Northam is proposing spending $25 million in part to redesign this street. Marcus-David Peters Circle
Northam is proposing spending $25 million in part to redesign this street.

State’s recent moves didn’t address some of the key issues, they argue.

RICHMOND – Virginia’s governor is proposing spending $25 million to tear down monuments to white supremacy. But he’s not lifting a finger to support the communities affected by racism today, Black liberation activists say.

Last week, Governor Ralph Northam announced that his proposed budget would include this multi-million dollar investment in what he called a ‘historic justice initiative’.

“These investments will help Virginia tell the true story of our past and continue building an inclusive future,” said Governor Northam. “At a time when this Commonwealth and country are grappling with how to present a more complete and honest picture of our complex history, we must work to enhance public spaces that have long been neglected and shine light on previously untold stories.

According to black liberation activists, the initiative is the newest in a pattern of empty, symbolic gestures. They say by focusing on erasing monuments, the governor is attempting to silence black liberation.

“By making an investment in putting that past behind us, they are continuing to neglect the Black communities that are still alive and still suffering during the pandemic,” said Naomi Issac, a leader of Richmond’s Black liberation movement and host of Race Capitol, a political reporting podcast.

The Governor’s Plan to Remove Monuments

Governor Northam’s proposed investment includes $11 million to transform Monument Avenue. This funding, according to the governor’s press release, would go to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) to redesign the street.

Northam’s plan also includes $9 million for the development of a Slavery Heritage Site and to make improvements to the Slave Trail in Richmond. $100,000 of this proposed investment would support the construction of a monument on Brown’s Island in Richmond. This monument would celebrate the emancipation and freedom of Black Virginians.

About $5 million of the proposed investment would go towards repatriating tombstones from the former Columbian Harmony Cemetery in Washington. It would also create a Harmony Living Shoreline memorial to commemorate their repatriation.

None of the governor’s proposed plan invests in Black communities.

“If there’s $25 million dollars somewhere that can be spent on Black people, some of it should have gone directly to people, if not all of it,” said Richmond Black liberation leader and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MAD) RVA organizer Kalia Harris.

The plan says that the redesign of Monument Avenue should be a community-driven initiative. However, nowhere in his release does the governor say he plans to include movement leaders in the Commonwealth’s effort to commemorate black liberation.

“He needs to involve those who have fought this fight throughout the summer, fall, and winter months. VMFA has sacrificed nothing to bring about this change. The people have sacrificed everything: Jail, community disdain, the cold, rubber bullets and tear gas. If he wants some input he needs to come talk to us first,” said Lawrence West, founder of BLM RVA.

Removing Monuments Doesn’t Erase White Supremacy

In 1890 Richmond’s government constructed the monuments celebrating leaders of the Confederacy on Monument Avenue. Made to distinguish the area as a segregated one, their intention has always been to intimidate Black people.

Until recently, the monuments have remained a glaring symbol of minority oppression in the Capital of the Confederacy.

However, according to activists, taking down the monuments does nothing to end the legacy of white supremacy which continues to persecute Black people today.

“They continue to obsess over monuments to the Confederacy and monuments to slavery, these very tangible things that they can take down throughout the city to say that this is a safe place for Black people or that this is a city that represents equality,” Issac said. “Meanwhile, we have a large number of Black people being incarcerated in the state, during a pandemic where they’re not receiving the care that they need.”

She pointed to other uses for the money. For example, Issac said, there are Black families across this land that will soon be put out in the street, when evictions resume. And there are other issues.

“There are houseless folks who are overwhelmingly Black, are being neglected and ushered into jails and not being taken care of while we are suffering from the largest pandemic and economic crisis that we’ve seen in a while,” said Issac.

Monuments Already Removed

Since Black liberation protests began in May, seven monuments to the Confederacy in Richmond came down. Demonstrators toppled the Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue. They also pulled down the Williams Carter Wickham statue in Monroe Park. The Howitzer Battalion memorial near VCU was also taken down by protesters. Additionally, the statue of Christopher Columbus in Byrd Park were also toppled for free by black liberation protesters.

In August, the Richmond City Council voted unanimously to remove the city’s remaining Confederate statues. This order did not apply to the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue, whose removal is currently under litigation.

Black liberation protesters demanded the removal of these monuments to white supremacy. But leaders of the movement say they’re not prioritizing investments in replacing them.

“I don’t think that folks are really asking for that. We asked for the monuments to white supremacy to come down and we’re asking for folks to defund the police and invest in our community. And that includes social services, things that actually make our lives better,” Harris said.

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Northam’s Legacy Problem Bigger Than Monuments

Governor Northam made headlines last year after photos of him in blackface surfaced. The photos appeared in Northam’s medical school yearbook page.

The ACLU and many other organizations in support of Black liberation called on Northam to resign. However, he refused. In his apology to the Commonwealth, the governor promised to undo the wrongs he caused to the Black community.

“I am ready to do the hard work of regaining your trust,” Northam said.

However, movement leaders say he’s unwilling to make the reforms that would actually benefit the communities he’s disrespected.

“Northam is not actually willing to step away from his legacy of racism, dating back to his blackface days in college and actually acknowledge what people need then we’ll still be in this situation of poverty as a result of inequity and also this pandemic moving forward,” said Harris.

