felt welcomed by many Richmond counterprotesters, who offered them snacks and bottled water.

“Everybody was like, ‘Thank you for coming,’” he said.

Newsome, Gonzalez, and Luqman, all of whom are protest veterans, said they expect more demonstrations surrounding Confederate monuments in Richmond and elsewhere, at least as long as the monuments stand.  

“With Trump encouraging it, absolutely,” Gonzalez said.