Community News

THE REBELLION

Originally published in the Summer 2020 edition of the Virginia Defender, printed August 14. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in this issue or download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

MAY 29: DAY 1

By Phil Wilayto

The online flier called for people to gather on Friday evening, May 29, at Richmond’s Monroe Park, a traditional site for protests. Deep anger had been building over the brutal murder days before of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and uprisings were already happening in other cities.

This reporter drove downtown to see what was happening.

Graffiti on West Grace Street, May 29. Photos by Phil Wilayto.

The first thing I noticed was the number of Black people in the streets around 9th and Broad. That area is usually pretty deserted after dark. A mother walked by with two young children, headed toward the park. Two young men in a flashy car drove by with the radio blaring NWA’s “Fuck the Police.” A young couple stood on a street corner. When I asked what was happening, they said they weren’t sure, but “everybody” was coming out.

I drove east on Grace Street, toward Monroe. That’s when I saw the first anti-cop graffiti: “ACAB.” “Fuck 12.” And over and over, “Justice for George Floyd.”

I saw the first dumpster fire in the 300 block of East Grace. I pulled over, took a few pictures – and then noticed the cops standing by their cars on the other side of the dumpster.

Maybe time to keep moving.

The next dumpster fire – the one with “George Floyd” tagged on the side – was in the 100 block of West Grace, right next to police headquarters. A crowd was in the parking lot; I heard what sounded like firecrackers going off. I figured no one would really appreciate having their photo taken, so I got a few shots of the dumpster, got back in my car and kept going.

Elsewhere in the city, someone torched a GRTC Pulse bus and trashed a Whole Foods store, both widely seen as symbols of gentrification. A Wells Fargo branch also got hit, maybe by someone familiar with that bank’s long history of corruption and racial discrimination.

And some people with apparently no sense of history or politics threw bricks through the windows of a 120-year-old, Black-owned jewelry store and a Jewish synagogue.

And so began The Rebellion.

MAY 30: DAY 2

By Phil Wilayto

Tonight the action was on Monument Avenue, the country’s pre-eminent shrine to the slavery-defending Confederacy.

There were a lot of people around the statue of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. I looked for a parking space. By the time I got back, the crowd had pretty much covered the whole statue with graffiti.

J.E.B. Stuart, conceptualized, May 30.

It was stunning. So many times I had driven past these symbols of white supremacy, just hating their smug arrogance. And here were scores of young people, of all races, venting their anger and providing the “context” that the mayor’s Monument Avenue Commission had recommended as a way to avoid actually taking them down.

After a bit, we all headed west, toward the 60-foot-tall monument to Gen. Robert E. Lee, a slave owner and patron saint of the Confederacy. The crowd was growing and had taken the street.

Suddenly I noticed a police car driving in our same direction. A young man walking his bike in the street had to hug the parked cars to his right to avoid getting hit. Some in the crowd began yelling.

Then a young Black guy hurled an egg toward the car. I didn’t see it hit, but the “splat” sound was unmistakable.

The cop turned a sharp left, scooted across the median and headed west, against the traffic, rapidly picking up speed. I don’t know whether it was fear or anger or both, but either way it was impressive.

Then we moved on to the massive memorial to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the statue of Gen. Stonewall Jackson at Arthur Ashe Boulevard. It was the same story at each stop: people spray painted the statues with every insult to the police and racism they could think of.

I thought of all the times we had protested at these statues, going back to Jan. 19, 2007, the 200th anniversary of Lee’s birth, when the state had spent $450,000 to spruce up his statue.

On this night, the statues were finally spruced, and they looked wonderful.

I decided to call it a night and headed home.

On the way, I saw a crowd of cops and guys in full military battle gear, plus fire trucks, by the Rumors of War statue in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I thought maybe some rightwinger had vandalized it, so I stopped and asked one of the soldier-looking guys what was going on.

“Move your car!” he yelled.

When I got home and checked the news, I learned there had been a fire next door at the national headquarters of the Daughters of the Confederacy, the 126-year-old organization responsible for putting up many of the Confederate monuments around the country. Someone had apparently tossed a Molotov cocktail through a window and it landed on Stonewall Jackson’s revered battle flag, burning it to a crisp.

There simply is no substitute for a good aim.

MAY 31: DAY 3

By Kat McNeal

I was arrested at a protest last night and spent the night in the Richmond city jail. I was charged with a misdemeanor for breaking the governor’s new 8 p.m. curfew and released after nine hours – approximately three of which I spent on a bus with my hands zip-tied behind my back. When I left the jail premises after 12 hours, there were still people sitting in buses waiting to be processed. From reports this morning, I see that 233 people were arrested.

According to a VPM story, Police Chief William Smith said, “I want to make sure that the citizens of Richmond know that our enforcement of the curfew was directed solely at those that were involved in violence and destruction of our city.”

Police further claimed, according to a WRIC article, to have arrested “members of ANTIFA and numerous people from outside of the Richmond area and Virginia.”

These are absolute lies. From the time I arrived at the Lee monument around 6 p.m. to the point at which I was arrested on Leigh Street around 10 p.m., I didn’t see any kind of violence or even vandalism from any of the many thousands of protesters who took the streets.

The protest was high-energy and vocally militant, but not destructive. The crowd began as a multiracial group slanted heavily to younger people. As the evening wore on and 8 p.m. passed, the proportion of Black protesters and youth only became higher.

Some of those in the crowd may have had out-of-town addresses – Richmond is home to three major universities, with a collective student population in the tens of thousands – and I am certain that many did in fact share “membership” in the ideology of anti-fascism, as I do.

But the cops didn’t bring up the boogeyman of “antifa” or the specter of outside agitators to account for these expected, benign elements of the crowd. They did so, and lied about the actions of those arrested, to tell the public that this was a Bad Protest. By telling us what a Bad Protest looks like, the police are also telling us what a Good Protest looks like: small, nonthreatening, compliant, easilyappeased. This narrative is an establishment tactic to corral the uprising of people enduring the unendurable: Racist murders and brutality at the hands of the country’s police, against which they have no recourse, year after year and death after death – and render them ignorable.

We were not ignorable last night. Black Lives Matter.

JUNE 1: DAY 4

By Joseph Rogers

Last night, the Richmond Police Department used tear gas and other chemical agents against city residents gathered at the Lee and Stewart monuments. I watched as a mother buried her daughter’s face in her shirt to spare her from the gas. People with their dogs fled to keep their pets safe, having brought them to a peaceful gathering. Friends, siblings and total strangers got up from being on their knees with hands in the air to grabbing for one another to get whomever they could to safety. The police last night were brutal and unwarranted in their aggression.

But this post isn’t about that.

This post is about the marchers who formed back up. It is about the people who stayed after an ambulance had to carry away someone who had inhaled the gas. It is about the folks who reclaimed the statues from which they had been driven away.

This post is about the people who left their houses as the march picked up again down Monument Avenue. The people who waved and chanted and offered food and drink and rest to anyone who needed it.

This post is about the drivers of the cars who, after hearing about the gassing, dropped whatever they were doing, wherever they were and put themselves in the front and back of the line to shield marchers from other vehicles and the only source of violence last night, the police.

This post is about the young Black man – because they were almost all young and almost all Black last night – who said, “I really thought that Richmond hated each other, but all I feel is love here.”

This post is about our city rising to demand a better life, a better world. About doing it together, brought out by grief, fueled by anger and guided by love.

This post is about Richmond.

Categories: Community News

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