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Monumental Divide

As turmoil over police reforms and Richmond’s Confederate legacy continues, how will it impact the mayoral race?

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Update: After Style went to press Monday evening, Mayor Levar Stoney told City Council that he wanted to remove public Confederate iconography in Richmond immediately. The city will gain authority over most of the statues along Monument Avenue on July 1, but he and some councilmembers are trying to remove them sooner amid rising tensions. Interim City Attorney Haskell Brown warned that removing the monuments sooner would violate state law and possibly result in felony charges.

Meanwhile, demonstrators set up an encampment on the north side of City Hall on Marshall Street. At 12:42 a.m. Tuesday morning, the Richmond Police Department declared it an unlawful assembly, and used chemical irritants, flash bangs and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.

Standing around the Robert E. Lee monument in face masks, the protesters aren’t mincing words.

“Fuck that statue!” they chant, followed by the kind of rhythmic clapping usually reserved for sporting events.

They have reason to be angry. The evening before, June 1, this was where Richmond police tear-gassed many of them while they peacefully protested as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Eventually, their chants turn to a question.

“Where is Stoney?” they shout, followed by more clapping.

And then, through the sea of protesters, the man of the moment appears. Mayor Levar Stoney wades through the crowd and stands at the base of the monument. An uneasy scene ensues as hundreds of angry protesters shout demands at him: Hold the Police Department accountable for yesterday’s tear-gassing. Remove the monuments. Create a citizen review board of police. Release the arrested protesters.

Protesters stand on top of the Lee monument June 2. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Protesters stand on top of the Lee monument June 2.

That morning, Stoney had appeared outside City Hall to apologize for the tear-gassing, but the crowd wasn’t having it. To demonstrate solidarity, he marched with protesters to the Lee monument that evening, only to be met with more hostility.

Holding a small megaphone, Stoney addresses the crowd’s demands, including the creation of an alert system that would allow police to collaborate with mental health officials when responding to someone in crisis.

“We need a critical alert, aka the Marcus Alert, to de-escalate for mental illness,” says Stoney, referring to the 2018 police killing of 24-year-old high school teacher Marcus-David Peters while he was experiencing a mental health episode. “And so that means I have to work with the City Council to make that happen.”

“What’s been taking you so long, bruh?” shouts a woman as the crowd gets restless again.

Since the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has upended more than just Confederate statues in Richmond. An all-out war has broken out between protesters, police and the Stoney administration during an election year.

Stoney and then-Police Chief Will Smith address protesters the morning of June 2 outside City Hall. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Stoney and then-Police Chief Will Smith address protesters the morning of June 2 outside City Hall.

In early March, it seemed that Richmond’s mayoral race was shaping up to be a referendum on the previous milestones of Stoney’s first term, with issues like the aborted Navy Hill project, increased school funding and the real estate tax weighing on voters’ minds.

But with a pandemic underway, a recession on and confrontations between protesters and police taking place nearly nightly, these events have fundamentally reshaped city politics and the narrative of the mayoral race. Just last Tuesday, following two more nights of tear gas outside Richmond Police Department headquarters, Stoney fired Police Chief Will Smith and replaced him with interim Chief William “Jody” Blackwell, saying he wanted to take the department in “a new direction.” A week later, that direction appears to be a more authoritarian one, with Blackwell saying he was “going to get the city back” from protesters. Following a weekend of Juneteenth commemorations, protesters were tear-gassed and had nonlethal rounds fired at them Sunday evening for attempting to pull down the J.E.B. Stuart statue.

As Stoney comes under fire from both progressives and law and order proponents, how will protests, police reforms and the monuments factor into his re-election chances in November?

In the sleepy former Capital of the Confederacy, change has suddenly come with lightning speed.

Statues commemorating Richmond’s Confederate past have been toppled and defaced. Storefronts along Broad Street have had their windows smashed, their contents looted and, in some cases, set ablaze. Clashes between police and protesters have been violent at times. The graffiti-covered Lee monument has been unofficially renamed Marcus-David Peters Circle, and now serves as a space of reflection and remembrance for the Black Lives Matter movement.

