Statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee comes down in Virginia capital

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A crowd of onlookers erupted in cheers and song as the massive figure was lowered to the ground.

One of the nation's largest Confederate monuments came down Wednesday as workers removed a figure of Gen. Robert E. Lee that towered over Virginia's capital city for more than a century and became a target of protesters seeking to abolish symbols of racial injustice.

A crowd of onlookers erupted in cheers and song as the massive figure was lowered to the ground. A construction worker who strapped harnesses around Lee and his horse lifted his arms in the air and counted, "Three, two, one!" to jubilant shouts from hundreds of people. A work crew then began cutting it into pieces.

"Any remnant like this that glorifies the lost cause of the Civil War, it needs to come down," said Gov. Ralph Northam, who called it "hopefully a new day, a new era in Virginia." The Democrat said the statue represented "more than 400 years of history that we should not be proud of."

Sharon Jennings, an African American woman born and raised in Richmond, said she had mixed feelings seeing it go.

"It's a good day, and it's a sad day at the same time," said Jennings, 58. "It doesn't matter what color you are, if you really like history, and you understand what this street has been your whole life and you've grown up this way, you're thinking, 'Oh, my God.' But when you get older, you understand that it does need to come down."

Some chanted "Whose streets? Our streets!" and sang, "Hey, hey, hey, goodbye." One man with a Black Lives Matter flag was escorted out by police after running into the fenced-off work area. No arrests were reported, and there was no sign of a counter protest.

Workers used a power saw to cut the statue in two along the general's waist, so that it can be hauled under highway overpasses to an undisclosed state-owned facility until a decision is made about its future.

The job was overseen by Team Henry Enterprises, led by Devon Henry, a Black executive who faced death threats after his company's role in removing Richmond's other Confederate statues was made public last year. He said the Lee statue posed their most complex challenge.

"It won't transport in this height, so we need to lift the rider off the horse and transport it that way. From a thickness standpoint, we don't know how long it will take. Are there iron supports? It's a total mystery," Henry said Wednesday.

By mid-afternoon, the pieces were gone. They were hauled away on a flatbed truck to cheers from the remaining crowd.

Northam ordered the statue's removal last summer, citing nationwide pain over the death of George Floyd at the hands of white police officers in Minneapolis. Litigation tied up his plans until the Supreme Court of Virginia cleared the way last week.

The 21-foot (6-meter) bronze sculpture sat atop a granite pedestal nearly twice that tall, towering above Monument Avenue since 1890 in this former capital of the Confederacy.

State, capitol and city police officers closed streets for blocks around the state-owned traffic circle and used heavy equipment and barriers to keep crowds at a distance. The Federal Aviation Administration granted the state's request to ban drone flights, and the event was livestreamed through the governor's Facebook and Twitter accounts.

"This is a historic moment for the city of Richmond. The city, the community at large is saying that we're not going to stand for these symbols of hate in our city anymore," said Rachel Smucker, 28, a white woman who moved to Richmond three years ago. "I've always found it to be offensive, as a symbol of protecting slavery and the racism that people of color still face today."

The pedestal is to remain for now, although workers are expected to remove decorative plaques and a time capsule on Thursday.

After Floyd's death, the area around the statute became a hub for protests and occasional clashes between police and demonstrators. The pedestal has been covered by constantly evolving, colorful graffiti, with many of the hand-painted messages denouncing police and demanding an end to systemic racism and inequality.

The sculpture was valued for its artistic quality, and it stood among four other massive Confederate statues that were removed by the city last summer.

The decisions by the governor and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney to remove the Confederate tributes marked a major victory for civil rights activists, whose previous calls to remove the statues had been steadfastly rebuked by city and state officials alike. A statue of Black tennis hero and Richmond native Arthur Ashe erected in 1996 is expected to stay.

"I think it's pretty apropos that the only remaining monument on this tree-lined street is Arthur Ashe, and I'm pretty confident he'll withstand the test of time," Stoney said.

A previous wave of advocacy and resistance led to a rally of white supremacists in the city of Charlottesville that erupted into violence in 2017. Other Confederate monuments started falling around the country.

In Virginia, local governments were hamstrung by a state law protecting memorials to war veterans. That law was amended by the new Democratic majority at the Statehouse and signed by Northam, allowing localities to decide the monuments' fate as of July 1, 2020.

Stoney then moved swiftly, citing the continuing demonstrations and concerns that protesters could get hurt if they tried to bring down the enormous statues themselves. Protesters had already toppled a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis before Stoney's decree. Work crews then removed removed statues of Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, Confederate naval officer Matthew Maury and Gen. J.E.B. Stuart from the thoroughfare.

The changes have remade the prestigious avenue, which is lined with mansions and tony apartments and is partly preserved as a National Historic Landmark district. Northam has tapped the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to lead a community-driven redesign for the whole avenue.