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A Community Space Emerges in the Shadow of a Confederate Monument

Essay

By | August 11, 2020

(Ryan M. Kelly/AFP/Getty Images)

I recently spent an afternoon with my wife Lynn at a now highly publicized site in Richmond, Virginia: Lee Circle on Monument Avenue. The site has been renamed by its current custodians as Marcus-David Peters—those in the know say “MDP”—Circle. Peters was a Black Richmond high school teacher who was unarmed and fatally shot by police when he suffered a psychiatric episode in 2018. His memory is now honored by activists on Monument Avenue, a well-known boulevard in Richmond. From 1890 to 1930, during Reconstruction and after, monuments with statues of Confederate leaders were built at major intersections on the avenue: the cavalry officer J. E. B. Stuart, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, General Stonewall Jackson, oceanographer and naval officer Matthew Fontaine Maury, and General Robert E. Lee, whose statue still rises high above Lee/MDP Circle.

These monuments were built during a backlash to Reconstruction and stood for years as a reminder that Richmond had served as the capital of the Confederacy. Sparked partly in response to the killing of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protesters and other organizers gathered around the statues, spray-painted them, posted signs near them, and advocated for their removal. In early June, the Lee monument became a focal site of outrage and confrontation between police and protesters. Toward the end of the month, the confrontations subsided even as the circle remained a gathering place.

The Lee/MDP “circle” is in fact a rather large traffic roundabout with enough grassy space in it, and on the medians around it, to call it a small park. When I saw the massive monument in the center, I was taken aback. I had remembered it as monotonous in its light grey color, atop which sat the slate grey statue of Lee mounted on a horse. It now screamed with bright colors: pink, yellow, green, white, and blood red paint all over. Invectives were scrawled and spray-painted on every surface of the monument (the statue itself was too high to reach for verbosity): “F-12” stood out in many places, the “12” referring to the police (no need to explain the “F”), as did “ACAB,” for “All Cops Are “Ba–ards.” Nearby sidewalks and streets featured similar execrations. On first sight, the scene evoked images of tear gas, shouts, television cameras, and unrest.

(Photo courtesy of Lynn M. Valeri)

After walking about the circle, however, I perceived something beyond the rage and assault on the monument: a sense of order and purpose. It felt like a public park, with all of the restraint and community mindedness implied in such a space. There were a few well-tended, boxed garden plots. A basketball hoop on one side entertained a steady stream of players who laughed at the bumpy dribbling and odd shot angles. A large, professionally painted sign welcomed people to “The Beautiful Marcus-David Peters Circle.” Handmade traffic signs had been posted around the circle, with admonitions to “Really, GO SLOW.” A few patrols of the Richmond police walked or biked by but kept their distance. People’s behavior and conversation exuded decorum and mutual consideration. A hint of reverence inflected people’s interactions on the site: softened voices, kind exchanges, deliberate hopefulness.

(Photo courtesy of Lynn M. Valeri)

Religious sentiments and practices shaped much of the “culture” of the circle. Some of the religion was quite explicit. Painted on the monument in large script was a reference to “Proverb [sic] 19:16,” a cryptic verse that gives a sense of impending judgment: “Those who keep the commandment will live; and those who are heedless of their ways will die” (NRSV). A small image posted in several places claimed that “Jesus was a Rebel.” Yes, I thought, he did resist the system, but I wondered if the creator of this sign might have found a better word than “rebel,” given its Confederate connotations. The whole scene, from one perspective, resembled a cemetery in all of its staging and markers: a rectangle of small memorials to victims of police brutality around the base (most with ribbons, flowers, candles, and photos), the memorial itself a mausoleum, notes of remembrance and affection. Images of death, love, and memory—the stuff of lived religion—defined the landscape.

(Photo courtesy of Lynn M. Valeri)

There were less explicit but nonetheless clearly religious practices. The circle appeared as a pilgrimage site with sacred connotations. Attendants from the neighborhood and city-wide organizations that helped protesters to develop protocols for the circle told us that people have been coming from all over Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. to pay respects. Small groups of visitors, paused thoughtfully before the memorial, spoke quietly. One high school student, as Lynn learned, came with her family from Northern Virginia to have her senior portrait taken at the memorial. She was dressed formally for the occasion.

