*This story has been updated as of 9 PM.
Days of tension broke on Saturday as the neo-Confederate rally came to a peaceful end. Police have since reported seven arrests; one for disorderly conduct, two related to possession of weapons, and four for wearing masks in public. One woman was detained by police during a spirited verbal debate, and the pickup truck driven by the out-of-state organizers was towed due to a flat tire. Some 400 people were assembled, with members of the media alone greatly outnumbering neo-Confederates, who congregated in twos and threes throughout the assembly.
Dog walkers were out in large numbers by 8 AM, milling around the police cordons and talking to each other. Reactions to the upcoming protest were mixed; one resident supported Generals Lee and Stuart, but felt differently about the Davis monument. “Jefferson Davis was a shit. They should take him down, put up Abraham Lincoln instead,” she said, before heading off with her dog. Another dog walker expressed bemusement about the entire event. “I’m not scared, I’m more like, ‘what the fuck?'”
Although it was their rally, members of CSA II The New Confederate States of America didn’t arrive until later, after a counter-protest and rally had already started at the Maggie Walker statue on Broad Street. Nearly 200 people attended the earlier event, hosted by the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, the Richmond Peace Education Center, and the Virginia Interfaith Center. A diverse slate of speakers from area churches and non-profits gave speeches, including Aisha Huertas of the Episcopal Diocese. “There is no lost cause, but there is institutional oppression of people of color,” she said, questioning the narrative behind the rally. “We are a community of love. Love everybody. I even love the people standing for the statues. Let’s show them our love.”
On the sidelines, a Methodist minister described his motivation for attending. “I love God, I love Richmond, and I hate racism.” Next to him, a fellow pastor said, “Just justice, man. Just justice.” As the rally ended, they took to the sidewalk, followed by unaffiliated fellow counter-protesters from the Democratic Socialists of America and the Virginia Defenders, headed for a second rally at First English Evangelical Church at Stuart Circle.
The law-abiding group marched around 9:30, staying on sidewalks and coordinating with Richmond Police to keep road crossings safe and clear. They joined Hawk Newsome of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York and several local BLM chapters, standing together on the stairs to address the crowd. Newsome talked about the history of racism in Richmond, pointing to our status as Capital of the Confederacy and the slave markets here, before introducing a series of speakers.
After remarks, they and the interfaith group marched to the inner barricades of the Lee Statue, chanting for racial justice and equality. Protesters were without body armor or melee weapons, per earlier instructions by the police, who had no issues with banned items. A few men looked on disapprovingly, expressing worries that the peaceful group could turn violent, but the demonstration stayed peaceful and largely dispersed after a short period of chants and speeches.
In the buildup, police were widely credited by neighborhood association leaders and others for being communicative and proactive. They cordoned off the area around the Lee Monument on Friday, using city trucks, barricades, and police tape, and temporary fencing to limit access to homes. There were no reported acts of vandalism or property damage.
On the other side of Lee, tensions and tempers were higher, with a younger, less organized crowd of counter-protesters and a small handful of neo-Confederate folks. There was some name-calling and yelling, and many earnest discussions about the rally and the monuments. Sheryl Baldwin, a homeowner, came out to share a prayer, and to talk about her vision for Monument Avenue. “I want to keep the monuments, but I want to rebrand this street. Let’s call it the Story of Virginia. I want panels telling the whole story of this state, the good, the bad, the ugly.”
She’d been engaging another woman who was there to protest removal. We didn’t get her name before she became a target for the anger and frustration of passerbys, who screamed insults as they quickly walked away. She yelled back to a few before she rushed towards the Lee Monument, yelling at random. Within the crowd were two men standing quietly to the side, who identified themselves as Three Percenters from the Dixie Defenders Virginia Task Force. They’d been to Charlottesville, which they described as a false flag operation, aimed at stoking violence from its inception. They said they were there not to support any side but as independent peacekeepers, a function they were hoping to perform today as well. Next to them, an African American man with a Confederate flag held forth on racism. “What year did blacks get here? 1619. What year did the Confederate flag fly? 1861. Slavery was already here under the American flag.”
At the barricades, the woman who’d been engaged in verbal sparring earlier had reached a man holding a Confederate flag and the riot police, who moved in to separate her from the crowd and de-escalate the situation. Safely separated, the large mass of protesters continued to jeer and boo as she yelled back, sometimes addressing individuals directly, other times the whole assembly.
Off to the side, a different debate was happening, at a different tone of voice. Two men, one younger, one older, argued the merits of the monuments, the history of Richmond, and shared differing views on the lives of the men memorialized by the statues. As they began to debate socialism versus capitalism, protesters began to disperse, bringing a peaceful and fitting end to the rally.
But what about CSA II, the group that planned and organized this rally? According to social media, they are seeking $1000 on GoFundMe to cover towing fees and tire replacement to get home to Tennessee and Florida.
*Additional reporting contributed by Nidhi Sharma.
Cover photo by Landon Shroder, other photos by David Streever.