A Night of Protesting on the Streets of Richmond

Black Lives Matter march through Richmond, June 6, 2020 (photograph by author)

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.

Robert E. Lee Monument (photograph by author)

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.

Jeb Stuart Monument (photograph by author)

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.

Rally at the John Marshall Courts Building, June 6, 2020 (photograph by author)

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.

Stalled march on Broad Street (photograph by author)

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.

Richmond Police Department Headquarters (photograph by author)

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.

George Floyd projected onto the Lee Monument (photo by author)

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.

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28 Responses to A Night of Protesting on the Streets of Richmond

  1. Joe Lafleur says:

    Kudos and hat tip for attending and sharing your experiences. (I’m still a bit wary of crowds) It’s particularly helpful that you’re relaying this as a historian and participant and you take us along the march(did no one cry “Make Me A Map!”?) I hope you’re encouraged to continue and you have the chutzpah to keep writing about it regardless of any negative feedback you may receive. Thank you again and in advance.

  2. Chris Mackowski says:

    A great account. Lots of good insights. Nothing beats “shoe leather” reporting!

    • Charlie Herbek says:

      Chris,
      This platform is not the venue for political expression.
      I sincerely hope as an editor you will discourage the use of this platform for such postings that have only remotely tangential connection to the stated purpose of this blog.
      You should also serious reconsider contributing to the legitimacy of an organization that propagates a vengeful agenda, has opening criticized the
      Mayor of DC and is directly responsible for the murder of at least five Houston police officers.

      • Chris Mackowski says:

        I encouraged Edward to write this piece, Charlie. At a time when many people complain that history isn’t relevant, we’re seeing right now the direct intersection on history and current events. Had the monuments not been brought into the broader national discussion on race—brought in by the governor, the Richmond City Council, Richmonders, and others—then this might be “remotely tangential,” but it’s all wrapped together.

        BLM aside for a moment, there are legitimate social issues that the protests are trying to draw attention to–issues that have their origins in slavery, which is very much a topic of consideration for this blog.

        There’s no endorsement of any “vengeful agenda” here, just an honest attempt to Edward to document and process what he saw first-hand. That’s a valuable perspective for those (of us) who aren’t or can’t be on the ground.

  3. John Fox says:

    Since this is all happening in cities controlled by Democrats for decades, what makes you think that removing a SINGLE Confederate flag or statue is going to do? It’s all whitewash and BS promoted by those who have an agenda to maintain political power. This is all a smokescreen to take sheeples attention away from real problems and ways to solve them!

  4. Buck Buchanano says:

    Well done!

    Thanks for doing this.

  5. Thanks Edward Alexander for taking the time,and possible risk, of attending the gathering and then your thoughtful, detailed reporting of it. Although I can understand the possible objection to Confederate status and memorabilia, as you so skillfully point out, it also deflects from the real purpose of change and advancement.

    Please continue to keep us informed.

    Norman Vickers
    Pensacola, FL

  6. Charlie Herbek says:

    This platform is not the venue for political expression.
    I sincerely hope this blog will discourage any future use of this platform for such postings that have only remotely, tangential connection to the stated purpose of this blog.
    You must reconsider contributing to the legitimacy of an organization that propagates a discriminatory and vengeful agenda and is directly responsible for the murder of at least five Houston police officers. There is nothing in this article that contributes to the furtherance of an understanding of the Civil War. The author abuses the good faith and understanding of this blog and its audience to further the agenda of an organization practicing disinformation and propagating a violent agenda against our duly constituted Law Enforcement Community. A walk thru Richmond with an running historical commentary-Yes. Implied consent to BLM-No

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      As I mentioned above, I disagree. This blog is dedicated to not only promoting a better understanding of the Civil War but also the war’s causes and consequences. Our current national discussion about race can trace a direct line back to the war and its aftermath.

      There is no endorsement of BLM. There is an endorsement of the need for us, as a nation and as communities, to talk about race and equal justice under the law.

