Virginian-Pilot Collaboration: Portsmouth Confederate Statues Beheaded, Partially Pulled Down By Protesters
- Written by The Virginian-Pilot Reporters Ana Ley, Saleen Martin and Matt Jones
- Category: Local News
- Published: 10 June 2020
This story was first published by The Virginian-Pilot. It's made possible through a collaboration between the Pilot and WHRO Public Media.
Hear a conversation with Pilot reporter Ana Ley and WHRO Public Media reporter Sam Turken below.
Demonstrators beheaded four Confederate statues before pulling one down using a tow rope Wednesday night at the Portsmouth Confederate monument as police watched.
A protester was injured as the statue fell, hitting him on the head. Louie Gibbs, vice president of the Portsmouth NAACP, said the man, who was in his 30s, lost consciousness. The man’s head was cut open, and he was transported to the hospital.
After he was injured, demonstrators stopped to offer prayers and a quiet moment of solidarity before police told them they needed to leave the area.
Efforts to tear one of the statues down began around 8:20 p.m., but the rope they were using snapped.
The crowd, frustrated by the Portsmouth City Council’s decision to put off moving the monument, switched to throwing bricks from the post that held the plaque they had pulled down as they initially worked to tumble the statue. They then started to dismantle the monument one piece at a time as a marching band played in the streets and other protesters danced.
A flag tied to the monument was lit on fire, and the flames burned briefly at the base of one of the statues.
The monument, at the intersection of Court and High streets, sits at a site where slaves were punished on a whipping post, Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a Norfolk State University history professor, told The Virginian-Pilot in 2017.
Using bolt cutters, one demonstrator knocked a rifle off of the statue. The dedication marker also was taken down. Later, some of the protesters knocked the heads off of all four of the figures.
The protesters gave a sword and rifle they ripped from the monument to 73-year-old Vietnam veteran John Hooks. Hooks was born in Portsmouth but has moved around over the years.
“I’m a mixed bag of emotions,” he said after someone handed him a piece of the monument. “This is where they sold us into slavery.”
Hooks said Wednesday he noticed white, black and Asian people protesting together.
“You’ve kept your foot on our neck for 401 damn years. When are you going to get the hell off?” Hooks said.
Portsmouth Police Chief Angela Greene said at a press conference late Wednesday night that officers did not initially intervene with protesters in part because there was so few of them at the time, it would have put the officers at risk. She also said there was no immediate threat to public safety. However, once a protester was injured, she said police quickly stepped in.
She also said that an elected official — whom she would not name — had told police officers not to arrest protesters before Greene arrived on the scene, creating some confusion. By the time it was sorted out, Greene said the vandalism to the monument had already begun. She said by then, the police’s priority had changed from “the preservation of property to the preservation of life.”
Protesters started spray painting the monument in the afternoon after Portsmouth NAACP President James Boyd and Gibbs were arrested and charged with trespassing. Boyd and Gibbs were released about 30 minutes later on summons, according to defense attorney Don Scott, who also serves as a state delegate representing the 80th District. A police spokeswoman confirmed the charges.
The monument was covered with the letters “BLM” — black lives matter — written in black, green and red spray paint along with the name of George Floyd, a black man who pleaded for help as a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis last month. His death has sparked protests across the country.
"No curse words,” several people yelled to those with the spray paint cans as police officers watched in the afternoon.
Around 4 p.m., some demonstrators started painting “Black Lives Matter” in large yellow letters on the ground in front of the monument. As the crowd grew around 8 p.m., a demonstrator dumped a bucket of yellow paint on one of the figures on the monument and a few people threw water bottles at it.
The Portsmouth City Council held a virtual meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the monument and the day’s events. The meeting was scheduled before the publicized Remove the Stain rally was scheduled to begin at 7:57 p.m. at the monument. At the meeting, they put off a debate about what to do with the monument until next month.
Nate Whitaker, 18, was at the monument in the afternoon. He said it has no place in a city that is predominately black, and in fact, it has no place in any city.
“It represents hate,” said Whitaker, who went to I.C. Norcom High School and is headed to Morehouse College to study cinema and African American studies.
Former Councilman Mark Whitaker, Nate Whitaker’s father, said he raised the issue of removing the monument at a June 23, 2015, City Council meeting.
“My sentiment hasn’t changed. I’ve received a lot of criticism over it, but it’s a symbol that represents an ideology of white supremacy," Mark Whitaker said. “It really speaks to the consciousness of a city and of a people that would allow such an image of hate to continue to stand all these years.”
Boyd and Gibbs were arrested in the wake of another protest Tuesday night, where demonstrators placed bags and tarps over parts of the monument and left a message in front of the statue denouncing police brutality and systemic racism.
Video of the initial confrontation posted on Facebook showed Boyd and Gibbs standing inside the monument’s fence speaking with officers. They said they had previously received permission from city officials.
The woman narrating the video said Portsmouth mayoral candidate Cliff Page called the police and asked them to respond.
After several minutes, officers approached Boyd and Gibbs, placed them in handcuffs and walked them to waiting patrol vehicles.
Later in an interview with a Virginian-Pilot reporter, Page said he wants the monument to remain in its place.
“I don’t want it moved, I don’t want anything but staying here,” he said.
Hannah Iverson, of Portsmouth, said that her family fought for the Confederacy, but she doesn’t support keeping the monument. She said it belong in museums and history books, “not in our streets.”
Throughout the day, several people came to argue with protesters about the monument.
Two city workers came out to the monument during the protest Wednesday afternoon to install red metal no trespassing signs.
As the protesters watched, state Sen. Louise Lucas came out and complained about the arrest of Boyd and Gibbs.
“They can’t arrest them for going over to city property," she said, "They should not be arresting them.”
Earlier in the day, a police department spokeswoman said protesters went to the monument Tuesday night and “chalked an outline of a body on the ground with the words ‘I can’t breathe.’” The message alluded to the final words of Floyd as the police officer knelt on his neck.
Efforts to remove the monument from prominent view have been the subject of intense debate for years in Portsmouth. The conversation reached a boiling point three years ago after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, where James Alex Fields Jr. drove a car into a crowd of people — killing one person.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.