On Monday, June 22, I visited Richmond’s Monument Avenue to see for myself the effects of recent protests. You can see video from that trip on ECW’s YouTube page. What follows is an account of that trip. Some readers may find some of the language offensive.
The exit ramp from I-95 deposits us onto Arthur Ashe Boulevard near the Diamond baseball stadium. A few blocks away, at the intersection with Monument Avenue, Stonewall Jackson waits for us. He, Lee, and the other Confederate monuments have stood for days at the center of controversy, and we have come to Richmond to see things for ourselves.
My two sons, 20-year-old Jackson and 3-year-old Maxwell, have made the trip with me. We plan to cruise the length of Monument Avenue and scope out the situation, and also find out how long the hike will be from Jeb Stuart’s monument at one end of the avenue to Matthew Maury’s at the other. I plan to park near one end, walk the length of the street to the other, and then double back. Along the way, we’ll bear witness to what’s been going AND get our daily exercise at the same time.
We park near a take-out noodle bar near Jeb Stuart Circle. As soon as we step out of the car, we see a spray-painted message on the sidewalk: “White silence = violence.”
We cross over to the equestrian statue at the center of the traffic circle. Stuart himself has a traffic cone atop his head. Dried red paint runs down his horse’s right haunch like blood from a battle wound, which isn’t all that far off the mark. Several strands of rope dangle from horse and rider like wet crepe paper streamers. It’s apparent someone had tried to pull this statue over and failed, but the ropes of the attempt remain.
The statue’s base has the graffiti equivalent of chicken-scratching spray painted all over it. “BLM”—“Black Lives Matter”—in black, white, and pink. I don’t know another common acronym, “ACAB,” which I only find out later means “All Cops Are Bastards.” I find this out because I ask my son, Jackson, who asks his sister, Stephanie, who is in law enforcement. That acronym suddenly stings because I know my daughter is not a bastard. How is that sort of stereotyping any different than the racial stereotyping protesters are upset about?
Other messages say “Defund hate” and “Say their name.” The name of Breonna Taylor, the EMT shot to death by police in her own Louisville apartment, appears in big white letters. There’s “Who’s Streets? Our Streets” and “Fuck Trump.” In fact, we’ll see the word “Fuck” so many times that one person who’ll later see my photos will say, “The protesters could benefit from a thesaurus.”
Another friend will seem shocked that I’ve taken my kids with me to bear witness. “I can’t believe you’d expose your youngest son to that kind of language!” he’ll say.
“He’s three. He can’t read yet,” I’ll reply. But if Maxwell was a little older, I would definitely be concerned about the language.
As the three of us walk northwest up Monument Avenue, we see houses with signs in their windows: “Don’t be sorry. Be better.” “Policies, not apologies.” “No justice. No peace. No racist police.” On one porch, a trio of twentysomething hipsters are passing a joint and people-watching as folks just like us walk up and down the street, taking in the sights.
As we near Lee Circle, orange spray paint on a sidewalk declares, “All lives can’t matter until black lives matter.”
We cross to Monument Avenue’s grass median and, from there, to Lee Circle itself, which is surrounded by concrete barriers. Each one bears a different spray-painted legend: “Solidarity,” “We have a dream,” “I can’t breathe,” and a lot of stuff I can’t make out. There’s even a mention of Tupac. I see “Stoney’s a bitch—also Trump!” and think at first it’s a reference to Stonewall Jackson only to then remember the mayor of Richmond is Levar Stoney.
A black man with no shirt and the athletic build of a martial artist steps into the flow of traffic to stop cars so we can cross the street and enter the park. “Thank you,” I tell him.
“Enjoy your day,” he says, stone-faced behind his sunglasses but polite.
When we get across the street, Jackson leans toward me. “Is that a sword he’s carrying?” he asks.
“It’s a katana,” I tell him—a Japanese style sword, safely in its sheath. It’s the only weapon we see all day, not brandished in any way that could be construed as intimidating. But it’s there.
If the circle were a clock and the statue of Robert E. Lee was facing noon, a cluster of camping tents huddles at around 10. A cluster of tents and pop-up canopies stretches from 4:30 to 6:30, with someone selling snacks and bottled water at one of them. At 11:30, a small walk-in tent advertises itself as a walk-in library: take a pamphlet, leave a pamphlet.
Lee, high enough atop his horse to be out of reach from all the paint, looks as regal as ever, staring fixedly off into the distance instead of down into the crowd that’s been making so much noise for so many days.
It’s much quieter today than it’s been at night: the grassy area around Lee’s statue feels like the third morning of a three-day music festival. Dozens of tourists, onlookers, rubberneckers, vigil-holders, and protestors mill about, individually or in small groups. Person after person steps up onto the stairs in front of the statue to have their photo taken. One woman in a purple dress raises her fist in a “black power” salute. She scowls when she sees me taking pictures but then stops when she realizes I was taking a picture of the statue, not her specifically.
What amazes me most are the layers upon layers upon layers of spray paint on every flat surface. In a way, the sheer volume of color is utterly beautiful. The messages, not so much. More f-bombs all over everything. But I also see “Uplift” and “Love” and “Listen.”
Someone climbed the front of the monument to paint “Proverb 29:16,” although because of the line break, it read “Pro verb,” a message that, as a writer, I can get behind because I’m definitely pro-verb. The impressions stays with me only a second before Jackson says he’s looked up the reference on his phone: “When the wicked thrive, so does sin, but the righteous will see their downfall.”
