On Saturday evening, June 6th, I accompanied the “Shut It Down” march through Richmond as part of the larger Black Lives Matter rallies in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. Across the country we are having discussions about protests, policing, and monuments, I believe it is important as a public historian to experience for myself what is happening to gain a better perspective of both the nationwide protests and Richmond’s particular controversy. The following is a linear progression of my experience that evening and reflects solely my own observations and opinion.
My trip through Richmond began at the A.P. Hill monument. I will be giving a presentation at the Emerging Civil War symposium this August on Hill’s death and the three times he was buried. Many historical markers, monuments, and museums have been vandalized this past week. I have my own arbitrary thoughts on the levels of what is appropriate, as many do, but I can at least try to understand both the boiling frustration and the chaotic situations that are causing it to occur.
I drove down to Monument Avenue next. There I found Matthew Fontaine Maury mostly left alone, Stonewall Jackson’s graffiti being the only that had been painted over, and Jefferson Davis covered with mainly modern political messages. A large, diverse crowd milled around the prominent Robert E. Lee monument. Many parents had brought their children, several few students posed in cap and gown for their graduation photos, and several food tents offered free food and drinks in the 90-degree heat. The statue’s removal had already been announced at the time, but for now it provided a better interpretive platform for the Richmond community than ever before. By and large, however, the prevailing opinion I heard was that it was a good thing they are coming down.
But I also wanted to see more than just the monuments, as they are somewhere between a cause and a symptom of the larger issue at hand. I learned of a march leaving Monroe Park at 7 p.m. On the way over I passed Jeb Stuart’s monument. A police car reluctantly idled thirty yards away while a group of skateboarders filmed themselves doing tricks off the ramp at the base of the statue.
I arrived at Monroe Park just in time to catch the last part of a bagpiper’s set. The online promotion I found billed the event as a noisy march to peacefully disrupt the city, but it initially seemed like most attendees were quietly waiting around for someone else to say something. It honestly began to feel like a typical punk show that was only gonna start several hours after doors opened.
Around 7:45 the march kicked off down Franklin Street toward the state capitol building. With motorcycles in front, bicycles holding up traffic at intersections, and a large vehicle caravan in rear, the peaceful crowd picked up its noise and numbers. Upon reaching 9th Street they turned north for the John Marshall Courts Building.
Only then did I start to learn more about what the organizers intended for the event. As one of the activists held a PA speaker over their head each leader briefly announced their intention to peacefully claim the space around the building for speeches addressing specific aspects of policing, justice, and effective protest. They chose the courts building that night in particular to highlight racial inequalities in sentencing. On a previous night the march led all the way to the city jail to show empathy and support for those imprisoned.
Honestly, however, I could not hear much due to the constant blaring of horns from the long line of vehicles who accompanied the march and now parked along the shut-down road. Grassroots activists have been putting in long hours trying to channel the swelling of people in the streets toward something productive, so critiquing their logistics is probably unfair. In my opinion the attendees, particularly those claiming to be white allies, could have done a better job of just listening, but as my tour guide interpretive training taught me, it’s impossible to listen when you can’t even hear (thanks Maslow!) One handheld PA speaker was not going to deliver the message over the sounds on the road.
The sun had set and lightning illuminated the skies to the east. More presentations were planned and I saw the organizers setting up some sort of visual display when eighty percent of the restless crowd streamed back onto the road. As I lingered back, I saw frustration and heartbreak on the organizers’ faces. They had intended to convey a specific message that night and it had just digressed into a loud parade taking over the streets once more. It plainly demonstrated how easily an event like this is co-opted. The organizers dejectedly rebuked those who had marched off, noting how many are saying it is time to listen to black Americans, but when given an opportunity they become easily distracted by something else. I likewise heard many people throughout the night express opinions that the announced removals of the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue were similarly just a political attempt to skate past the larger issues.
We in the Civil War community have the luxury of looking at what is happening on Monument Avenue, wondering if it is an appropriate reaction, and then reflecting on how the removal of the statues is going to change how we interpret the soon-to-be vacated spaces. We speculate on what the local community might want to see there without realizing that is not at all the issue they are concerned with right now.
