by Charles McGuigan
Things are heating up by eleven o’clock, mainly the temperature on this blue-sky morning in late summer. But tempers are rising as well. Sirens compete with the shrill of cicadas. I try to enter from the north side of Allen Avenue, but a Richmond police officer tells me I’m going to have to backtrack to Broad and make my way up Meadow.
Of course the objective is the Lee Monument. I talk with one of the dozen or so ACLU observers who all sport blue vests. “It’s been very quiet,” says John Wells. “There have been some protesters on the west quadrant and the east quadrant, but this north side has been very quiet. The turnout from the CSA (neo-Confederate States of America) seems to be small from what I’ve seen.
When I finally arrive on the median strip of the west quadrant there are the pro-Confederates, maybe twenty of them in all. Most of them left earlier. But the counter protesters, are still a few hundred strong. They stick it out. When the pro-Confederate out-of-towners left, they were replaced by home-grown white supremacists, mainly from the outlying counties. Most every one of them is packing a sidearm—9 mm revolvers, black guns in black holsters, some of them semi-automatic. These are the open-carry crowd, men who like showing off their weapons. There is not a gun among the counter protesters.
Several blocks are cordoned off by the police who are dressed in riot gear, padded as Michelin men, a small army of them. They’re stern, but not confrontational even when BLM (Black Lives Matter) activists begin berating them; the cops just stand their ground.
You can’t get anywhere near the Lee Monument or even the rotary that surrounds it. Meadow Street, one block west of the statue, is flanked by massive cast-steel dump trucks from city maintenance and public works, I’m guessing. The cops aren’t taking any chances. No repeat of the Nazi terrorist who killed a woman just a month ago in Charlottesville. Our cops may have taken a cue from Boston, which did things right. It’s an essay in crowd control, something worthy of Disneyworld.
On the western quadrant, I encounter a couple from Tidewater Virginia. They’re pro-Confederates, but their understanding of Civil War history seems to be somewhat skewed.
“I went to Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Hampton, Virginia,” the woman tells me. “And they’re wanting to change the name of my school, and now they’re wanting to take down the statue. I think it’s a crying shame.”
“But you do understand the other point of view?” I ask.
“No, I don’t,” she says flatly.
“Because, if you read every single Confederate state’s articles of secession, slavery was the primary states rights they were trying to preserve,” I suggest.
“I disagree,” the man says. “That has a lot to do with it, but it was trying to keep the Southern states from joining the Union. That’s the main reason.”
“But the Southern states were part of the Union,” I say. “Robert E. Lee was trained at West Point, fought with valor in the U.S. Army during the Mexican American War.”
“The South states was not part of the Union,” he says defiantly. “Yes it had something to do with the slavery, I don’t deny that.”
“But the Southern states were part of the Union,” I insist. “It was called the United States of America. It applied to every state in the country, north and south. Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, in South Carolina was fighting on the same side as Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys up in Vermont. It was the same American Revolution.”
“And they all ratified the Constitution,” someone chimes in. “The original thirteen colonies. South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia.”
This goes on for a couple minutes, back and forth, but these good people seem willfully opposed to historic fact, so the woman takes a different tack. It’s reductio ad absurdum at its most elemental. She misses the point altogether.
“So all the statues where they own slaves should be taken down,” she says, referring to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, et al.
“Nobody ever said that,” a counter protester says, shaking his head.
I nod, agreeing with the counter protester. “The reason the Confederacy was motivated was to preserve the institution of slavery,” I say. “That is not the reason the American Revolution was fought.”
“I disagree,” the woman and man say in unison.
“You can disagree, but that is part of the historic record, and to deny it is like denying the existence of the noon day sun above us,” I say.
This doesn’t deter the woman. She continues her rant, which rapidly devolves into borderline incoherency.
The woman I talk with now, Elisheva Marks, holds a sign that says, quite simply, “Deport Nazis”, and the woman standing beside her, Rachel Sattler, a friend of hers, holds a placard that states: “Virginia is for lovers, not racists.” Elisheva is Jewish and has strong beliefs about the normalization of Nazis and white supremacists under the current presidential administration. She stares up at the statue of Lee mounted on Traveler.
