Ebonique Little, Spectrum Editor
Every day for eight months, members of Black Lives Matter RVA occupied a circular grassy area to celebrate the arts, host recreational events and tend to community gardens — until a fence barred their entry.
“This fence kills what that is — a healing place,” said activist Wilnitka Morrison, pointing toward the painted signs inside Marcus-David Peters Circle.
The Virginia Department of General Services installed a fence around the circle on Jan. 25 in preparation for the expected removal of the Robert E. Lee Monument.
Memorials and artwork honoring Black people killed by police officers, such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and VCU alumnus Marcus-David Peters, sit at the base of the monument, leaving community members to discuss the proper fate of those pieces.
“It united people, no matter their color,” said Morrison, who said she has continuously visited the community space since May 29.
Beth Almore, a Richmond resident and school music teacher, brought live music to the circle last summer by performing songs on her cello for eight minutes and 46 seconds. The number signifies the amount of time Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck. Floyd’s death ignited nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations against police brutality.
Almore said she created and reinstalled memorials after they were damaged from weather and debris. Now that the area is enclosed, she is concerned about how her artwork, of which she dedicated an hour every day working on, will be maintained.
“The community has almost every reason to distrust everything the government does at this point,” Almore said. “We believe that once the memorials are moved and stored, we will never see them again. The goal is to sanitize, to disinfect this space of protests.”
On Jan. 26, Almore wrote an open letter to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts — the institution Gov. Ralph Northam tasked with “reimagining Monument Avenue” — asking the museum’s director, Alex Nyerges, to leave the memorials and gardens in place, officially recognize the circle as Marcus-David Peters Circle and allow the space to remain an “open air park” that celebrates local artists.
Amy Peck, a spokesperson for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, said they are awaiting final approval from the Virginia General Assembly to undertake Monument Avenue’s redesign. The museum has not yet begun outlining their plans for the initiative, but Peck said it will be a community-driven effort.
“Inclusivity will be central to this initiative, and it must involve community leaders, stakeholders, artists, urban planners, archivists, and historians in its planning and implementation,” Peck said in an email.
Almore said she doesn’t agree with Northam’s proposed $11-million initiative. She said community activists have already transformed the space with new artwork to reflect more inclusive ideals and that this funding should be reallocated to housing projects and other impoverished communities.
“The truth is, it’s already been reimagined,” Almore said. “Why don’t we reimagine Mosby Court? We need to reimagine how we treat the most vulnerable in this society.”
Mosby Court is one of four public housing projects located in Richmond’s East End. This area has one of the highest concentrations of poverty in Virginia, with a median household income of about $15,500, according to a 2019 report by the Mixed Income Strategic Alliance.
Kate Fowler, artist and development director for the local nonprofit art center Studio Two Three, said Almore’s letter resonated with her. She said the “profound” artwork in the circle should stay in place after the statue’s removal.
“The living items that people are putting there — it’s active. It’s not like the monument comes down and then suddenly, police violence ends,” Fowler said. “These altars have been going up because people are still being killed and because the system has not ultimately shifted.”
To encourage unity, Fowler and other artists from Studio Two Three began orchestrating free community print days last summer, where they printed messages such as “Defend Black Life” on T-shirts and other materials.
Without the ability to host community events at the circle, Fowler said she is disappointed and questions the city’s motives in erecting the fence prior to developing a plan for future use of the space.
“If for the long-term they’re planning to privatize or close off or sterilize or suppress the history of this movement by taking out any grassroots artwork, then I think that’s really sad,” Fowler said. “And it’s not going to go over well.”
Prior to the fencing, an activist who goes by the name Bee, helped cultivate the space through community gardens. He said he is upset that the city has not made an effort to acknowledge those who have tended to the space.
“Everybody knows the gardener. Everybody knows who put these signs up. Everybody knows who replaces the signs when they get washed down with acid,” Bee said. “Everybody knows it’s a community thing.”
Artwork and community gardens in the circle have been a target for racist graffiti and vandalism in the past. Activists occupying the space reported in December that people poured acid on the graffitied base of the statue and around the grounds. In August, a handmade sign marking the space as Marcus-David Peters Circle was cut down, according to a report from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Bee said he doesn’t want the city to take the art and capitalize from the work of Black people, considering many activists have been arrested for peacefully protesting at the circle.
“They’ll literally come lock you up, claim it, sell it, make a profit from it, change the fucking history and don’t include you,” Bee said.
If the city decides to take the art along with the monument, Bee said he would find another outlet to continue his community efforts.
“They don’t think we know how to scratch,” Bee said. “And that’s all we know how to start from anyway.”