Home US The Black, Millennial Mayor Who Tore Down His City’s White Monuments

The Black, Millennial Mayor Who Tore Down His City’s White Monuments

It was easier said than done. After Stoney’s change of heart on the statues, he rallied City Council members in support of an ordinance for removal, to be introduced when the new state law went into effect nearly a month later. Only then would the city begin the lengthy legal process requiring a detailed report, public hearings, and either a local government vote or a public referendum before any of the memorials could be touched.

The announcement was met with criticism from both ends of the political spectrum. Many Virginia Republicans vowed to fight what they viewed as a threat to a proud part of the state’s past. Amanda Chase, a state senator and Republican gubernatorial candidate, warned that removing the monuments would be “a cowardly capitulation to the looters and domestic terrorists” and “an overt effort to erase all white history.” Meanwhile, protesters chafed at any delay in removing what they saw as blatant symbols of racial oppression.

On June 6, the day after the City Council voiced their unanimous support of Stoney’s plan, demonstrators toppled the figure of Confederate cavalry general Williams Carter Wickham, which had stood in a downtown park since 1891. The subsequent evening, a statue of Christopher Columbus was tossed in a lake. On June 10, jubilant protesters tied ropes around the legs of Jefferson Davis’ 8-foot-tall bronze statue, installed in 1907, and wrenched it from its stone pedestal as Richmond police stood by. While calling Davis “a racist and a traitor,” Stoney pleaded with the community to allow the city to remove the remaining monuments professionally in the interest of public safety.

He had reason to worry. That same night in Portsmouth, Virginia, a rope snapped as a crowd pulled down parts of an elaborate Confederate monument, nearly killing one of the participants. Stoney says he repeatedly watched the video in horror. “The guy flatlined two or three times,” the mayor recounted in an interview. Republicans, however, argued that he should call out the police or National Guard to protect the statues rather than take them down. Stoney refused. “I’m here, No. 1, to protect the lives of citizens, not memorials,” he said.

That claim was tested over the next two weeks, as protests turned violent and police used rubber bullets and tear gas on demonstrators outside police headquarters. In an attempt to quell the unrest, Stoney fired the police chief. The chief’s temporary successor resigned soon after, and a third chief was hired June 26. This did little to mollify progressives. “Stoney is a sellout” and “WYA Stoney?” graffiti— for where you at? —showed up on downtown walls, while demonstrators stormed the lobby of his apartment building. Republicans, meanwhile, accused Stoney of allowing rioters to reign in the capital’s streets, and called for the mayor to resign.

What many saw as a series of missteps further clouded Stoney’s reelection prospects. “He was a shoo-in,” says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst, of the incumbent. “That’s changed. He’s being shredded from both sides.”

On June 21, officers arrested six activists attempting to knock over the large statue of General J.E.B. Stuart along Monument Avenue. Richmond police were recording scores of similar incidents along the boulevard, but there were still 10 days to go before the city could begin the process to remove the statues legally.

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Marion and Greg Werkheiser, Richmond attorneys specializing in cultural heritage, provided Stoney with a way out. They advised him to invoke the emergency powers granted to him by the governor and affirmed by the City Council to take down the statues immediately in the name of public safety. It was not clear to everyone that this was legal; Richmond’s own interim city attorney, Haskell Brown III, told the council he was opposed to this ploy. He warned it could lead to criminal charges against the mayor and his staff. Stoney decided to take the risk.

Then he ran into a more pedestrian problem. The city found a local Black-owned contractor to do the job, but it needed a specialized crane to pluck the heavy statues from their pedestals. According to Stoney, private companies in Virginia and Maryland refused the job. Workers in places like New Orleans had confronted death threats and car bombs when they removed Confederate statues there. By the time a Connecticut subcontractor agreed to ship the suitable equipment, it was nearly the end of June. The mayor chose to wait until July 1, when the state law would go into effect, to start the work of physically removing the statues to try to minimize legal challenges, but he was still skipping much of the formal process the law required for permanent removal.

On the eve of July 1, Saunders, Stoney’s chief of staff, prepared his letter of resignation for the mayor, “in case the next day does not go well.” The next morning, in a City Council meeting over Zoom, the council balked at the mayor’s plans to immediately remove the statues and postponed a vote until the next day. But Stoney was done with hedging.

At noon, he decided to send in the crane. “We are doing this,” he told his staff. Stoney and his team then quietly decamped from City Hall to the home of a supporter near the monuments. From this secret base of operations, he figured he could avoid being served papers that might trigger an injunction preventing the statues’ removal.

On the ground, the sheriff refused to provide the necessary security for the contractors without a council resolution or the mayor’s agreement to indemnify her. She settled for a letter from the Werkheiser law firm promising to represent her pro bono. With that secured, according to a member of the mayor’s team, she turned to the contractors and said, “Let’s roll.”

The crane’s first target was the large equestrian sculpture of General Stonewall Jackson on Monument Avenue. Word quickly spread and a crowd gathered to see what was happening. Sheilah Belle, a local Black writer and radio host, was on hand along with a thousand or so onlookers. She recalled spotting her elderly aunt, who for months had remained in quarantine, quietly watching. “I realized that this was touching people’s lives, and bringing healing to the city,” she said. The mayor, she added, may have been slow to act, “but he was doing the best he could.”

Stoney wasn’t there—he says he didn’t want to look like he was politicizing the issue during an election year, and he also didn’t want to be served legal papers. Instead, he watched the event on television at his secret operations center. Amid a fierce thunderstorm, the statue finally was hauled off its perch at 4:30 that afternoon. “To a new Richmond,” said Stewart Gamage, a member of the mayor’s kitchen Cabinet, as she offered a toast of bourbon to the mayor and his team, according to one of the celebrants.

Source Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

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