“It’s not about pro-Confederacy or whether you’re for or against the statues being removed,” says Elisheva. “It’s the fact that we as Richmonders will make make the decision. It’s our decision; not these people coming in from another state. And it’s not like these people have come here and said, ‘Hey, we’re here to see you and can we have a cup of coffee and talk about our differences?’” She takes umbrage with the open-carry types, and they’re quite a few of them, and it is a little alarming to see them moving through the crowd with their guns and holsters as if this is the Old West or a war zone.
I talk with one of the gun-toters who got into a pretty heated argument with one of the counter protesters.
“I’m wondering why y’all are carrying guns?” I ask.
“Protection,” he says.
“Protection from what? Have you actually been threatened by somebody today?”
“Yeah, on the other side, the Black Lives Matter guys,” he says. “There were people surrounding us.”
None of the Black Lives Matter protesters were carrying firearms.
Moving back to the east, I spot a large African-American man holding court. He’s surrounded by about fifteen people, a couple of them compatriots. This African-American man, whose name is Ed, wears a TRUMP hat, a tent like black T-Shirt, dark glasses and a silver ring inscribed with this legend: U.S. Army. He speaks with the measured cadence of a preacher and he’s sort of skirting a question posed by another African-American man, who is asking him about statue of slave owner Robert E. Lee. He looks up to old Marse Lee high on his marble pedestal.
“Show me a slave owner?” says Ed. “They’re not showing me any live slaveholders.”
The crowd is, of course, talking about Robert E. Lee, but Ed keeps up his roundabout argument about living slaveholders.
“Do you support Robert E. Lee?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says.
“Why do you support Robert E. Lee?”
“Because Robert E. Lee is part of Virginia, and part of the history of this state and this country,” Ed tells me.
Then he begins talking about his own genes, saying he embraces just twenty-nine percent of his own DNA, the fraction of his physical being that is white and European. The crowd is silent for a few moments. A geneticist in crowd, also African-American, asks Ed which haploid group he came from. Ed shrugs. He has no idea where his forbears came from outside of Ohio. “All I know is Virginia,” he says. “All I know is Confederacy.”
“So what do you know about the Confederacy,” asks the geneticist.
“That it’s something black people of all people shouldn’t be protesting against,” Ed says.
It’s almost too much for some people in the crowd. They begin jeering and caterwauling, some of them finally breaking down in hysterics.
Ed is sounding more and more like a white supremacist. “I appreciate everything the white race has done for this country and the world,” he says. “I appreciate it. They only look at one thing, that’s all blacks and liberals look at. I look at it a different way. I appreciate everything that the white race has done for this country, and this world, and the people.”
“Get back in the fields, then,” a young African-American woman says. “Get back in the fields.”
Ed is undeterred. “What are you going to get in when you leave here?” he asks. “You gonna get in a car. Where you think that car came from? Have you ever flown in a plane, have you ever heard of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina? You ever rode on a train?”
“So white people have invented everything?” says the young African-American woman.
“Did white people build the pyramids?” a white guy asks.
“Was Jesus white?” asks another.
Ed turns his attention to me suddenly.
“You see yourself in the mirror?” he says. “The majority of these black people hate you. You know why they hate you?”
“Tell me,” I say.
“Because you’re white.”
One African-American woman says, “We love you.” Another woman says, “We don’t hate you.”
Ed’s arguments become more and more delusional.
“Have you ever heard this term?” he asks. “The white man stole everything out of Africa. It’s a lie that’s been perpetuated.”
“Are you familiar with King Leopold the Second of Belgium?” I ask. “And are you aware of what he did in the Congo. He did take everything out of Africa. He took the ivory and then the rubber. He enslaved the entire nation in the final years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth century. He annihilated ten million Congolese. The first example of genocide in the twentieth century.”
“There’s nothing you can do about that,” says Ed.
Then he takes the final plunge down the rabbit whole where there is no reality, no semblance of truth, no regard for history. And it really makes your head spin.
“Have you ever heard who the master race is?” Ed asks. “Y’all ever heard that? Africans are the master race. I’m gonna put it to you this way. How could five guys with muskets take the whole continent? The master race had nothing but spears and blow darts. My point is, if they are the master race, how did they end up in last place?”
Listening to this man becomes tiring, so I move further to the east, toward a semi-circle of cops forming a crescent on the outer edge of the Lee Monument rotary. Here’s where I meet an imposing woman named Taleta Shabazz. She is trim and dressed in black slacks, black T-shirt, black cap, black boots and dark glasses. Her lips are metallic blue. She is African-American, and she knows a thing or two about history. Just out of infancy in the 1960S Taleta watched riots on TV, saw black men and women being beaten because of the color of their skin.