    • Edward S. Alexander says:

      Black Lives Matter is an idea or a value, not an organization. Is it really fair to take these young black college students/recent graduates who are looking to improve their own city and lump them in with murders in Texas?

      I went to Richmond on Saturday to see the monuments and those who gathered there with my own eyes, and found myself convinced that they are not the full story. We will continue to have discussions about whether the monuments should stay for as long as the root causes of our current national turmoil remain.

      We would be abandoning our position as modern Civil War historians if we did not reflect and write on what is currently happening.

      • Charlie Herbek says:

        Ed, they are a fully operational organization with an agenda. Please take a hard look before you state it is not a physical entity. They attacked the Mayor of DC for not supporting them after she emblazoned a street with the name. They are as real as the sunrise with a deadly agenda.
        Last comment

  7. Karl Kunkel says:

    You did a good job of keeping up with everybody that day. Thank you for chronicling it as detailed as you did. I had never been to Monument Avenue until Thursday, two days before your visit, making the trip from High Point, North Carolina, just to drive up and down Monument Avenue and try to take it al in. I also visited historic old Hollywood Cemetery, site of the large, 1890 Confederate Pyramid memorial and hundreds of Confederate gravesites. I hope those will be left alone. It was good for me to see these Richmond statues, regardless of what condition, and get a better feel for Richmond‘s history. Members of my Civil War Roundtable have mentioned these statues often. Thanks again for writing up your account of your visit.

    • Edward S. Alexander says:

      Thanks Karl, I’m used to following events from 150 years in the future so it was a new experience to take it in on the fly. If you are interested in my methodology… I kept notes on Twitter (which I also used to learn more about what was happening in real time), and used the photo metadata and Google Maps tracking (a little unsettling as far as privacy, to be honest) to piece it back together.

  8. Douglas Pauly says:

    I’ll say this. It is interesting that these kinds of decisions are being approved by a sitting Governor who has shown that he is quite happy wearing ‘black face’ AND KKK robes, as his own history proves. But because of his party affiliation, none of that is viewed a sin or worse. Is that an example of ‘Democrat privilege’?

  9. Mike Laverty says:

    As a Richmond native I want to commend you on such a truth account on the protest here. This time was bound to come sooner or later. I really didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime. My Dad use to take us to every Historical Ciivil War site within driving distance. I am accustomed to seeing the Monuments and over Historic sites in and around Richmond. Just within the past couple of years has my thinking change about what I has enjoyed visiting and learning about the Civil War. As a 65 year old male I have mixed feelings about the Monuments being taken down if I am honest. With that being said, If I was a 65 yer old Black Male. I’m sure I would be dancing in the streets.

    • Edward S. Alexander says:

      I think mixed feelings are perfectly appropriate. My own thoughts on monument removal/reintepretation is extremely convoluted and I knew that I had to see them in their current context to figure out my own opinion.

  10. John Pryor says:

    History is irrelevant without time for reflection and context. Otherwise it’s just observations colored and reflected through the prism of one’s pre existing bias.

  11. Randall Flynn says:

    Lee’s legacy and that mounment are a key part of America’s history That photo of the Lee monument (vandalized in the extreme and w/o police protection) says it all. Would any of these vandals want their home or car defaced like that? Who in their right mind would never support a protest that encourages vandalizing, looting and destruction on this scale. That kind of behavior is simply opportunistic and perennially unjustifiable. That’s not emblematic of a civilization worth studying – that just “law of the jungle” chaos. What surprises me now – is no prominent CW historians/writers/guides are apparently willing to speak out publicly against this kind of vandalism & destruction of historical resources, The people that write the books and do the tours should be up in arms. I worked at the ACWC for over 3 years and (very) rarely did a see people of color visit or show any interest at all (even when a program was tailored for their interest). I saw more Brits, Germans and Australians visit the museum than Americans. Considering some of the comments posted on FB recently – there is a pronounced need for a more educated US populace (esp. history). My recommendation to CW publications is stay in the middle lane and continue bringing human interest and military analysis to the public. I admire the Emerging CW titles for being in that vein and hope they remain that way.

