The 8-foot (2.4-meter) bronze figure on Richmond’s grand Monument Avenue had been all but marked for removal by city leaders in a matter of months, but demonstrators took matters into their own hands Wednesday night, tying ropes around its legs and toppling it from its stone pedestal onto the pavement.
A crowd cheered and police looked on as the monument — installed by a Confederate heritage group in 1907 — was towed away. There were no immediate reports of any arrests. The toppling came on the same day NASCAR banned Confederate flags — a common sight for decades in a sport steeped in Southern tradition — at its races. Also this week, the streaming service HBO Max temporarily removed the 1939 movie “Gone With the Wind,” criticized for romanticizing slavery and the Civil War-era South, to add historical context.
In the weeks since Floyd's death under a white Minneapolis police officer's knee set off protests and sporadic violence across the U.S. over the treatment of black people, many Confederate monuments have been damaged or taken down, some toppled by demonstrators, others removed by local authorities.
Authorities in Alabama got rid of a massive obelisk in Birmingham and a bronze likeness of a Confederate naval officer in Mobile. In Virginia, a 176-year-old slave auction block was removed in Fredericksburg, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy took down a statue in Alexandria.
The movement has extended around the world, with protesters decrying monuments to slave traders, imperialists and explorers, including Christopher Columbus, Cecil Rhodes and Belgium's King Leopold II.
The Davis monument was a few blocks away from a 12-ton, 61-foot-high equestrian statue of the most revered Confederate of them all, Gen. Robert E. Lee, that the state of Virginia is trying to take down. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam last week ordered its removal, but a judge on Monday blocked such action for at least 10 days.
The spokesman for the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, B. Frank Earnest, condemned the toppling of “public works of art” and likened losing the Confederate statues to losing a family member.
“The men who served under Robert E. Lee were my great-grandfathers or their brothers and their cousins. So it is my family,” he said. “What if a crowd of any other group went and found the symbols of someone they didn’t like and decided to tear them down? Everybody would be appalled."
He added: "I don’t know why it’s acceptable, why people who are descended from the Confederate Army and the Confederate soldiers, it’s accepted in this country that you can do anything to us you want.”
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney had recently announced he would introduce an ordinance in July to remove the Davis monument and statues of other Confederates, including Gens. Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart. A new state law that goes into effect this summer undoes protections for Confederate monuments and lets local governments decide what to do with them.
Stoney tweeted Thursday that he will push to quickly dismantle the other monuments. Both he and the governor asked protesters not to do it themselves. “For the sake of public safety, I ask the community to allow us to legally contract to have the remaining ones removed professionally, to prevent any potential harm that could result from attempts to remove them without professional experience,” Stoney said.
While it wasn’t clear what would happen to the toppled Davis statue, the mayor indicated it is gone for good. “He never deserved to be up on that pedestal,” the mayor said, calling Davis a “racist & traitor.”
At the monument site on Thursday, Stacy Burrs said: “It shouldn’t have taken this long to get to where it is now.” “If it were me, the whole thing would just be razed,” said Burrs, a black man who served on a mayoral commission a few years ago that recommended taking down the statue.
Longtime Richmond resident Karen Mizrach, who is white, suggested replacing the statues along Monument Avenue with fountains, gardens or parks, saying: "It’s ridiculous that these monuments are such a focal point of the city.”
“I think it is part of history. But I think we can leave it in history,” she said, "and we need to move forward and do something different with our streets and our monuments.” Also Wednesday night, protesters in Portsmouth, Virginia, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) away, knocked the heads off the statues of four Confederates and pulled one of the statues to the ground after the City Council scheduled a hearing on the monument's fate for the end of July. Mayor John Rowe said police didn’t intervene because that could have escalated the situation.
A protester was hit in the head and knocked unconscious as the monument fell. He was hospitalized with what police said were life-threatening injuries. James Boyd, the Portsmouth NAACP chapter president, said that “people are just tired of being sick and tired” and that the monument represents more than 400 years of oppression.
On Tuesday, protesters in Richmond tore down a statue of Columbus, set it on fire and pitched it into a lake. Supporters of Confederate monuments have argued that they are important reminders of history, while opponents contend they glorify those who made war against the U.S. to preserve slavery.
The Davis monument and many others across the South were erected decades after the Civil War during the Jim Crow era, when states imposed tough new segregation laws, and during the Lost Cause movement, in which historians and others sought to recast the South's rebellion as a noble undertaking, fought to defend not slavery but states' rights.
Drew reported from Durham, North Carolina. Associated Press writers Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia, and Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.