And following last week’s skirmishes of tear gas, rubber bullets – and what police say were hurled asphalt and Molotov cocktails from protesters – outside Richmond Police Department headquarters, concrete pillars have been erected on Grace Street, which some on Twitter are referring to as #StoneyHenge.

Before the protests, this year’s mayoral race was shaping up to be a showdown between incumbent Stoney and City Council member Kim Gray. After all, Gray played a major role in defeating Stoney’s $1.5 billion Navy Hill development plan to replace the aging Richmond Coliseum with a large, mixed-use development. But in response to the current crises, a new challenger has emerged who appears to have juice.

Councilwoman Kim Gray stands underneath the Lee monument. The majority of the Confederate memorials on Monument Avenue are in her district. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Councilwoman Kim Gray stands underneath the Lee monument. The majority of the Confederate memorials on Monument Avenue are in her district.

Alexsis Rodgers, a 28-year-old who served as Gov. Ralph Northam’s policy director during his term as lieutenant governor, has stepped into the ring, saying the city needs a progressive leader. Boasting a wide-ranging resume that includes expanding access to health care at Planned Parenthood and working as the state director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, she has the support of Richmond For All, a progressive group instrumental in torpedoing the Navy Hill project.

Alexsis Rodgers, state director of Care in Action, has emerged as the progressive candidate in the mayoral race. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Alexsis Rodgers, state director of Care in Action, has emerged as the progressive candidate in the mayoral race.

Within a week of announcing her candidacy, she received $58,440 from more than 700 contributors. From April 1 to June 11, Stoney raised just under $5,600 with a balance of $77,548, and Gray had $42,800 in her war chest, about half of which was left over from her City Council run. Fellow mayoral candidate Justin Griffin raised $13,843, and Tracey Mclean raised no money during this period with a balance of $514.

Justin Griffin, a lawyer, was a leading voice against the Navy Hill development. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Justin Griffin, a lawyer, was a leading voice against the Navy Hill development.

Rich Meagher, an associate professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College, says that Rodgers’ campaign announcement and the ongoing unrest has hit the reset button on the mayoral race, offering a rebuke to both Stoney and Gray.

Tracey Mclean, a businesswoman, says she wants to be mayor because she’s “in touch with the community and knows what they want.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Tracey Mclean, a businesswoman, says she wants to be mayor because she’s “in touch with the community and knows what they want.”

“There’s a growing young political class in the city, and it’s challenging some of the older networks,” Meagher says. “That’s affecting the mayoral race most obviously with the recent entry of Alexsis Rodgers.”

Bob Holsworth, a veteran Richmond political analyst, is similarly impressed with the work of young activists, calling it “one of the most remarkable social movements that we’ve seen in Richmond since the Crusade for Voters,” referring to a voter education and registration organization founded in 1956 to further African Americans as a voting bloc in the city.

Though noting that it can be hard to turn social activism into electoral action, Holsworth says Rodgers’ ability to quickly raise money from numerous contributors speaks to having “legions of volunteers that are going to enable her to run a citywide campaign.” Running an organized campaign is especially important in Richmond, where the mayor is chosen not by the popular vote, but by winning five of its nine voter districts.

“The financial report [indicates] that Alexsis Rodgers is now the candidate of the progressive wing, the people who have been involved in the Navy Hill issue and some of the people who have been involved in the protests,” Holsworth says.

Still, Holsworth says Stoney shouldn’t be discounted, and will raise money going forward.

“He’s somebody who has been brought up in the political realm, and understands it very well,” Holsworth says. “He’s a really good candidate. He understands how to run a campaign.”

Meagher disagrees, saying it’s unclear who his constituency is, and that Stoney may now be at odds with people who previously voted for him.

“He has kind of turned his back on the young political class of the city,” Meagher says. “He has embraced the kind of developer and white business class, and still wasn’t able to deliver for them.”

Chelsea Higgs Wise, a local activist involved with Richmond For All and host of “Race Capitol,” a weekly radio show on WRIR 97.3 FM that explores racial narratives, is highly critical of Stoney.

