For now, Virginia still can't remove massive Lee statue

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Workers for The Virginia Department of General Services install concrete barriers around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Richmond, Va. The barriers are intended to protect the safety of demonstrators as well as the structure itself. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. – A judge on Thursday extended a court order preventing Virginia’s governor from removing a historic statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee from a famed avenue in the former capital of the Confederacy.

Richmond Circuit Court Judge Bradley Cavedo ruled that an earlier 10-day injunction will continue while a lawsuit against Gov. Ralph Northam plays out.

Northam, a Democrat, recently ordered the statue’s removal, citing the pain gripping the nation over the videotaped killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who pleaded for air as a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck. A man describing himself as a descendant of the family that once owned the land where the statue sits filed the suit to stop him.

On Thursday, Cavedo granted the state's motion to dismiss the suit, agreeing that the original complaint had issues of legal standing. But he also gave the plaintiff, William C. Gregory, another 21 days to file a new one.

“I want Mr. Blackburn to have another shot at it," the judge said, referring to Gregory's attorney, Joseph Blackburn Jr. Gregory and Blackburn declined to comment as they left the courtroom.

State Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat like Northam, said the judge had given the plaintiff “an opportunity to come back again and have another bite at the apple.” But he said he was confident the result would be the same the next time.

“I want to be clear about this," Herring said at a news conference after the hearing. "This grandiose monument to a leader of a four-year armed insurrection against the United States of America in order to perpetuate a brutal and immoral system that enslaved millions needs to come down.”

Alena Yarmosky, Northam’s spokeswoman, said the governor's office was considering its next steps, but added, “Make no mistake - this statue will be removed.”

The 12-ton (11-metric-ton) Lee statue is about 21 feet (6.4 meters) tall and sits on a pedestal nearly twice that high in the grassy center of a large traffic circle on Monument Avenue, a prestigious residential thoroughfare in Richmond. The statue was unveiled before a massive crowd in May 1890, at a time when the Civil War and Reconstruction were over, and Jim Crow racial segregation laws were on the rise.

Now cloaked in graffiti, it and other nearby monuments have become a rallying point during more than two weeks of protests and occasional clashes with police.

Floyd’s death has sparked global protests that participants have vowed to turn into a sustained movement focused on addressing racial injustice and police brutality. It also spurred intense reexamination of statues and monuments of historical figures around the world.

Gregory is described in the lawsuit as the great-grandson and heir at law of signatories to an 1890 deed that transferred the statue, its enormous pedestal and the land they sit on to the state.

His lawsuit argues that the state, through the deed and an 1889 resolution of the General Assembly, agreed to “faithfully guard” and “affectionately protect” the monument. The commonwealth “has to keep its promises contractually,” just like anyone else, Blackburn argued Thursday.

The state has argued that the 19th century deed and resolution do not prevent the governor from removing the statue.

“The state seems to think that the monument is the property of the governor," the judge said in court Thursday. “My view is that the monument is the property of the people of the commonwealth and the governor is more of a custodian."

A separate suit to block the statue’s removal, filed by residents of a neighborhood including Monument Avenue, is still pending in state court.

The Lee statue is one of five Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue, part of which has been designated a National Historic Landmark district. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney recently announced plans to seek the removal of the avenue's other Confederate monuments, which include statues of Confederate Gens. Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart and sit on city land. The Lee statue is on state property.

Del. Lamont Bagby, chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, called the statue's removal “inevitable.”

In remarks after Thursday's hearing, Bagby said he is concerned about potential clashes between protesters of police violence who have been gathering regularly at the statue and people who want to keep the statue up.

“The longer it’s there, the more risk we have of them clashing, and that won’t be good for anyone,” he said.

Public and news media access to Thursday's court hearing was restricted. A sheriff's deputy cleared the courtroom shortly before the hearing was scheduled to start and said that seating would be limited due to social distancing measures because of the coronavirus pandemic.


Associated Press reporter Alan Suderman contributed to this report.


This story has been edited to correct the quote from Herring, who said “another bite of the apple.”