RICHMOND — The Robert E. Lee statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue was slathered with red paint and the letters “BLM” on its base by a vandal who eluded the Capitol Police who regularly monitor the site.
Joe Macenka, a public information officer for the Capitol Police, which provides security for the state-owned monument, said the vandalism occurred between patrol shifts there but would not say whether authorities believe the vandalism happened late Friday or early Saturday.
He said it appeared multiple cans of paint had been used on the statue. The Virginia Department of General Services, which maintains the statue, will be tasked with cleaning it up. The vandalism is under investigation, and no arrests have been made in connection with it. The lettering in red paint is an apparent reference to the Black Lives Matter movement.
When asked whether any security cameras captured video of the vandalism, Macenka declined to comment specifically on cameras near the monument but said there are more than 500 cameras watching various state properties.
On Saturday afternoon, Macenka also said it looked like a high-pressure sprayer, such as a refillable fire extinguisher or a weed spraying device, may have been used to paint part of the statue. If people in the nearby area see anything unusual, such as in their trash cans or alleyways, he asks them to call Capitol Police dispatch at (804) 786-2568 and speak with the investigator on duty.
Saturday’s vandalism comes about a week ahead of the one-year anniversary of last August’s white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, during which far-right groups rallied near a statue of Lee in one of the city’s downtown parks. That event ultimately led to the death of a Charlottesville woman when a car plowed through a group of counterprotesters.
This is not the first time Monument Avenue’s Confederate statues have been tagged — graffiti was cleaned from the Jefferson Davis monument multiple times last year, and the city has spent thousands cleaning up vandalism (although the Lee statue is separately maintained by the state).
In a brief statement delivered through his press secretary Saturday morning, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said, “I don’t support the monuments but vandalism is a crime no matter where it takes place and the individual or individuals responsible should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Richmond is in a process of examining the symbols of its Confederate past. Last month, Stoney’s Monument Avenue Commission released a report which, among other things, recommended adding permanent signage to public rights of way near statues of Confederate leaders and removing the Jefferson Davis monument.
It remains unclear whether the city would be able to remove the statue because state law limits the ability of localities to remove or alter war memorials.
The report notes the recommendation to remove the Davis statue would be contingent on litigation or changes in state law. Efforts to empower local governments to make decisions about statues have failed to gather support in the General Assembly, and Charlottesville is currently involved in a legal battle over the removal of two Confederate monuments.
“Frankly, until communities are given the power to address these images in meaningful ways, we shouldn’t be surprised when this happens,” said Christy Coleman, co-chair of the Monument Avenue Commission and CEO at the American Civil War Museum, in response to the vandalism in a text message Saturday.
In the aftermath of last summer’s violence in Charlottesville, numerous communities across the country have removed Confederate monuments from public spaces.
Statues and monuments in Richmond have been vandalized and tagged with graffiti a number of times over the years. Here are some recent examples:
- October 2017: Jefferson Davis monument on Monument Avenue was spray-painted twice — once with the word "racist," another with the phrase, "racist ban KKK."
- September 2017: Richmond's Slavery Reconciliation Statue was vandalized with graffiti and a sticker reading, “Confederate states forever."
- August 2017: Pine tar was splattered onto the base of the J.E.B. Stuart statue on Monument Avenue.
- November 2016: Following the election of President Donald Trump, protesters spray painted “Your vote was a hate crime” on the Jefferson Davis and Matthew Fontaine Maury statues on Monument Avenue. The Robert E. Lee statue was also painted with an expletive toward Trump and the letters “KKK." The same month, a Christopher Columbus statue in Byrd Park was splattered with red paint.
- July 2016: The Richmond Police Memorial statue in Byrd Park was vandalized with the message “Justice for Alton,” apparently referring to Alton Sterling, who was fatally shot by two police officers earlier that month in Baton Rouge, La.
- October 2015: The Christopher Columbus statue in Byrd Park was vandalized with graffiti, including the words, "lies" and "genocide."
- July 2015: The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Libby Hill Park was painted with words including an expletive and the letters “RBGz” with an upward pointing arrow.
- June 2015: In the wake of the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston S.C., where a white supremacist murdered nine black parishioners, the Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue was spray-painted twice. The first time saw the phrase, “Black Lives Matter," marked onto the statue. The second time, the letter "L" - for "Loser" - was written in glow-in-the-dark paint.
- September 2014: The J.E.B. Stuart statue on Monument Avenue was spray-painted with the word “work” on its base, along with a Soviet hammer and sickle.
- January 2012: The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue had the phrase "five-O" - which can refer to police - painted on its base.