Artists, activists gather for Juneteenth weekend celebrations at graffitied Robert E. Lee monument

The Gen. Robert E. Lee monument has been decorated with flowers, photos and signs commemorating the lives of Black individuals who have been killed by the police. Photo by Iman Mekonen

Iman Mekonen, Spectrum Editor

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech boomed through loudspeakers on Saturday night as it was projected on a monument honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. At night, images of civil rights leaders and those killed by police illuminate Monument Avenue in the heart of the former capital of the Confederacy, as community members relax in the surrounding grass area.

The Lee monument has been used as a canvas for artistic expression in the past few weeks. At night, the base of the statue has been used as a projection screen for videos and photos promoting the Black Lives Matter movement and other social justice issues.

Projection artists Dustin Klein and Alex Criqui have spent more than a dozen nights sitting under a blue tent outside the roundabout of the Lee statue. They’ve been projecting images on Richmond statues for nearly three weeks.

The projections went viral after Klein and Criqui showed George Floyd’s face and the phrase “no justice, no peace” onto the Lee monument. Floyd, a Black man, was killed by police in Minneapolis. After receiving feedback online and requests from the public, they decided to keep coming back after that night in early June. 

“People seem to want it here,” Klein said. “And we’re happy to be here connecting people and being a part of the protest.”

The pair has also projected a slideshow by the national Black Lives Matter movement which includes an image of Floyd, followed by portraits of 46 other people who were killed by police.

Slowly, they started adding more content to their slideshows. Photos of Breonna Taylor, Pride flags and Harriet Tubman were also added to the loop.

Criqui and Klein change the arrangement of the slideshows based on the day and the current events going on at the time.

They were inspired to include other social issues in the slideshow after meeting an older woman that talked about her plans for Pride month before they were canceled. 

“That kind of got our minds stirring about what we could do to help honor LGBTQ people in a way that was not overshadowing the Black Lives Matter focus,” Criqui said. “It’s felt like something we can do to contribute where we weren’t overshadowing people with our voice.”

At night, the Lee monument was lit with projections of prominent political activists, such as Harriet Tubman. Photo by Iman Mekonen

The two have learned a lot about Monument Avenue in the process and didn’t know that the area was once a segregated neighborhood.

According to The Library of Virginia’s Virginia Memory collection, Richmond City Council adopted an ordinance in April 1911 that would segregate residential communities. The following year, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation permitting all cities and towns to adopt similar ordinances. 

The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled in a 1917 case, Buchanan v. Warley, that residential segregation ordinances were unconstitutional.

“We’ve been learning a lot, and that’s allowed us to make different choices and see how far we can expand the imagery and the conversation as long as it feels appropriate,” Criqui said.

Criqui said doing the projections has been an overwhelmingly positive experience because he can interact and have conversations with people every night. With several photos of their project having gone viral, Criqui said that he feels that it has allowed people to focus on the demonstration efforts. 

“It’s something that we weren’t sure how this was going to be received or if we should even do it, and it’s had such a positive impact,” Criqui said. “The fact that some of these images have been shared all across the world, seen by millions of people, it’s pretty powerful to know that we could serve some purpose in helping keep eyes on Richmond.” 

Celebrations throughout the weekend commemorated Juneteenth, the emancipation of the remaining enslaved African Americans on June 19, 1865. Gov. Ralph Northam declared this year’s celebration a paid holiday for state employees, and proposed legislation that will honor Juneteenth each year.

A candlelight vigil was held at the Lee monument on Friday, followed by a march down Monument Avenue and speeches from event organizers, including musician and Petersburg native Trey Songz. Tents and tables were set up around the monument with different activities, including one booth with resources and pamphlets on topics ranging from white privilege to abolishing capitalism — free to event attendees.

Among the memorials was one for George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis Police custody on May 25. Photo by Iman Mekonen

An attendee, who requested to be called Buzz, managed a table stacked with anarchist and abolitionary literature and informational pamphlets on social justice issues. 

“Maybe at one point we’ll have a full blown library, we’ll see,” the former VCU student said.

Buzz and other attendees picked a selection of resources they found helpful throughout the years. He said the most popular items at the table were the “Know Your Rights” pamphlets and stickers that said “Levar Stoney is selling our city.”

“Knowledge is power,” Buzz said. “I’m just here to spread some knowledge.” 

This was Buzz’s first night setting up a table at the monument, and he said people have been contributing to the selection with more literature and stickers. 

“It’s just been really great to see all sorts of different people out here at the circle, enjoying each other’s company, recontextualizing our history and trying to forage new paths for the future,” Buzz said.

Performances on Saturday night included an open mic event where people read poems, performed music and spoke on issues they’re passionate about through a bullhorn. 

Spoken word artist Silhou performed two of her own pieces, including “Protect the Youth,” a rap about investing in the future through young people.

“They are the people,” Silhou said. “They are going to grow up and be our future. We have to mold them to be the carriers of our burdens.”

Silhou has been writing poems since she was twelve. She said the outlet allowed her to portray her emotions to her family.

“I used to have the poems showing them my anger and my emotions,” Silhou said. “Instead of taking it out on other people, I just took it out on the paper.”

The Northside Richmond resident hasn’t been working on her spoken poetry as much because she’s been protesting. She often writes when she’s happy, but she said she hasn’t been lately due to the recent deaths of Black Americans that have sparked nationwide protests. 

“I don’t want to be on camera, I don’t want to be viral, I just want to reach a lot of people with my message,” Silhou said. “That’s why I want everybody to hear me. I don’t want everybody to see me, but I want everybody to hear me.” 

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