For those of us here on the blog, the issue of Civil War monuments is an easy controversy, an intellectually engaging discussion to be had with fellow historians. Meanwhile, the activists I heard speak this weekend are so far past caring about it. It has been nearly three years since our collective attention briefly focused itself on the Confederate monuments after a white supremacist killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville while she counterprotested the Unite the Right rally. And yet, before last week, not a damn thing had changed on Monument Avenue despite promises of committees and added context.
Furthermore, any controversy over interpretation pales in comparison to the sweeping reforms sought by this next generation of activists exemplified by those who spoke on Saturday. Focusing the story on the monuments avoids the even more contentious topics of gun control, mass incarceration, and the defunding of police forces. If it takes years, decades, centuries just to figure out how to remember Confederate soldiers and leaders, will we as a nation ever be able to address even tougher issues?
Back at the Marshall Court, I stuck around a while longer until it became clear that the group who stayed with the organizers was going to just try to rejoin the march. I sped ahead and easily caught back up with the main crowd as it headed west on Broad Street. Like many others this past week, I have been glued to my phone watching videos of what is happening in other cities and so many instances where protests escalate into violence. On Monday, June 1st, Richmond police fired tear gas at those who gathered on the Lee Monument thirty minutes before curfew, for which the city afterward apologized (video of the incident). Pardon the sensationalizing, but around 9:30 on Saturday I was worried something was about to happen again.
After leaving the leadership behind at the court, the march had taken over the entirety of Broad Street. Its support vehicles now intermingled themselves with the crowd. As one such car reached the front of the march it broke down and the entire procession ground to a halt (I did not find this out until about an hour later). All I knew at the time was that we were no longer moving forward. A wall of police cars had tailed the group since it left Monroe Park ,and I noticed blue lights blocking the roads leading north and south at every intersection. As a collective whole, the group had nowhere to go, but those who wanted to individually peel away could still do so. Given what I had recently seen about the crowd control tactic of “kettling” and the promise I had made before leaving home to stay distant from trouble, I thought it best to take my leave before either side escalated the palpable tension.
I slipped onto Grace Street and as I rounded the block, my heart just plummeted at the sight of a line of riot shields and Humvees. I later discerned they were there to prevent any protesters from accessing the block where the Richmond Police Department is located, but at the time it seemed incredibly dangerous and disheartening to see it all staged one block away and just out of sight from what had been an entirely peaceful march up to that point. A million accusations would have flown if violence had broken out as it has in so many other cities this week and a faulty battery would have been the catalyst. Thankfully, another car quickly jump-started the disabled vehicle, the march resumed away from the headquarters, and the police backed off to allow everyone to return to the starting point.
It afterward dawned on me that my privilege allowed me to just dip out when I sensed danger. If everything returns to the status quo when the protests conclude, my life will look no different. But Richmond’s black residents who led the march are not afforded such an easy escape from their reality.
I passed through Monroe Park as the event appeared to wind down and walked a mile back down Monument Avenue toward my car. There was one more stop I wanted to revisit along the way. At night a projector now aims at the Lee monument and displays the faces of black victims of police violence.
Afterward I found out that someone in Monroe Park had climbed the statue of Williams Carter Wickham and brought it to the ground just fifteen minutes after I walked past on my way out. It honestly barely resonated as I reflected on the events of the night.
I think it is important for everyone who has a strong opinion on Civil War monuments to go out and witness the protests for themselves. I don’t agree with some of the tactics and I have a lot of thinking to do about their goals, but those are not my decisions to make. Nothing would happen if everyone stayed home, and we cannot pretend that change is not needed simply because our own lives are comfortable. At the very least we can empathize with those who are genuinely pushing for something different. Seeing it all unfold in person showed me an individual or group can co-opt the message. When that happens the media narrative is completely changed.
Part of saying that you value black lives is that you don’t drown out black voices. Saturday’s march was specifically intended to address the justice system in Richmond. Wickham’s monument fell to the ground instead and exclusively captured the next morning’s headlines, but that is not what the protest intended to upend.