Democrats Claim Monumental Change

The governor, and Virginia’s Democratic leadership, claims to have created real, institutional change over the last year. However, Black leaders argue the reforms they passed aren’t as revolutionary as they sound.

Black liberation protesters called for the establishment of a Marcus Alert System. This system would create a co-response team of mental health professionals and law enforcement to respond to mental health crises.

The Marcus Alert System, which Northam signed into law in November, meant to provide life-saving resources for people experiencing mental health crises. However, the wording of the final bill signed by the governor made providing this care optional for law enforcement offices around the Commonwealth.

“This is just a feather in the cap for them to say that they did something that represents change. That they did something that wasn’t as racist or as cruel as their last act. And I don’t think that that’s acceptable,” Issac said. “They’re ignoring the issues that matter most to the black community in dealing with what’s easiest. Which is by addressing monuments and by addressing racist street names. That doesn’t lead to any material aid to our communities.”

Some Change Achieved

Protesters over the summer also demanded civilian oversight of police department. That came in the form of increased power for citizen review boards. Earlier this year, Northam signed legislation that increased the power of independent boards to investigate allegations of police misconduct.

Review boards will now be able to investigate complaints and then decide guilt or innocence. If the officer is guilty, the board then will determine punishment in coordination with the local police chief. This could be a letter of reprimand, suspension without pay, demotion within the department or reassignment. They also can legally fire officers if the board decides it’s necessary. 

The General Assembly did approve bans on ‘no knock’ warrants and chokeholds during their special session this fall.

At the signing ceremony for the Marcus-Alert System legislation on Tuesday, Peters’s sister and black liberation organizer Princess Blanding told legislatures they should congratulate themselves for once again failing to effectively reform law enforcement oversight in Virginia.

“Please take a moment to pat yourselves on the back for doing exactly what this racist corrupt system, and broken, may I also add, expected you all to do. Make the Marcus Alert bill a watered down, ineffective bill that will continue to ensure that having a mental health crisis results in a death sentence. Marcus-David Peters, along with so many others, deserves help. Not death. Although the Virginia Democratic Party is the majority in both the House, Senate, and yes we do have a Democratic governor, you all have succeeded again at failing the people and making this bill, along with the CRB bill (Civilian Review Boards) ineffective. Let’s not forget how you all killed the bill to end qualified immunity and refused to meet the seven Richmond demands,” Blanding said.

Community Support Goes Farther Than Monuments

But there are problems beyond just the Marcus Alert system. Virginia has an eviction crisis looming. On January 1, a nationwide freeze on evictions will come to an end. Community care organizers are expecting a sharp increase in need and in the number of houseless people as soon as the New Year begins.

“We don’t have the capacity to expand to the need. Already we can’t meet the need that’s in the city so as that increases we’ll do what we can. But yes, we are bracing for the fact that it may be that we can’t assist everyone that we would like to. It’s just going to be a bit more difficult to be as effective in our work,” Harris said.

According to Issac, the millions of dollars Northam proposes to spend on redesigning Monument Avenue and commemorating Black people could be better directed towards existing community care efforts.

“There are already so many community organizations that are doing the work. But they’re burnt out. And their funding is coming from all of us. Their funding is coming from their community members who aren’t in a much better financial position than they are. And so if they were to take the money to be able to help beef up the infrastructure that they’ve already built, that can help take care of people and help make sure that folks’ needs are being met during such a deadly and vicious pandemic,” Issac said. “I think that would be a better prioritization of money than whatever reinvestment that the governor is invested in that will help him put behind his own racist legacies and the racist legacies of the Confederacy.”

Direct Aid

One of these organizations is MAD RVA. MAD RVA is a mutual aid group that provides emergency supply-drop offs. It also offers mini-grants to Richmonders affected by COVID-19.

Harris, who helps organize MAD RVA’s mini-grants program, says they offer $125 grants to individuals in need through their application process. Since March, the organization has spent $230,000 providing direct aid to Richmonders. They have helped over 14,000 people in that time. Through their mini-grants program, MAD RVA has distributed $100,000 in individual grants.

According to Harris, direct aid like their mini-grants program is the most effective way to invest in Black futures.

“I think it’s great to give to organizations but I truly believe that the government should be giving to individuals. We can continue to give to nonprofits and hope that it trickles down to people but the reality that we’re seeing is, especially from our mini-grants program, people need direct money,” said Harris.

How You Can Help

For those interested in supporting the Black and houseless community of Richmond, here are a few ways you can help.

Donate or volunteer for MAD RVA. They’re always looking for supply donations including disinfectants, towels, dry and canned food, diapers, baby formula, thermometers, and other essential supplies. You can also donate money through Venmo @RichmondMutualAid or Through Paypal /RichmondMutualAid.

People in need of emergency supplies, call or text 804-404-2346 for assistance. MAD RVA’s mini-grant program is currently on hold until the New Year.

Donate or volunteer at your food pantry local shelter for houseless people. You can look up your local shelter here.

You can also ask the governor to rethink this “historic justice” proposal. Call his office 804-786-2211 or email him at ralph.northam@governor.virginia.gov.

Meg Shiffres is Dogwood’s associate editor. You can reach her at megan@couriernewsroom.com.