Many religious communities conduct prayer, meditation, or other spiritual practices that foster mutuality and solidarity, or healing and consolation. There was evidence of such core practices at the circle. I had a conversation with TaNeil Moore, who works for the Richmond Action Alliance and spends much of her days at the memorial collecting voter registrations and welcoming strangers such as me. I asked her how things had changed since the early weeks of June, when the protests began and there were violent clashes with police. By her account, the site had gone from being rowdy and edgy, with loud noise and an abundance of tear gas, to a place of, in her words, serenity, healing, and reflection. It was a place of meditation. One questionnaire on the Richmond Action Alliance Facebook page concerned the viability of yoga classes. Several notices around the monument advertised a “video essay” called “Funeral of a Nation,” a half-hour film filled with images from the civil rights movement and black sacred music. We witnessed a young woman in a wheelchair who spun it around with a joyful face, onlookers at attention. It evoked a liturgical dance. People were eager to talk about personal matters—a sort of after-church, coffee-hour ethos. One young man told us that he had come that day because he had just received news of his mother’s cancer and did not want “to be alone.” Many of the people we spoke to expressed a sense of belonging to a like-minded, like-feeling community. Networks of communication, spaces for meditation, hints of healing, bits of scripture: It all conveyed a spiritual ethos.

The community of protest had become an ensemble of joint ownership, transforming the circle into a civic and public space. Each night featured one artistic event or another: music, vigils, documentaries, and light-shows projected onto the memorial (most recently, with the face of John Lewis beaming on the assembly). When we were there, the whole Virginia Commonwealth University men’s basketball team—the closest thing that Richmond has to sports celebrity—showed up in uniform. Accompanied by the head coach and two school administrators, one dressed in a suit and the other in a yellow and black dress (VCU colors), they climbed up on the monument for a team picture, admirers snapping pictures. Someone had established a “radical” lending library of important books on race and American society. There were “wellness” tents, with free water, face masks, and snacks. There was even a measure of self-policing. Two young men approached me after I, taking pictures, had circled around for about an hour. They asked me if there was a problem and when I replied rather simply that there was not, they wished me well. One of the aid-station attendants told me that they were there to discourage any inappropriate behavior and, one suspected, especially to diffuse any anti-protest agitation.

(Photo courtesy of Lynn M. Valeri)

One final indication of the creation of a civic community in this space: the inevitable incursion, or one might say provision, of a market economy. People sat at tables under tents or umbrellas, selling ice pops, soap, and t-shirts. A few barbers had set up shop there, with a sign urging visitors to support local businesses. As with religious gift shops near traditional sacred sites, the stands were properly distanced from the monument itself, across the street on Monument Avenue.

The Lee monument and statue still stand, as does a monument to Richmond native and tennis star Arthur Ashe a mile and a half away. They are a marked contrast to the rest of the sites on Monument Avenue that are now empty of stone monuments, metal statues, and living people. The other Confederate statues on the avenue belong to the city and were removed on order by Mayor Levar Stoney in July. The Lee statue and circle, however, belong to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Governor Ralph Northam called for the removal of Lee’s statue, but a Virginia Circuit Court judge issued an injunction, which has subsequently been extended indefinitely. Several lawsuits, both in state court and in the U. S. District Court, have been filed, withdrawn, and subsequently refiled by citizens challenging Northam’s removal order.

Matters of litigation and debates about the legality and propriety of the removal of statues, however, hardly exhaust the meaning of the site as it now is. Lee Circle has been repurposed to MDP Circle in remarkable ways. I encountered what I detected to be a sense of civic pride and local community: the basketball team, the signs with rules, the expectations of civil comportment, even the barber shop. Communal, constructive efforts have been added to the initial expressions of rage. One might even speak of social redemption. It was difficult not to wonder how Lee and his horse and his monument will be remembered when they are gone, not because of what they symbolized months ago but because of what they have become in their layers of ambiguity, complexity and historical consciousness.

(Photo courtesy of Lynn M. Valeri)

Mark Valeri is the Reverend Priscilla Wood Neaves Distinguished Professor of Religion and Politics at the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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