74ºF

New lawsuit opposes removing Richmond’s Robert E. Lee statue

Statue is one of five memorials to the Confederacy along Monument Avenue

The graffiti-smeared statue of Robert E. Lee and Traveller stand behind a traffic sign with Marcus-David Peters Circle on a handwritten sign below on the circle that surrounds the monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, June 10, 2020. Peters was the man suffering a mental condition who was shot by a Richmond police officer several years ago. Police arrested a man and seized three assault-style rifles and one handgun after a late-night confrontation near the city's statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, authorities said Friday, June 12, 2020. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
The graffiti-smeared statue of Robert E. Lee and Traveller stand behind a traffic sign with Marcus-David Peters Circle on a handwritten sign below on the circle that surrounds the monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, June 10, 2020. Peters was the man suffering a mental condition who was shot by a Richmond police officer several years ago. Police arrested a man and seized three assault-style rifles and one handgun after a late-night confrontation near the city's statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, authorities said Friday, June 12, 2020. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

RICHMOND, Va. – Six property owners along Monument Avenue in Virginia's capital city filed a lawsuit Monday seeking to stop Gov. Ralph Northam's administration from removing a towering statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Northam recently ordered the statue's removal, citing the pain gripping the country over the killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who pleaded for air as a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck.

Floyd's death has sparked global protests that participants have vowed to turn into a sustained movement focused on addressing racial injustice and police brutality. It has also led to an intense re-examination of statues and monuments of historical figures around the world.

The lawsuit challenges Northam's authority to order the statue's removal from its prominent place in the ex-capital of the Confederacy, citing in part an 1889 resolution of the General Assembly that authorized the governor of Virginia to accept the statue.

The plaintiffs also argue that removal of the statue would result in the loss of the National Historic Landmark designation for a stretch of Monument Avenue, a prestigious residential boulevard, and therefore "the loss of favorable tax treatment and reduction in property values."

It also said the plaintiffs would suffer injury over "the loss of a priceless work of art from their neighborhood and the degradation of the internationally recognized avenue on which they reside."

The statue is one of five memorials to the Confederacy along Monument Avenue, and the only one on state property. The Richmond City Council has expressed unanimous support for removing the rest, which demonstrators have covered with graffiti in recent weeks.

"Governor Northam is committed to removing this divisive symbol from Virginia's capital city. We're confident in his authority to do so, and look forward to winning in court," his spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said in an email Monday.

A similar lawsuit was filed last week by William C. Gregory, a descendant of two signatories to the deed transferring the statue, its enormous pedestal and the ground they sit on to the state. That lawsuit argues that the terms of the deed prohibit the administration from removing it now.

A week ago, a judge issued a 10-day injunction in that case temporarily preventing Northam's administration from removing the statue. Court records show a hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Monday are seeking to consolidate the two cases, in part because they are seeking similar relief from the court.

The only plaintiff listed by name in the new lawsuit is Helen Marie Taylor, a longtime Monument Avenue resident and defender of the statues. Her attorney said she was not available for an interview Monday.

The other plaintiffs are seeking to participate anonymously, saying in a motion that they face a risk of "retaliation by organized and violent groups" for participating in the lawsuit.

Richmond’s monuments have become a rallying point for protesters in recent weeks. Last week, demonstrators toppled a statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, that was part of a much larger monument.