Katharine DeRosa, News Editor
The Virginia Department of General Services erected an 8-foot fence around Marcus-David Peters Circle on Jan. 25 in anticipation of the Robert E. Lee Monument coming down. More than a month later, both the statue and the fence remain on site.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia called for the removal of the fence on Feb. 15, citing various state and national court cases in a letter to DGS.
“It’s an ongoing concern of ours anytime the government takes action to engage in a prior restraint of speech,” said ACLU Executive Director Claire Gastañaga.
The area around the monument, known as Marcus-David Peters Circle, was reclaimed by protesters this past summer and became a place for community engagement. The ACLU referred to the space as a “national icon of racial reckoning.”
The area has been off-limits to the public since the fence was installed with no prior warning, other than a statement issued the morning the barrier went up.
The ACLU stated the fence around the area is denying people their First Amendment rights to gather in a public forum. The letter cited Davison v. Randall, which established sidewalks, streets and parks as centers of public forum, and United States v. Grace, which established the right to public forum to fall under First Amendment protections.
“We’ve raised concerns about the way that they are interacting with people on that piece of state property, which has long been a public forum, and we will continue to raise those issues and monitor the situation,” Gastañaga said.
The removal of the statue is currently in question due to various appeals to Gov. Ralph Northam’s June 4 executive order for the statue’s removal.
“While the outcome of this litigation is far from clear, one thing is certain: the Lee Monument is not coming down anytime soon,” the ACLU letter stated.
After Northam’s executive order, plaintiffs argued it was inconsistent with a 1890 Joint Resolution signed by former Gov. Philip McKinney and passed by the Virginia house and senate at the time. The resolution stated the commonwealth “will hold said statue and pedestal and ground perpetually sacred to the monumental purpose to which they have been devoted.”
Judge W. Reilly Marchant issued a ruling on Oct. 27 that would allow the statue to come down, despite plaintiffs’ claims. He cited testimony from University of Richmond professor Ed Ayers and University of Virginia professor Kevin Gaines that stated the monument was erected in a culture dedicated to preserving southern lifestyle and slavery.
Two Monument Avenue residents appealed the decision: William Gregory and Helen Marie Taylor. Both Gregory and Taylor filed the appeal on Feb. 12.
Killeen King, a spokesperson for DGS, said the department received the ACLU’s letter on Feb. 15. King said the department would respond “soon” but that she is uncertain how long the fence will remain in place.
Dena Potter, a spokesperson for DGS, said in the department’s initial press release that the fence was put up for public safety because of the statue’s pending removal. The fence is not intended to be permanent.
“As we await the resolution of legal challenges that have delayed the statue’s removal, DGS wants to be prepared to act quickly upon a final determination,” the release stated.
Two Richmonders, Aurea Hawkes and Danasia Pascal, spent time at Marcus-David Peters Circle over the summer and came back to take photos of the fence and reminisce about time spent there.
“We have experienced every type of emotion you could have in this circle,” Hawkes said. “It honestly gives me chills talking about it.”
Hawkes and Pascal grew up in Chesterfield County and remember coming to Richmond for school field trips and noticing Monument Avenue covered in Confederate memorials.
“I’ve seen it evolve from nothing to just artwork over top of artwork,” Hawkes said.
Hawkes called the fence “performative” and “ridiculous” because there is no set date for the statue to come down. She thinks the removal will be dragged on for years, she said.
“They’ve been talking about it; we’ve been protesting it,” Pascal said. “I know a few of them did come down, but is this one actually going to?”