A deconstruction crew surrounded by a heavy police presence was brought in to strap the statue to a crane. State, capitol and city police officers closed streets for blocks around the state-owned roundabout in Richmond, using heavy equipment and crowd-control barriers to keep people away.
Visibility was limited from public viewing areas and the Federal Aviation Administration granted the state’s request to ban drone flights during the event, which was live-streamed through the governor’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.
The piece was lifted away to boisterous cheers from a crowd of hundreds. Some chanted, “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “Hey, hey, hey, goodbye.”
The statue was lowered to the ground where it was expected to be cut into pieces so that it can be brought to a secure location, where it will be stored until its final disposition is determined.
Governor Ralph Northam ordered the towering statue of Gen Robert E Lee be taken down last summer, citing the pain felt across the country over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck. Until a recent court ruling cleared the way, Mr Northam’s plans had been tied up in litigation.
The Lee statue, a six-metre bronze equestrian sculpture that sits on top of a pedestal nearly twice as tall, has towered above a prominent residential boulevard called Monument Avenue since 1890 in this former capital of the Confederacy. The one-of-a-kind piece, valued for its artistic quality, stood among four other Confederate statues on the avenue, but the city removed the others last summer.
“We put things on pedestals when we want people to look up,” Mr Northam said in June 2020 when he announced the removal plan. “Think about the message that this sends to people coming from around the world to visit the capital city of one of the largest states in our country. Or to young children.”
After Floyd's death, the area around the statue became a hub for protests and occasional clashes between police and demonstrators. The pedestal has been covered by constantly evolving, colourful graffiti, with many of the hand-painted messages denouncing police and demanding an end to systemic racism and inequality.
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 over the decades to remove the statues had been steadfastly ignored by city and state officials alike.
A previous wave of resistance to the statues came in 2017 when a rally of white supremacists in the city of Charlottesville, also in Virginia, erupted into violence. Other Confederate monuments started falling around the country.
But in Virginia, local governments were hamstrung by a state law that protected memorials to war veterans. That law was amended in 2020 by the new Democratic majority at the statehouse and signed by Mr Northam. With the changes that took effect on July 1, 2020, localities could decide the monuments’ fate.
Mr Stoney then moved swiftly, citing the continuing demonstrations and concerns that protesters could be hurt if they tried to bring down the enormous statues themselves.
Work crews removed statues of Gen Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Confederate naval officer Matthew Maury and Gen J E B Stuart from the thoroughfare. Before Mr Stoney’s decree, protesters toppled a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Although the figures themselves are gone, their pedestals remain.