RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Despite City Council members not yet authorizing the move, statues of Confederate leaders are being torn down Wednesday afternoon in the former capital of the Confederacy.
During a mildly heated City Council meeting Wednesday morning, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney expressed a desire to see them removed as soon as possible and assured the council he had the authority to do so.
“It is time to put an end to the lost cause and to fully embrace the righteous cause,” he said in the meeting, held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Stoney, a black Democrat, has long advocated for their removal, especially in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests that have gone on since the beginning of June.
“Failing to remove the statues now poses a severe and growing threat to public safety,” the mayor said, pointing to the large gatherings as a nexus for the virus to spread as well as the possibility of injury or death to those who try to remove the statues themselves.
“We have an urgent need to protect the public,” he added.
The city was unable to remove them thanks to a century-old law barring the removal of war monuments. But after winning the majority of the statehouse for the first time in two decades last year, Democrats changed that law and opened a window for their removal.
The four monuments along Richmond’s historic Monument Avenue feature Confederate Civil War leaders General J.E.B Stewart, President Jefferson Davis, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and naval officer Matthew Fontaine Maury. The Davis statue was torn down by protesters late last month.
The power to remove the statues went into effect Wednesday. But the unannounced removal appears to be the product of complex legal maneuvering as well as guidance under the new law.
In particular, key changes were made to the monument law’s cause of action section. While its previous iteration allowed for anyone to sue if a city-owned monument was removed, the new law limits civil claims to those filed by the city with approval from its governing body. It also insulates elected officials, like the mayor, from legal challenges.
While the Richmond City Council is eager to remove the monuments and held the special session Wednesday morning to vote on starting the removal possible as soon as legally possible, procedural issues barred the vote from taking place.
But an early June vote by the council appears to be behind the mayor’s move. Shortly after the protests erupted, the governing body voted to make the mayor the city’s director of emergency management, which comes with a myriad of powers as long as the city is in a state of emergency.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, granted Stoney’s request to declare such a state of emergency in June when protests first started and quietly extended that emergency through the end of July on Monday night.
While activists feared the extension was intended to continue a brutal crackdown on protesters by city and state police, a source at City Hall said it also enabled the mayor to remove the monuments.
The mayor’s office said Wednesday that removed statues will be placed in temporary storage while their fates are determined.
Councilman Mike Jones was in attendance for the removal of the Jackson statue on Wednesday afternoon. While he didn’t admit to knowing about the surprise removal plan, he said he spoke with the mayor ahead of time and said he’d offer his support.
“It’s dope to see African Americans assist in taking them down but we didn’t have a voice in putting them up,” Jones said as he watched straps wrapped around the legs of Stonewall’s horse. “But they came down because black, white, Latinx – we all came together to make it happen.”
Governor Northam also ordered the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on state property in Richmond, but a state judge issued an injunction blocking the removal pending further hearings.
The Confederacy was made up of seven states, including Texas, that seceded from the Union and fought the Civil War against the Union Army from 1861 to 1865.
Some supporters of the Confederacy today say the monuments represent respect for their ancestors who fought in the war, but many others see them as a painful symbol of a faction of the United States that went to war to preserve the institution of slavery.