An image of George Floyd is projected onto the base of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) Richmond Looks to Change The Circle
An image of George Floyd is projected onto the base of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Controversial Richmond plan brought back memories of “sundown curfews” from the 20th century.

RICHMOND-Richmond resident Doug Allen lives one block from Monument Avenue. For years, he’s taken evening walks down the median. That’s why he wrote to the city council, asking why they would consider turning the medians around Marcus David Peters Circle into a public park. 

“If this ordinance is passed, [my walks] would now be a criminal act,” Allen wrote. “Please ask yourselves if turning an evening stroll down an Avenue into a Class 4 misdemeanor is a good planning decision.” 

Allen wasn’t the only person upset over the council’s proposed changes. Under the proposal, all five medians along Allen Avenue and Monument Avenue would become designated city parks. While this doesn’t include the Circle itself, it would apply to every median around it. That matters because under city rules, only police officers can be in city parks after dark. Even if you’re simply taking a walk, that could mean a $250 fine. That brought out multiple residents. They sent letters and emails, demanding the idea be scrapped. During their January 11 meeting, the council agreed, at least temporarily. 

Council member Katherine Jordan said the city’s rushing into this. Instead, as state officials expressed interest in the area, she wanted to put the project on hold. 

“[Since] originally being put forward, [the bill] changed multiple times,” Jordan said. “We’ve had the governor come forward and say he wants a unified approach to Monument Avenue and the area around the Circle. So I think in light of that new initiative and the community involvement, it would be appropriate to strike this.” 

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State Officials Want Changes

Jordan was referring to Gov. Ralph Northam’s plan to take down the massive statue of Confederal Gen. Robert E. Lee that currently sits in the Circle. Once the state removes that statue, Northam wants the community to decide what to do with the area. In his proposed budget amendment, Northam included just over $9 million to make that work. Jordan argued it was a better idea to wait and work with the state. Other council members didn’t want to wait. 

“In the time that passes between now and when those plans are put in motion to reimagine that space, do we as a city have the authority we need to manage that space?,” council member Kristin Larsen asked on Monday. “As I understood it, designating it as a park would help us enforce some of the local laws there.” 

That’s the issue behind the bill and what concerns local activists, as well as other residents. They see it as an attempt to crack down on gatherings, especially the Black Lives Matter protests that have been happening in the area since this summer. Larsen’s comments Monday night were the closest that council members have come to outright saying that. During the council’s informal 4 pm session, staff members said the city’s new gun laws will accomplish what they hoped to do here. 

Well, that’s when people enforce the laws. In late November, police said the city’s gun ban didn’t apply to a protest march by the right-wing extremist group the Boogaloo Boys. They marched through parts of downtown, armed with assault rifles. 

RELATED: Richmond Police Say ‘No Gun’ Rule is Only a Rule Sometimes

Richmond Residents Question The Need

The issue is one of control. Right now, Virginia’s Capitol Police have jurisdiction over the Circle, because the Lee statue is a state monument. The Capitol Police’s new rules ban everything from distributing fliers to holding fundraisers there. However, as we reported in November, nobody will actually say where these new rules came from. Once the monument goes away, city control increases. 

Before the council removed the bill from consideration, residents weighed in through a variety of ways. They pointed out that the council never held any public hearings on this and never asked residents what should happen. 

“The fact that this ordinance was introduced without outreach to the activists and residents who have inhabited the Circle indicates that this is merely a measure to implement curfews,” wrote Richmond resident Alexandra Sward. “Given the violent and at times unlawful ways RPD responded to peaceful protests on Monument Avenue over the summer, I’m sure you can understand that this is a legitimate fear for those of us who gather at the Circle.”

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at brian@couriernewsroom.com.