With the flag they dropped from the Robert E. Lee bridge last month, the Richmond branch of Sunrise Movement calls attention to the links between environmental activism and racial justice.
On June 19, a banner was dropped from the Robert E. Lee bridge that read “Defund The Police” in large, red letters. The phrase, encompassing a circular emblem on a navy blue background, mimicked the Virginia State Flag. Its text read “Virginia – Sic Semper Tyrannis,” but instead of the flowery vines which embroider the state crest, the names of victims of police brutality circled its center.
In this adaptation of the state’s flag, the usual white Roman character in a blue robe (known as Virtus) is replaced by an ambiguous Black protester standing on a fallen statue. This image, both powerful and controversial, evokes a poignant emotional response.
But who was behind this mysterious banner drop, and what is their message?
The installation was created by none other than Sunrise Movement Richmond, the local chapter of a nationwide environmental organization that has spent years coupling climate activism with the fight for racial equality. In light of recent events, the increasingly-prevalent topic of racial equality has sparked a conversation about race relations in the environmental world. It’s a conversation the Sunrise Movement has had since the very beginning.
Fionnuala Fisk is a leading voice for the Sunrise Movement’s Richmond chapter. Fisk provided insight into the meaning behind the banner drop, what it aimed to accomplish, and what The Sunrise Movement is doing in Richmond and across the nation.
“Sunrise Richmond is one of the keystone hubs in the state,” Fisk said. “[It’s] a youth-led, nonviolent direct action movement around The Green New Deal. It includes the environmental piece, but also the economic and racial justice piece… We would like a transition away from fossil fuels, and we would like vulnerable communities to be supported as we deal with the enormous crisis coming our way that is climate change.”
Sunrise Richmond is dedicated to justice for people and the planet, and racial equality is a topic on everyone’s mind these days.
While the imagery of their Defund The Police banner is clear at first glance, its symbolism is dense. The deeply-layered subtext is first noticed through the crest’s center, which features a Black Lives Matter protester in place of Virginia’s Virtus.
“The protester is an androgynous, ambiguously-gendered person. That was intentional, because we want them to represent anybody,” Fisk said. The protester stands atop a fallen statue, like the many Confederate monuments being removed (sometimes forcibly by protesters) throughout Richmond.
“They have a Black power fist, and they’re carrying a camera. One of the big symbols in this particular movement has been cameras speaking louder,” Fisk said. Public documentation has become a symbol in the fight, and the weapon of choice for nonviolent protesters. “Cameras have been really important in capturing the truth.”
The camera-wielding protester on the banner could be interpreted, perhaps, as a direct reference to the events which kickstarted the resurgence of Black Lives Matter: the death of George Floyd. Floyd’s death in Minneapolis altered the course of history overnight, the video shot by a bystander resulting in one of the largest civil protests in human history. Fisk went on to explain the deeper elements of Sunrise Richmond’s flag.
“There’s an old joke that was historically associated with the phrase ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’ — which means ‘thus always to tyrants’ — but the joke said that it actually meant ‘Get your foot off my neck.’”
The joke in Virginia dates back to the Civil War. These words bring to mind the killing of George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter movement gives new meaning to the flag itself. The Tyrant, played by officer Derek Chauvin, has prevailed with his knee upon Floyd’s neck. It signifies a moment in time when the Tyrant has won at the expense of the oppressed, and the virtue of Virtus is snuffed out by the brutality of the Tyrant.
“The flowers around the rim were exchanged for broken chains and handcuffs,” Fisk said. “The names in the circle were a mix of victims of lynching, as well as victims of police brutality throughout Virginia’s history.”
The image on Sunrise Richmond’s flag empowers the role of the protester. “We wanted to flip the narrative about protesters right now. There’s been a lot of bad messaging [from] certain groups about protesters being thugs, being violent, being rioters, et cetera,” Fisk said. Sunrise positioned the protester as the central figure, portraying them as the hero, just as Lady Virtus is depicted on the Virginia State Flag: poised, elegant, powerful.
