Organized by RVA26, monthly “Creative Protests” at Marcus-David Peters Circle have given creative voice to a community hungry for positive change, even as the space remains the focus for civil disobedience in Richmond.
It’s a place where you can play a pick up game of basketball outside. It’s a place where a community garden grows, nurtured by volunteers.
It’s a place covered in graffiti: “Black Lives Matter.” “ACAB.” “Fuck 12.”
It’s a place where you can take your kids, your dogs, even your babies. It’s a place where people listen to live music, socially-distanced, and laid out on blankets.
It’s a place with a giant statue of civil war general Robert E Lee, which, unlike Richmond’s other confederate statues, remains standing on its pedestal (for now).
It’s a place of fun, and it’s a place of protest. It’s a place where groups gather to begin marches.
It’s a place that was once simply called the Lee Circle, or the Lee Monument, but has been reclaimed and re-named by community members and protestors. Marcus-David Peters circle, or MDP for short. It has become a community space for many Richmonders.
“Like any birth story, it was birth and then chaos,” said Marwa Eltaib, organizer of the Creative Protests and founder of the anti-incarceration group RVA 26.
RVA 26 is a group of people who were arrested on May 31 during protests, including those at what would become Marcus-David Peters Circle. The group now describes themselves, according to their instagram page, as “organizing against Black incarceration and for Black liberation.”
In addition to other events, RVA 26 has hosted one Creative Protest event every month of this summer. Along with speeches by activists and organizers, these events feature live performances by local black artists.
“Some are up-and-coming, while some are more established,” Eltaib said. “We try to get new artists out there. We have such a beautiful, eclectic, and diverse array of black artists in Richmond.”
These Creative Protests took place on June 13, July 18, and August 22. They hosted musical artists such as rappers Jason Jamal and Skinnyy Hendrixx, and blues musician Lady E. Some visual artists — such as live painters — have been involved in these events, but the difficulty of doing live art, coupled with fears that the police may come and confiscate the finished product, means that few visual artists have performed.
“If we have a project like that, we need to take more precautions,” Eltaib said.
Performance art, including fire-spinner Venus Riley’s dance with a flaming hoop — the grand finale at the August 22 protest — is better suited for the circle. Eltaib says that she hopes to involve more performance artists, such as dancers, in future Creative Protests.
Police have been removing items from the circle since its inception. Some of the art pieces from previous Creative Protests, as well as a small lending library, were removed earlier in the summer, according to Eltaib. A sign marking the circle as “Marcus-David Peters Circle” was removed in mid-August, though the Richmond police department denied involvement in removing the sign. Recently, a new sign arrived at the circle, declaring its name once again.
The atmosphere during musical performances was that of an outdoor concert, with people sitting on blankets, talking to friends, and eating. Almost everyone wore a face mask.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, in-person community events can be few and far between. The spontaneous, decentralized and community-driven nature of the MDP circle makes it so that community is happening all the time.
“That wasn’t our main goal, but it’s a natural effect,” said Eltaib.
The main goal of the space, and of the Creative Protests, is to send a message.
“We founded the first Creative Protest to utilize art to continue the conversation of Black liberation,” Eltaib said. “It’s a wonderful way to get the message across.”
At the Creative Protest, organizers wanted to make this purpose clear. Between musical performances, speeches by organizers reminded people that they weren’t at any ordinary concert. At one event, Sheba Williams, director of the group NoLef Turns, spoke at the event about the difficulties of being labeled a felon, especially as a Black person.
When night fell on the circle, projections were shone onto the Lee monument behind the performers. One was the face of Marcus-David Peters, superimposed with the words “reopen the case”. Another was the label “second place — you tried” on the Lee statue’s base, making it look like a gigantic participation trophy.
The circle, which has been occupied by protestors since the killing of George Floyd, may have seen a lot of artistic creativity on display in the months since, but it is still a protest space.
On August 24, two days after the third Creative Protest, people dressed in black gathered in the circle. They all planned to march in solidarity with protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin after the shooting of Jacob Blake.
The circle was both the starting and ending point of the march, which wound through neighborhoods before spilling out onto Broad Street, where bike marshals blocked traffic and a few people in cars passed out ice-cold bottles of water to marchers.
Some marchers came on foot, some brought bikes. A few brought dogs on leashes. One protester held a rainbow flag, superimposed with a black power fist. Another protester held a sign painted to look like a spiky coronavirus molecule, which read, “Racism is deadlier than the pandemic.”
Julea Seliavski, who co-organized the Creative Protests with Eltaib and is another founding member of RVA 26, said that she hopes the creative protests can bring more of an audience to the Black Lives Matter cause.
“It comes down to care, it comes down to supporting the Black community,” Seliavski said. “People can come in and be radicalized through art. By radicalized, I mean radical softness, radical love.”
Regarding the future of the MDP circle, Marwa Eltaib said that she wants it to become a healing space for the Richmond community to gather.
“You can find food, you can find friends, you can find someone to have a conversation with,” Eltaib said. “If you’re homeless, home-insecure, anyone. I want everyone who comes to feel pride in what Richmond did together. And, I would like the police to stay out of it.”
Top Photo by R. Anthony Harris