At the end of three months of protest activity, the situation at Marcus-David Peters Circle has been unstable at times. However, despite police violence and racist threats, activists and community members continue to gather there.
Since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police officers sparked ongoing protests throughout the streets of Richmond, the reclaimed Robert E. Lee Monument, now known as Marcus-David Peters Circle or MDPC, has become a congregating ground for both demonstrators and regular citizens alike. Recently, activists have begun warning that MDPC is no longer safe, but many Richmonders are not willing to stay away.
Over the past couple of months, the city and protesters have taken down other statues that memorialized Confederate leaders, but the Lee Monument has remained on its pedestal. Despite the ongoing court cases conflicting with activists’ demands for its removal, citizens have created a people-oriented space in the circle, featuring amenities such as a basketball hoop, a free library, and tents featuring food, voter registration forms, and other services. What was once a symbol of oppression has now become a colorful homage to Richmond’s rejuvenated community.
Late the night of July 30, someone fired on a vehicle that entered the circle. The police recovered an assault rifle and a significant amount of ammunition in the wake of the shooting.
The next day, in the early morning hours, demonstrators were woken from their sleep with violence and directed brutality by the Richmond Police Department, cocking guns in their faces, tear gassing and pepper-spraying them. One demonstrator was handcuffed on the ground and tased. It was after this incident, though not exclusively because of it, that the warning posts began to spread on social media.
Though protesters acknowledged that the concern should be taken seriously, and that different people approach safety concerns differently, one thing is clear and unanimous among all who frequent the soon-to-be-removed monument: the constant threat is not new.
“I understand that people protest differently. But emotions running wild are going to get us killed. We can’t have that,” said Frank Hunt, who has been involved in the protest movement throughout. “It’s intelligence over emotions. The moment you become angry your opponent has won.”
The RPD has used tear gas, pepper balls, mace, and flash-bangs on protesters on many occasions over the course of the protest movement. On June 26, Hunt was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet.
Protest participants have experienced not only physical threats and violence (by the hands of RPD and otherwise), but online harassment and the aftershocks of what few will understand if they have not experienced it themselves.
“They’ve been watching my house. They say my name when I’m walking around. There’s a couple [officers] that target me specifically,” said Mikhail Smith. “The racist comments. The racist messages. Phone calls. I’ve had people tell me that they’re going to lynch me. No one should ever have to live like that. I had to run through the streets and be holed up in a house with 40 people coughing and sneezing. Snot running down our faces while crying. People screaming.”
Smith has gained notoriety for filming and posting videos of interactions between protesters and the police. Specifically, he’s attracted attention for a video he posted on Instagram, in which he filmed police first pepper-spraying a group of women walking down Broad St, then turning their pepper spray on him as he filmed out of his upstairs window.
By taking visible action to stand with the movement and highlight violent police behavior, Smith, along with other organizers, protesters and even any one in the vicinity of what the RPD rule an “unlawful assembly,” have become targets of those who oppose the movement and the police.
“The cops still haven’t detained that individual, who was subsequently doxed because I took a video,” Smith said. “My life is in danger because of that. He could be looking for me.”
Smith also posted a now-viral video of a woman screaming racist slurs at the monument. According to him, this is sadly typical of any day spent at the monument.
“White supremacists yell stuff out their windows daily. There are altercations daily,” Smith said. “I just happened to get that lady on video, but that happens every day.”
Nonetheless, within the movement, people are continuing to organize, demonstrate, and bring a voice to the pain the community has endured and the progress it will experience as they continue forward.
Protesters continue to articulate a list of demands from local police and the Richmond city government, including reopening the case of Marcus-David Peters (who was killed by police in 2018 while unarmed, naked, and having a mental health crisis), defunding the police, dropping charges against every protester, removal of all Confederate monuments within the city, establishment of an independent civilian review board, implementation of the Marcus Alert system to improve responses for mental health-related emergencies, and the release of names of all RPD officers currently under investigation for use of force.
For many of these protesters, regardless of the danger it may present, abandoning the movement and the city is not an option. They love their city, and they want to make it better, regardless of the cost.
“My heart got attached to it,” Hunt said of Richmond. “When this happened, it made me realize my purpose.”
Written by Alexandra Zernik and Marilyn Drew Necci. Top Photo by SassafrassBluff.Life, via Facebook