As the sky darkened and a gentle rain fell, three students at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, scaled the slippery 18-foot-tall statue of Thomas Jefferson at approximately 8:00 p.m. Tuesday night. As they draped a black cloth over the statue, about 150 other students and faculty watched and cheered.
Almost exactly a month ago, 400 torch-bearing white supremacists gathered around the same spot, heralding a weekend of violence that left one counter-protester dead. In the wake of that violence, cities and universities around the United States have removed statues of Confederate veterans and leaders. Student protesters at UVA argue that the statue of pre-Confederacy Jefferson should be among those.
While surrounding the statue, student protesters read a list of ten demands addressed to UVA President Teresa Sullivan.
Those included “the removing of all white supremacist monuments and plaques put around grounds,” and additions to the university’s core undergraduate curriculum that would teach the historic associations between the school, slavery, and racial tensions that have existed within UVA since its inception.
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Kevin, the organizer of Tuesday’s action who asked that his last name be withheld, says that the group’s mission “transcends” August’s rally, but “became amplified by those dates.”
Before the covering of the statue of Jefferson, the university’s founder, the protesters held an unauthorized cookout on the lawn of Sullivan’s personal university residence across the street. They proceeded from the cookout to the statue while carrying signs and chanting, “No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist UVA!”
On the night of August 11, counter-protesters who opposed the white supremacists surrounded the statue of Jefferson with linked arms. The white supremacists closed in around the outnumbered counter-protesters and a brawl ensued, with the supremacists throwing lit torches at the protesters. People were pepper-sprayed and maced, including two counter-protesters who later filed charges against alt-right leader Christopher Cantwell, the subject of a VICE documentary, who is being held in the Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Jail pending trial.
“If you go to the UVA Students United page there is a video of us confronting Teresa Sullivan,” Kevin said. “When we asked her where was she [on the night of August 11] when we were being brutalized and beaten and pepper-sprayed, she said, ‘Oh, I was just across the street.’ We crossed the street for her, to illustrate how easy it is to cross the street and be there for her students.”
At least four UVA police officers appeared but did not interfere with Tuesday’s protest.
About a dozen faculty members were also there in support, wearing their formal academic robes. None were willing to be interviewed.
Other students and passersby gathered to watch the speeches and chants, which continued for several hours. At one point, three men began arguing with the protesters over the covering of the statues. The protesters formed a tight defensive circle around the statue, while members of a self-identified de-escalation team with training in conflict resolution intervened and spoke calmly with the dissenters.
Sullivan responded with a written statement on Wednesday morning. “I strongly disagree with the protesters’ decision to cover the Jefferson statue,” Sullivan wrote. “I also recognize the rights of those present at the protest to express their emotions and opinions regarding the recent horrific events that occurred on our Grounds and in Charlottesville.”
Sullivan said that the shroud had already been removed from the statue. She acknowledged Jefferson’s personal history as a slave owner but also argued that Jefferson “championed religious freedom, and authored the Declaration of Independence.”
“The University has acknowledged its controversial history and we continue to learn from it through open dialogue and civil discourse,” Sullivan said. She cited gains in enrollment among formerly underrepresented groups and increased diversity of faculty, as well as the decision to name a building in honor of Dr. Vivian W. Pinn, one of the earliest Black women to graduate from the School of Medicine and a former director of the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research on Women’s Health. Sullivan also noted that the university had constructed a memorial recognizing the enslaved laborers who built the school’s earliest buildings, which were personally designed by Jefferson.
At Tuesday’s action, Kevin said the protests are far from over. “It’s us telling the administration that we’re here to stay and we’ll do anything it takes if they aren’t willing to do something about it,” he said. “If they’re not going to take action on our demands, then we’re going to shroud every statue this university has.”
As the crowd thinned out, one serious opponent of the protest appeared. Brian Lambert, a local man who has appeared at events in support of keeping Charlottesville’s statue of Robert E. Lee, arrived openly carrying a firearm—which is legal in Virginia—while clearly intoxicated. He was arrested by UVA police and taken into custody.
“I am the guy who checked out of society as you know it,” reads Lambert’s personal introduction on his Facebook page.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the first name of the man arrested at the protest.