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Richmond Mayor Says He Wants City-Owned Confederate Monuments Removed Immediately

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Around the world, people are tearing down statues honoring racist figures and wrestling with which ones should stand. You could argue that Richmond, Va., the former capital of the Confederacy, is the center of this debate. Protesters there have toppled several statues already. And at a city council meeting today, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said he wants city-owned Confederate monuments removed immediately. Hours later, a crane rolled up to a statue of Stonewall Jackson, and a crew contracted by the city, not a band of protesters, took the statue down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Our streets. Whose streets? Our streets. Whose streets? Our streets. Whose streets? Our streets.

SHAPIRO: When we spoke earlier today, I asked Mayor Stoney why he moved so quickly to have it removed.

LEVAR STONEY: Well, the first reason I chose to remove Stonewall Jackson and the others will be because of public safety. We've had 33 days of unrest. And No. 2, the reason why was it's time. You know, it's time to move beyond the lost cause and embrace the righteous cause. We can be more than just the capital of the Confederacy. It's time for us to be the capital of compassion. And we're taking every single step necessary today and over the next - course of the next several days to do that.

SHAPIRO: The city council is scheduled to vote on this tomorrow. You couldn't wait just one day to get their buy-in?

STONEY: I think when you look at public safety, that is my No. 1 responsibility as the mayor. And I already have this authority under my emergency - under emergency powers during a declaration of an emergency, state of emergency. And they gave me that power back on June 8. And so, you know, I wanted to ensure that they were a part - to participate in this process. But, you know, I think we must move forward. And time is of the essence.

SHAPIRO: How much dissent is there in Richmond right now? And even if the statues come down, how do you repair the ideological divisions that persist?

STONEY: You know what? The removal of a monument, although a monument to the lost cause and to, I believe, racist ideals, doesn't change the fact that we have a lot of work to do. Removal of monuments is just tip of the spear. We have to work to ensure that every individual in the city, every child gets a high-quality public education, safe and affordable housing and get access to a quality job. That's the work that's on our plate. Monuments is just the first - the tip of the spear.

SHAPIRO: And do you see part of that mission as bringing along people who might not be inclined to agree with you on these issues, or is it more about uplifting the people who've been disenfranchised for decades, and if people don't agree with you, well, that's their problem?

STONEY: I think it's the latter. The work that we have to do moving forward has to be inclusive and has to be equitable. And we have to focus on those Black and brown residents who've lived in this city and who have lived in the shadow of these monuments, right? Such a shadow that - you know, these are the monuments that basically told Black and brown residents for generations that they were less than and that they were meant to be - they are to intimidate and put Black and brown people in their place.

And so, you know, right now in the midst of fighting two pandemics - you know, COVID-19 and also racism - both are just as lethal. We got to do everything we can to ensure that Black and brown people get what they need to survive the pandemic. But also, we have to right some serious wrongs.

SHAPIRO: You're the youngest mayor in Richmond history. I believe you're 39. What do your elders who lived through the civil rights battles of the '60s tell you about this moment and your role in it?

STONEY: You know, there are always going to be, I think you could say, split emotions on this topic. Some would say that you are kicking a hornet's nest. And some have just called me and said, Mr. Mayor, you're doing the right thing. For me, as an elected official, as a public servant, I have to look myself in the mirror every morning and appreciate the reflection that's coming back from that mirror. And when I wake up tomorrow morning and go to bed tonight, I'm going to be able to do that.

SHAPIRO: What's it like to be in a place where you are instrumental in the removal of these statues and monuments that have loomed over the city and loomed over your own life for so many years?

STONEY: Well, you know, it's humbling. You know, it's a humbling moment for not just me but I think for our city as well. And, you know, I take my responsibility seriously as the mayor of this city and to ensure that - you know, that life and property are protected. But also, I take my responsibility seriously in ensuring that those who lived on the margins actually get a voice and actually can be heard. And that's what we're doing today. And so I've shed a couple tears early on when I saw the images on TV. I'll probably be just as jubilant as anyone else when I see them lifted from their pedestals.

SHAPIRO: That is Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a Democrat.

Thank you for speaking with us today.

STONEY: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hey, thanks for reading.
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