“[The figure] reminds people that these protesters are forcing America to live up to its ideals,” Fisk said. “These are the people fighting for equality, fighting for life and liberty. These are our national heroes.”
We can see the effects and implications of structural racism in nearly every facet of American society — and environmentalism is no exception. The Sunrise Movement bridges that gap, noting how climate issues could hurt some communities more than others.
“Whenever there are big transitions in society, it’s always marginalized groups that are screwed,” Fisk said, noting that minority groups could disproportionately feel the hardships of economic and environmental shifts. With less wealth and resources, these communities will naturally have a more difficult time adapting to major changes. “The most marginalized communities right now are the most important to listen to, and they’re the ones that can benefit most from a re-imagination.”
Fisk emphasized the Sunrise Movement’s involvement with The Green New Deal, and discussed their part in the Green New Deal Virginia Coalition.
The Green New Deal is a resolution put forward in both the House and Senate, which lays out a broad vision to combat climate change. As a modern variation of the 1930s New Deal, it seeks to monumentally change U.S. environmental practices. “It is an attempt to go beyond that [New Deal],” Fisk said. “Broadly, it is a transition from fossil fuels to green fuel in the next ten years. It’s a social, vast reimagining of services that the government provides, and it’s also about transitioning from fossil fuels to a carbon-neutral economy.”
As climate issues intersect with the fight for racial justice in America, an increasingly-prevalent term has entered the country’s vernacular: environmental racism.
“The effects of climate change and environmental degradation are not felt by all people equally,” said Fisk, offering the example that “a lot of our waste goes to poorer countries.”
Right here in Virginia and the United States, marginalized, lower-income communities are at higher risk of being negatively impacted — or even destroyed — by the relentless reliance on fossil fuels.
“Pipelines do not go through the wealthy communities. They go through the historically-Black and native communities,” Fisk said. “Those with less political power are more vulnerable to the detrimental results of vast environmental degradation.”
To Fisk, making justice for these communities a fundamental goal of the environmental movement is a key step in moving the movement in a progressive direction.
“Environmentalism, in the past, has had a long history of being a very white movement. And it can’t be,” said Fisk. “Sunrise is not this white monolith that [other] organizations are.”
Sunrise Movement envisions a greater picture to encompass climate justice for all people, and the Lee Bridge banner drop sought to connect these dots locally. By using the fallen Confederate statue in place of the Tyrant, Sunrise utilizes a symbol that speaks heavily, and specifically, to Richmond. Its iconography is near and dear to Richmonders’ hearts, familiar to the political climate of this moment in history.
Richmond is a moderately-small city, with a population of around 232,000. While the city may seem small on a national scale, Fisk noted that Richmond has a lot of skin in the game during the fight for racial equality. Few places are as relevant when it comes to Confederate monuments, oppressive iconography, and the public glorification of racists, rebels, tyrants, genociders, and slave traders.
Fisk reminds us that Richmond is not only a keystone hub for Sunrise Movement’s operations but also a hub in America’s fight for justice, especially right now.
“Richmond is a living symbol for the rest of the country,” Fisk said. “Every time the BBC writes an article on protests about Confederate statues, they [reference] the Lee Monument. We wanted to draw attention to the importance of Richmond, and Virginia, as national symbols.”
We’re experiencing a time in history when the news is dominated by Black Lives Matter protests and a global pandemic. The Sunrise Movement encourages us to think about environmentalism right now, too, not forgetting the looming threat of climate crisis which continues inching closer. They urge us to remember, once again, that racial equality is not an island.
The banner only lasted a few short hours on the Robert E. Lee bridge before it was removed and confiscated by Richmond Police. But thanks to a few photos, illuminating statements from Fisk, and the ongoing work of The Sunrise Movement in our city, the effects and impact of the banner — and those who dropped it — will be felt for quite some time.
Top Photo via Sunrise Movement Richmond