Richmond’s Berlin Wall moment

“This is our Berlin Wall moment.” So read the chalk message on the sidewalk alongside the Robert E. Lee monument on Richmond’s Monument Avenue today. Looking up at the statue and its pedestal, I could recognize the familiar forms, but they had been transformed by the impromptu messages painted up and around its base: “Amerikkka”; “No more white supremacy”; “Black Lives Matter”; “ACAB”; “One Love”; “Justice for Floyd”; and “Fuck 12”. The monument has been the scene of multiracial mass gatherings every evening for the past week, punctuated initially by some subsequent downtown looting and then by a police tear gas attack on peaceful protesters prior to the city’s new curfew. The monument’s setting became even more powerful as groups of protesters at the peaceful gatherings climbed up onto the monument itself as seats or projected Black Lives Matter images onto it against the evening skies. Yesterday, June 3, Richmond’s Mayor Levar Stoney declared that he would introduce a resolution in city council calling for the removal of all four of the city-controlled Confederate monuments along the avenue while Governor Ralph Northam prepared to announce his intention to remove the state-controlled Lee statue. It is a massive shift in policy, as the monuments had seemed immovable until now.

The same might be said for the nation’s entrenched racism in policing and the criminal justice system. Even after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his prone neck for nearly eight minutes with the assistance of three other officers, Chauvin only faced third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges while his accomplices initially went free. That spark, compounded with Amy Cooper’s threatening phone call to the police during an altercation with a bird watcher in New York City, and Breonna Taylor’s shooting by police inside her home in Louisville, and Ahmed Aubrey’s shooting while running through a neighborhood near Brunswick, Georgia, whose shooters were not charged until protests prompted state agencies to get involved, plus countless other incidents known and unknown led to the current wave of nationwide protests.

All of this transpires during the coronavirus pandemic, with the nation’s economy still crippled and African American and Latinx communities facing disproportionately higher infection and death rates. Richmond’s gradual reopening was delayed until just this past week due to the mayor’s concerns over the rate of infections. A large proportion of residents are still sheltering in their homes and limiting all interactions, raising the stakes for those gathering in crowds around the monuments and marching in the city’s streets.

Is this our “Berlin Wall moment”? In 1989, German protesters on both sides of that city’s dividing wall came together in a spontaneous protest to tear it down and reunite the country. In Richmond, “Love Wins” was also chalked across the monument’s sidewalk, and the mood among many of the city’s clergy, neighborhoods, and protesters supporting black leaders calling for justice gives momentum to the moment.

In trying to process it all, I am reminded, ironically, of the course of the Civil War. That war started out in Lincoln’s own words as simply a war for union. But by 1863, after so much loss of life, Lincoln and the North seemed to understand that all that horrific loss had to have greater meaning. Thus at Gettysburg, where 50,000 casualties had resulted from a three-day battle, Lincoln proclaimed “a new birth of freedom,” settling emancipation within the war’s aims.

Today, the United States’s 110,000 Covid deaths in three months, and the loss of so many livelihoods, must have greater meaning. So perhaps in Richmond as in other racially divided cities, a meaning is starting to take shape.

At the same time, we are faced with a president and his supporters violently opposed to such a vision. Lincoln’s ended with John Wilkes Booth after all. The monuments remain powerful for all sides. I pray for justice and peace.