“He’s still only continuing to take the measures that he feels he has to,” according to Higgs Wise, who says she and other protesters have yet to sit down and meet with Stoney.

Asked about this, Stoney says via email that he’s “had multiple meetings with groups representing all aspects of this movement,” and the activists he has met with understand “that the violence and vandalism that has taken place has done nothing but undermine the BLM cause.”

Higgs Wise says replacing the police chief does little to meet activists’ demands.

“We all knew that there was no goodwill with Stoney. We saw that from the Navy Hill project. We saw the type of deception and lies and marketing” he stands for, says Higgs Wise before touting Rodgers. “She’s been running campaigns for the Democrats, she’s been organizing for the Democrats, she’s been fighting for us to have a seat at the table with the Democratic Party in Virginia.”

Protesters march down Hospital Street bound for the city jail on June 5. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Protesters march down Hospital Street bound for the city jail on June 5.

Longtime local activist Arthur Burton says that many in Richmond have lost confidence in Stoney’s leadership, and that people are tired of waiting for change.

“Stoney spent most of his political capital on Navy Hill, and so I think he basically went into the crisis politically bankrupt,” says Burton, director of Kinfolk Community Inc., a nonprofit that works to empower low-income Black neighborhoods. “[The mayor] just finished spending two years on the largest economic development plan in the history of the city, one that really did not address the health and economic inequality of Black and brown people.”

Some also blame Stoney for what they see as slow movement on the monuments.

Nearly two years after the Monument Avenue Commission recommended that the Jefferson Davis statue be removed and signs be added to give context to other monuments, no change had taken place until earlier this month when Stoney said that he would introduce a measure at City Council to remove all of the street’s Confederate monuments on July 1, the day a new state law takes effect allowing localities to remove war monuments that they control.

Though she may criticize Stoney, Kim Gray isn’t exactly a perfect alternative for progressives.

The 2nd District councilwoman has gained kudos for her proposal to rename the Boulevard after tennis great Arthur Ashe last year, but her longtime opposition to removing Confederate monuments may come back to bite her. Previous to this past month, Gray said she was hoping to add to instead of subtracting from Monument Avenue by inserting a tribute to the 14 African Americans awarded the Medal of Honor after the Battle of New Market Heights just east of Richmond during the Civil War.

“It’s going to be very difficult for Kim Gray to draw a contrast on that issue,” Holsworth says. “It’s hard to think that the activist community that was so involved [with Black Lives Matter] is going to be highly supportive or energetic and eager about her.”

Holsworth says that Gray’s fundraising isn’t what it should be, and that her “law and order” stance won’t garner support from progressives.

“She is talking about the looting, she is talking about the damage that has been done to businesses,” Holsworth says.

As for Stoney, Holsworth says he’s been caught in the middle.

“He’s not in a position that’s been easy to please either side on this,” he says. “It’s by far the most challenging and difficult moment of his [time as mayor], because whatever action he takes is generating fairly substantial and passionate opposition on either side of him.”

Meagher says Stoney is trying to “thread the needle” between opposing sides.

A phalanx of state troopers blocks Stuart Circle after launching tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters June 21. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A phalanx of state troopers blocks Stuart Circle after launching tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters June 21.

“He’s pleasing nobody, and it’s the exact opposite of the story he likes to tell about himself as the bold leader who makes the tough choices,” Meagher says. “He’s hiding out and trying to gauge which way the wind is blowing.”

Reached by Zoom two weeks ago, Stoney says that during his tenure as mayor he’s proudest of investing more money in public schools, creating three new schools that will open next year and the expansion of after-school programming for elementary and middle school students.

As for criticism of his response to the protests, Stoney says he’s on board with reforming the police, instituting the mental health alert, creating a civilian review board and other reforms. Every complaint against police, he says, will be investigated.

“There will be disciplinary action, but investigations are necessary before disciplinary actions take place, and I’m committed to bringing about that accountability for the people of this city,” says the 39-year-old mayor, who has since announced a task force that will look at reducing the workload for police and divert nonviolent calls for service to other entities.

