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Judge weighing arguments on fate of Richmond's Lee statue

A judge was hearing arguments Thursday over whether to extend a temporary injunction against the removal of a monument to Gen. Robert E. Lee that towers over a major avenue in Richmond, Virginia, former capital of the Confederacy.

On June 8, Circuit Court Judge Bradley B. Cavedo issued a 10-day injunction barring Gov. Ralph Northam's administration from taking down the bronze equestrian statue of the Confederate hero. Cavedo was hearing arguments before deciding to extend the injunction.

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

EDS NOTE: OBSCENITY - Workers for The Virginia Department of General Services install concrete barriers around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Richmond, Va. The barriers are intended to protect the safety of demonstrators as well as the structure itself. (AP PhotoSteve Helber)

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 also spurred intense reexamination of statues and monuments of historical figures around the world.

The 12-ton (11-metric-ton) Lee statue is about 21 feet (6.4 meters) tall and sits on a pedestal nearly twice that high in the grassy center of a large traffic circle on Monument Avenue, a prestigious residential thoroughfare in Richmond. Now cloaked in graffiti, it and other nearby monuments have become a rallying point of more than two weeks of protests and occasional clashes with police.

The statue was unveiled before a massive crowd in May 1890, at a time when the Civil War and Reconstruction were long over, and Jim Crow racial segregation laws were on the rise.

State and Capitol police patrol the area where workers for The Virginia Department of General Services are installing concrete barriers around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Richmond, Va. The barriers are intended to protect the safety of demonstrators as well as the structure itself. (AP PhotoSteve Helber)

Judge Cavedo wrote that it was in the public interest to delay any action until the resolution of a lawsuit filed by a Virginia man described as a descendant of signatories to an 1890 deed that transferred the statue to the state more than a century ago. The lawsuit argues the state agreed to “faithfully guard” and “affectionately protect” the monument.

The plaintiff, William C. Gregory, later filed a motion seeking a permanent or extended injunction.

Attorney General Mark Herring opposes the move and has also filed court papers arguing that the case should be dismissed. Herring argued in a brief filed Tuesday that the deed does not prevent the governor from removing the statue and does not entitle Gregory to injunctive relief.

FILE - In this June 8, 2020 file photo an inspection crew from the Virginia Department of General Services takes measurements as they inspect the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va. Six property owners along Monument Avenue in Virginia's capital city filed a lawsuit Monday, June 15, 2020 seeking to stop Gov. Ralph Northam's administration from removing the towering statue. (AP PhotoSteve Helber, file)

“The only question is whether a single plaintiff may call upon the equitable powers of this Court and use 130-year-old documents and inapplicable doctrines of property law to countermand the Governor’s decision. He cannot,” Herring's brief said.

It was not immediately clear if the judge would rule from the bench or at a later time.

The Lee statue is one of five Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue, a National Historic Landmark district. Monuments along the avenue have been tagged with messages that say “End police brutality” and “Stop white supremacy."

Capitol Police Superintendent Col. Steve Pike, top second from right, and director of The Virginia Department of General Services, Joe Damico, top right, watch as workers install concrete barriers around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Richmond, Va. The barriers are intended to protect the safety of demonstrators as well as the structure itself. (AP PhotoSteve Helber)

Recently, protesters pulled down a century-old statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis that stood along Monument Avenue.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney last week announced plans to seek the removal of the other Confederate monuments on the avenue, including statues of Confederate Gens. Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart. Those statues sit on city land. The Lee statue is on state property.

Workers for The Virginia Department of General Services install concrete barriers around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue Wednesday June 17, 2020, in Richmond, Va. The barriers are intended to protect the safety of demonstrators as well as the structure itself. (AP PhotoSteve Helber)

Workers for The Virginia Department of General Services install concrete barriers around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue Wednesday June 17, 2020, in Richmond, Va. The barriers are intended to protect the safety of demonstrators as well as the structure itself. (AP PhotoSteve Helber)

Workers for The Virginia Department of General Services install concrete barriers around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Richmond, Va. The barriers are intended to protect the safety of demonstrators as well as the structure itself. (AP PhotoSteve Helber)