“I’m from New York City, from the village of Harlem, I moved here more than twenty years ago, and I’ve never been to an event like this,” she says. “I don’t march and I don’t protest anything. However, I’ve been in this struggle since I was two years old. My first conscious thought was in front of a black-and-white, seven-inch Sony television with metal antennas. That’s the first time I realized there was a disparity between the colors and ethnicities, at which point I realized which side I was on clearly based on my genetic composition and my appearance.”
It’s refreshing to meet someone who understands our history, and does not distort truth.
“There’s a real issue with anyone who embraces this, because anybody with a brain understands that the Confederate soldiers fought against the Union soldiers in order to perpetuate slavery,” she says. “We all know this, and these statues and these Confederate flags memorialize these fallen soldiers who lost a war. They were always on the side of wrong.”
She looks around and stares down a group of gun-toting white supremacists, who have been listening to her words. “These monuments and flags seem to give them a sense of superiority,” she says aiming her words at the pro-Confederates. “We’ve been on an un-level playing field for approximately five hundred years, perhaps longer than that, and it’s about time that my future grandchildren will come into the world and not feel the oppression that I felt the day that I was born.”
She considers her own son, a sweet, trusting young man, just twenty-five years old. “The thing about my son is that he has a beautiful soul and refuses to see my argument,” says Taleta. “He thinks the world is just fine the way that it is because I’ve sheltered him and I’ve kept him close to me so no harm has ever come to him. He’s never been in a situation where he’s been outright offended, but my fear is that somebody might set their sights on him just because of the color of his skin. He does not recognize the danger.”
When I ask what she thinks the monuments represents, Taleta is blunt.
”Oppression,” she says.
“White supremacy,” she says.
“Violence,” she says.
Next, I run into a trio of young women who are handing out white silk roses, boutonnieres with a message. Their names are Katy Johnson, Lauren Smith and Darian Carter-Pace. Lauren explains the significance of the roses.
“It was a counter protest of faculty and students at Munich University against Nazis prior to and leading up to the Second World War,” she says. “Many of them were found out and died for their beliefs. We just thought it was a very symbolic double-entendre—a white rose that’s a symbol of peace, and also a jab against neo-Nazis.”
Darian Carter-Pace who double majors in homeland security and journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University has seen how Confederate memorials seem to attract Nazis and white supremacists, some of who are bent on violence.
“I wasn’t for the removal of the monuments at first,” says Darian. “But now because of the type of people who rally behind them I favor their removal.”
She looks around her, at some of the white supremacists gathered on this grassy median strip, men carrying guns. “If this is what these monuments evoke then they have to come down,” Darian says. “There’s a metaphor I heard someone use that goes like this, ‘When a kid throws a tantrum about a toy, you don’t give them the toy, you don’t let them keep it, you take it away.’ This is their toy, and so it’s time to take it away.”
Darian, who is African-American, is from Charlottesville and was witness to the violence and murder, the acts of outright terrorism, committed by the white supremacists who still pay homage to their counterparts from a bygone era.
“It was insane,” she says. “The first torch-march that happened; I was terrified. I didn’t think something like that could happen where I was from.”
And at this moment I can’t really believe that gun-toting white supremacists are gathered in the heart of the city I call home, the city I love. When these monuments were erected during the Jim Crow era, the incredibly well-to-do built homes along this broad boulevard that links the monuments. At that time, the monuments lent an air of prestige to the area.
But that time is long past. In anticipation of this protest, more than a few homeowners left the city, fearing possible violence, for Charlottesville is still fresh in most people’s memory. Another rally is planned in December, and folks are already worried. Fact is, these monuments are now flashpoints, attracting people who do not share the values of Richmonders. There may come a time when property values along Monument Avenue plummet because of the outdated monuments, and that may spur their removal.
As I move past the dump truck barricades on Meadow, on my way back to my car, a couple of guys race south on Meadow, running the light on Monument, in a replica of the General Lee, the muscle car, an orange Dodge Charger, that figured prominently in “The Dukes of Hazzard ”. Repeatedly the two men driving this relic hit the horn, which bleats out the first twelve notes of “Dixie”, and it sounds sad and small and out of touch. In a word: Pathetic.