On the monument’s backside, a big smiley face dominates, but the scribbles and sprays of paint on the face’s yellow chin cascade down the monument in another torrent of color. I can’t even make out what most of it says, layer competing with overlying layer. The medium is the message here, even though the message also runs deeper, and I wonder how much of it is being drowned out by its own cacophony.
Around the base of the monument are two shrines to Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old biology teacher shot to death by police on I-95 in May 2018. Posterboards tell his story. Every two feet or so, a small sign staked into the ground tells the story of another black American shot by police. The signs wrap all the way around the monument, more than thirty in all, each with a story to tell. Mementoes, flowers, and messages cluster around the signs.
It’s hard to wrap my head or my heart around all this—and, yes, my heart is moved. I’m conflicted. On one hand, I see vandalism; on the other, I see so much raw hurt and anger. The anger, of course, is everywhere, visible most noticeably in all the F-bombs. The hurt—of an entire community, pent up for a century and a half and longer—is more sensed than seen, practically throbbing beneath all those colors. I wish more people could see past the paint and sense that, but I know many folks will only see the vandalism and be turned off, and not hear the primal scream it represents.
We leave the circle and start walking toward the next monument, but we see dark storm clouds looming to the west. A quick look at the radar on Jackson’s phone shows approaching thunderstorms. We decide to walk back to the car rather than walk on. We’ll drive to the rest of the monuments.
We park near the Jefferson Davis monument, although Davis has been gone for days, jerked down from his pedestal by protestors. An anarchy symbol now adorns the front of that pedestal along with “Amerikkka” and “Fuck Jeff Davis.” The base of the monument says “Cops ran us over.” There’s a spray-painted stencil of George Floyd’s face with the legend “I can’t breathe.” I still don’t get that one. Anyone who’s taken Heimlich maneuver training has learned that if you can speak, you can breathe, so I’m still not sure how Floyd could’ve spoken. I don’t say that to discount what happened to him or defend the officer accused of killing him. It’s just one part of the story I’ve not yet been able to understand, and now the story has become so shrouded in sensationalism that Floyd himself is as much a symbol as a person—in much the same way these Confederate statues are.
With the storm pending, the boys opt to stay in the car, so I inspect the monument on my own. Others walk up and read the graffiti, too. A girl in her late teens and her mother, a woman in her mid-40s, stand to one side of me, talking to each other. “And what did he do?” the girl asks her mom.
“Jefferson Davis?” I offer.
“Is that who this was?” the girl asks. “What did he do?”
I explain Davis’s pre-war role as a politician and Secretary of War, his role with the Confederacy, and the postwar controversy about his legal status. There are pros and cons. She can make up her own mind. She goes to read the original text of the monument, covered by the spray paint. Her mom, staying behind, thanks me. “How do we get them to learn this history?” she asks me, but I don’t know if she’s talking about young people like her daughter or protesters or who. The first drizzle starts to come down, so they retreat to their car and me to mine, where Jackson and Maxwell wait.
Before I go, I notice one last spray-painted message that I really like because it’s a pop-culture reference to an Alan Moore graphic novel: “Who watches the Watchmen?”
Stonewall Jackson is next in line. I’m a Stonewall Jackson fanboy, and my 26-year-old daughter, Steph, has looked up to him as her hero since she was four—not because of his affiliation with the Confederacy but because he had a cool nickname. Her Spidey sense must’ve been tingling because, as I stood at the base of Jackson’s monument, she called me on Facetime so I could talk with my granddaughter. We used the opportunity for me to show Steph the graffiti on the monument. “Fuck this statue,” one vandal wrote. “No good cops,” wrote another. “ACAB” appeared several places, with the “A’s” replaced by the anarchy symbol.
“That’s terrible,” my daughter said, sobered by what she saw. “That’s terrible,” she repeated.
On the front of the monument, someone wrote “Fuck Chef Smith.” Wow, I thought, I don’t know who that chef is, but he must’ve cooked someone a really bad meal. Only on closer inspection did I see that “Chef” was actually “Chief,” and the reference was to Richmond’s chief of police.
By now the rain was coming in buckets, with flashes of lightning and deep rumbles of thunder. We had one final stop to make, at the statue for Matthew Fontaine Maury. Maury, known as the father of modern oceanography, was one of the foremost scientists in the world. In some ways, his statue is my favorite on Monument Avenue, not because of his service on behalf of the Confederate navy but because of his contributions to science. As a society, we don’t celebrate our scientists enough, so I’ve always been pleased that Maury merited a statue.
Protesters also thought he merited some attention, but the vandalism against his statue was mild compared to the others. It was like someone said, “Hey, Joe, go take Mary and Sam and run up the street and hit that last statue. What’s his name. What’s his name? The guy with the big ball or whatever. We have to hit them all, so you guys go get that one.” And Joe and Mary and Sam all went, “Awww, do we have to? Can’t we stay down here where all the cool stuff is going on?” And no, they couldn’t stay because they had to go spraypaint the statue of whatshisname.
Maury’s eyes have been spray painted yellow, and he’s been given a big yellow smile. There’s some green and red on his head and chest, too, for the full Pan-African color scheme. Someone has also put the obligatory “BLM” across the statue’s base. There’s an anarchy symbol on the side. Then I see what’s probably the most depressing bit of spray painting I’ve seen all day: “Fuck History.”
Isn’t that, after all, part of what’s gotten us into this mess in the first place? Too many people have taken that attitude for too long, and so we don’t even have a common understanding of what happened and how it got us to where we’re at.
The rain begins to lighten as the boys and I head back toward the highway, passing Stonewall Jackson one last time as we leave town. He might be standing there like a stone wall for now, but I’m not sure for how much longer.