Monument rally peaceful as neo-Confederates met by counterprotesters

George Copeland Jr. | 8/23/2018, 6 a.m.
“Tear these racist statues down!” Those words, shouted by about 40 counterprotesters on Monument Avenue, drowned out attempts by about ...
Mary Atkins, 73, takes her argument to stop the hate directly to the group of about 15 neo-Confederates, several carrying military-style weapons, who staged a rally Sunday to call for keeping the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue. Counterprotesters, who want the statues honoring Confederates to be removed, arrived early and took over the space directly at the foot of the monument. Photo by Regina H. Boone Richmond Free Press

“Tear these racist statues down!”

Those words, shouted by about 40 counterprotesters on Monument Avenue, drowned out attempts by about 15 neo-Confederates on Sunday to speak in support of keeping the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on the tree-lined street.

The rally, held at the Davis statue at Monument and Davis avenues, was organized by the Virginia Task Force of Three Percenters, also known as the Dixie Defenders.

It was the fourth such rally in the last year by neo-Confederate groups in support of the five statues honoring slave-owning losers of the Civil War.

Sunday’s rally was called in response to the Monument Avenue Commission’s recommendation in July to Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney that the statue honoring the Confederate president be removed because, the commission stated, it is “most unabashedly Lost Cause in its design and sentiment.”

The commission also recommended that contextual signs be added to the other statues.

Several of the neo-Confederates were visibly armed Sunday with military-style weapons. Some were dressed in combat gear. They also included members of the Tennessee-based group, CSA II: The New Confederate States of America, who had served as the driving force behind the previous protests.

While the rally was to start at noon at the foot of the Davis statue, the neo-Confederates were beat to the spot by roughly eight counterprotesters who apparently arrived before 8 a.m. Sunday and set up their signs and cases of water. The neo-Confederates then were forced to set up across from the statue on a median strip. About 17 uniformed Richmond Police officers already were on site and patroling both groups and the passing vehicle traffic.

Despite a brief verbal confrontation between the two groups, the day was peaceful with no arrests. The only clash came from the sounds of music both groups pumped from personal speakers.

Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham, who was on Monument Avenue monitoring the situation, explained the decision to leave the streets open as a way to avoid inconveniencing “the rest of the motoring public or the residents in their own community.” That the two groups chose to self-separate and remain orderly made that decision easier for police to maintain.

“There’s always the chant I hear, ‘This is what democracy looks like,’ and I believe today this is what it looks like,” Chief Durham said.

He also characterized the number of officers present, including three on horseback, as part of the price of ensuring the safety of everyone involved. Past protests collectively have cost Richmond taxpayers more than $500,000 for police resources.

The fact that state laws protecting the monuments may prevent Mayor Stoney and city officials from following through on the commission’s recommendations didn’t deter the neo-Confederates.

A man who identified himself as president of the Three Percenters but would not provide his name placed the reason for calling the rally and the blame for its eventual cost to taxpayers on Mayor Stoney and his actions threatening the monuments’ future.

“I don’t see this as racial or white supremacy. I see this as history, ancestral values and heritage. That’s all it is,” he said.

“None of my group are white supremacists. We have plenty of black friends. We hate neo-Nazis. We hate KKK. We don’t stand with them. We don’t tolerate them. They’re not welcome.”

The Davis statue, he contended, “was put here for a memorial for the Confederates and for the South. Period.”

Counterprotester Jay Tubb of Richmond said he was a witness to the deadly rally in Charlottesville by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in August 2017 in which a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of other people. He assessed neo-Confederate groups as “really misguided and ignorant.”

“I believe that this uprising of the CSA is thinly disguised racism and treason,” Mr. Tubb said, noting the Confederacy’s origins as an attempt to preserve slavery by seceding from the United States. “These statues are a monument to that system. ‘Heritage not hate’ is their spin on their intolerance.”

Goad Gatsby, a resident of the neighborhood, was critical of the protesters, Richmond City Council’s inaction and the Virginia General Assembly for not allowing localities greater autonomy to deal with monuments to Confederates.

“I think it’s going to be a long-term, cost-effective strategy to move (the Confederate statues) sooner than later,” Mr. Gatsby said.

About 3 p.m., an hour before the rally’s planned end, the neo-Confederates packed up and left.

The counterprotesters were left to have the final word Sunday, with some quickly moving to occupy the median strip where the neo-Confederates had been. They cheered and posed for photos before eventually dispersing.

Already there are plans for a fifth rally on Sept. 15, led by CSA II, calling for preservation of all the Monument Avenue statues.