By Natalie Jacobsen
“No Nazis, no KKK, no racist UVA!” a parade of students crossing University Avenue chant.
“Louder!” shouts a woman with a megaphone.
Just after sundown around 8pm Tuesday night, as the rain fell, more than 100 students gathered in front of the Rotunda and surrounded the Thomas Jefferson statue. Two students drummed a beat on a pair of buckets while a mixture of graduate and current University of Virginia students held banners and chanted familiar Black Lives Matter phrases:
“What do we want?” asks one student.
“Justice!” others respond.
“When do we want it?”
Within moments of reaching the statue, three students were hoisted by peers and climbed atop. One climbed up Jefferson himself and draped a black tarp over the university founder’s head and raised his fist to cheers.
An unidentified student explained they were “here to reclaim [their] Lawn and grounds,” referring to the August 11 torchlight rally, led by UVA alum/white nationalist Richard Spencer, that took place at the foot of the same statue. “Ten months ago, Donald Trump was elected president, and rolled in a new wave of white supremacy across the nation. But each day, there has been an unparalleled response and resistance that says…‘no’ to all forms of aggressive suppression.”
One by one, students took turns using the megaphone to express concerns, share anecdotes and state the demands of the Black Student Alliance: Relocate Confederate plaques to a museum, explicitly ban hate groups from campus and require all students to be educated on white supremacy, colonization, slavery, the university and the city of Charlottesville. The Student Council acknowledged and endorsed BSA in a public statement on August 21.
Kevin, one of the BSA leaders who organized the event and who asked that his last name not be used, says “[this event] is us telling the administration that we’re here to stay and will do anything it takes if they are unwilling to do anything about it.”
Three students made an amendment and added their own demands, reflecting recent news about DACA and local Dreamers. “UVA needs to protect and house children of undocumented immigrants and continue to provide them education,” says one, identified only as Danielle.
Speeches were made over the course of almost four hours as the three students who ascended the statue continued wrapping it in black tarp, pausing to tear and tape it down as they went along. Occasionally, they would hold up signs passed up to them by the students: “TJ is racist and a rapist” and “Hate has had a place here for over 200 years.”
Several students echoed sentiments that the University of Virginia administration has not “denounced anybody” or “taken [enough] action” in response to what students say felt like a “series of personal attacks” over the past year. About 20 faculty members, dressed in their PhD robes of their own alma maters, looked on from a few feet away. None were willing to comment.
Throughout the event, which Kevin described as “positive and peaceful,” dozens of onlookers stopped to listen and photograph the event. An unidentified female BSA member shouted into the megaphone, “We are your community, and you need to stand with your community,” directing the message at students on the periphery. “There is only one right side,” she says.
A handful of opposition members raised their voices to counter the students’ reasoning for draping his statue. De-escalation team members, unaffiliated with the protesters, were there to approach and intervene, while four UVA policemen stood around the perimeter of the square. There were no physical altercations.
Around midnight, as the crowd dispersed, Brian Lambert, a self-proclaimed member of the alt-right, according to his Facebook page, and affiliate of Jason Kessler, was arrested for public intoxication near the statue. Police say Lambert was openly—and legally—carrying a gun.
UVA released a statement on Wednesday saying the tarp was removed an hour after the event ended, and that it was already gone when university staff arrived to do so.
On Facebook, veterans activist John Miska, who attempted to remove the tarp covering General Robert E. Lee shortly after it was installed August 23, says it was “patriots” and students “in the face of Communist aggression” who removed the Jefferson shroud.
In a message to the university community, President Teresa Sullivan says, “ I strongly disagree with the protestors’ decision to cover the Jefferson statue.” She adds that she recognizes their right to express their emotions and opinions.
In a separate missive to alumni, Sullivan says the shrouding desecrated “ground that many of us consider sacred.”
“If they’re not going to take action on our demands, we are going to shroud every statue on the grounds,” says Kevin.
Updated 10:42am with the addition of John Miska’s information on the removal of the covering.