As for the monuments, he says it’s time for change.

“What removing those monuments will mean for us as a city is akin to the Berlin Wall, the fall of a racist system, but we as elected leaders have to do the remaining work to continue to tear down the racist infrastructure,” he says.

Asked about his chances in November, he’s confident.

“I think voters in this city know that I’m going to continue to swing for the fence for our city, whether it’s Navy Hill or whether it’s my work to bring more revenue from real estate taxes,” he says.

Melachi Cobbs attempts to dunk over his cousin Myles Bradley Cobbs at the Robert E. Lee monument on Juneteenth. The space has been unofficially renamed Marcus-David Peters Circle by Black Lives Matter protesters. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Melachi Cobbs attempts to dunk over his cousin Myles Bradley Cobbs at the Robert E. Lee monument on Juneteenth. The space has been unofficially renamed Marcus-David Peters Circle by Black Lives Matter protesters.

Gray, who was elected to City Council four years ago after two terms on the School Board, says she decided to run because she’s frustrated with elements of how local government functions. As for her thoughts on Stoney, she says she’s “learned that he lacks the experience to run the city. I think he cares a lot about himself and his political future, but he’s kind of left us to fend for ourselves in terms of city services and care for the people.”

Regarding the monuments, she says that she voted against removing them twice because the legal process wasn’t in place yet, and that she was with her daughter in the hospital the third time the measure came before council. Now, she says we’re past the time when the monuments can remain.

On Rodgers, Gray says that some may like the idea of a younger candidate who looks more like them, but that local government experience matters, and she wants residents to have a better interaction with City Hall and city services. As for the police, Gray says she’s behind “serious reforms” and wants the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project to draft legislation for what a community review board should look like.

Rodgers, who grew up in Hanover, says she entered the race because she felt that Stoney was putting community members at a distance in a time of crisis.

“Right now, what we’re seeing is a breach of trust,” says Rodgers, who’s currently state director of Care in Action, a nonprofit that supports domestic workers. “Protest is great, [but] we shouldn’t have to put our bodies on the line to get this kind of change when it’s so unequivocal what’s right and wrong.”

Rodgers says Stoney’s reactions have been delayed, and that she wants the city government to focus more on people who have uncertain immigration statuses, are low-wage earners or are incarcerated.

“We need a mayor at this time who’s going to bring everybody to the table, stand for the right values and fight for a progressive agenda,” she says.

Holsworth says Rodgers may prove a real challenge to Stoney for the endorsement of the Richmond City Democratic Committee in a heavily Democratic city during a presidential election year.

“People are going to come out in droves to vote against Donald Trump, and the question is, who do they vote for as mayor? In the past, if you had the endorsement of the Richmond Democratic Party, even though it’s officially a nonpartisan election, you’re the mayor,” Holsworth says. “You’re going to see quite the fight within the Richmond Democratic Party about what to do here.”

Rain is falling on the heads and umbrellas of protesters in Monroe Park, but that hasn’t deterred hundreds from coming out.

Omari Al-Qadaffi, a community organizer with racial justice group Leaders of the New South, addresses the crowd, mentioning their demands before referring to a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.

“He said that riots are the language of the voiceless,” says Al-Qadaffi on June 16, not far from where protesters toppled the statue of Confederate Gen. Williams Carter Wickham a week and a half earlier. “We have done everything that they said we should do. We have voted, we have shown up to City Council, we have protested and now we need a diversity of tactics to effect justice.”

Soon, the crowd marches downtown to the Miller and Rhoads building where Stoney lives.

“When we say we need to have a diversity of tactics, we need to be up in people’s homes,” Al-Qadaffi tells the crowd that will pull down the Confederate Richmond Howitzers statue later that evening. “We need to visit them in their places of work, their places of play. No justice means no peace.”

Some protesters enter the apartment building lobby after being let in by a tenant but leave when asked by security. On the street, people light fireworks and chant “Stoney’s a phony!” as some graffiti the building with anti-Stoney messages.

And the protest marches on.

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