  12. Glen Robertson says:

    If I wanted leftist politics I’d go to MSNBC. I thought this was a Civil War history site. Can we look forward to being subjected to this at the symposium this year too? You might want to let us know if so since I suspect most of the attendees didn’t pay to hear Ed blather about “ privilege.”

  13. John Sinclair says:

    Excellent article. It explains well why we are still feeling the effects of the Civil War today in 2020. Or perhaps as William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

  14. Terry Rensel says:

    Edward, thank you for taking the time and effort to see what was going on for yourself, and sharing it with us.

  15. Thomas Place says:

    THIS IS NOT ABOUT HISTORY. . THE MAJORITY OF THESE PEOPLE COULD NOT TELL YOU A THING ABOUT HILL ,LEE, OR DAVIS ,.MORE LESS THE YEAR THE WAR WAS FOUGHT , WAKE UP AMERICA !!. IT IS A POLITICAL MOVEMENT TO CAUSE UN REST AND DISRUPTION . I CAN ONLY WONDER WHAT THE REV. MARTIN LUTER kING WOULD SAY AND THINK… LISTEN I HEAR HIM ROLLING OVER IN HIS GRAVE . THERE IS NO REASON OR EXCUSE FOR THIS AS ONE STATED BEFORE” JUNGLE MOB MENTALLY” . NO REASON AT ALL . A SAD DAY FOR OUR COUNTRY, A GOOD DAY FOR THOSE WHO DO NOT LIKE THE AMERICAN WAY. THE OFFICER WILL BE PUNISHED , ONE MAN DOES NOT REPRESENT ALL. . .I Pray GOD WILL STILL BLESS THE U.S.A. .IF WE FOLLOW HIS WAY . THE ANSWER.
    IF ONE DOES NOT LIKE IT HERE ,FIND ANOTHER COUNTRY TO LIVE . YOU WONT SEE LONG LINES FOR THAT TRIP WILL YOU ?
    iM SADDENED AND DISMAYED AS A HISTORIAN, VETERAN AND AMERICAN TO SEE IT DESTROYED BECAUSE FEELINGS ARE HURT . ALL ABOUT THEIR FEELINGS ME ME ME . WHEN IT NEEDS TO BE US.. .THERE ARE WRONGS ON BOTH SIDES. THIS IS NOT THE WAY TO RESOLVE THE ISSUES. TEAR DOWN ALL MONUMENTS ,BURN ALL THE MUSEUMS , PROTEST ALL YOU WANT AND IT WILL STILL NOT CHANGE HISTORY . YOU WOULD THINK EVEN THE LEST INTELLIGENT WOULD SEE THAT . BUT I GUESS NOT .
    THESE ACTIONS ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE NOT BETTER . AH YES THAT IS WHAT THE AGENDA IS ALL ABOUT ANY WAY .IS IT NOT ?

  16. dale robertson says:

    i assume chris it will be okay if, when ed speaks at the symposium, any who wish can walk out in protest.

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  18. Stephen Spencer says:

    I joined this blog after reading the remarks on the 1st Massachusetts Monument in Aldie, Virginia to the Union troops who died on June 17, 1968. This write up was poorly done. Absolutely no reference to the Confederate monuments and their meaning, or an articulate historical perspective. It’s a sad time for history. Those who topple Confederate statues don’t really know their American history anyway, they are just angry and looking for a target and end up doing something dumb.

  19. Stephen Spencer says:

    Excuse me, 1st Massachusetts, Aldie , Virginia, June 17, 1863. Upon reflection, I’m sure the writer had good intentions and was supported by Chris. I’m just saying let’s speak to the modern dilemma of trashing Confederate statutes, or the meaning of the Virginia governor trying to remove them as they are getting trashed. That is history happening in front of our faces.

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