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A Look At Protests In Richmond Over Independence Day Weekend

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The Fourth of July was tense in Richmond, Va. The onetime capital of the Confederacy is in the throes of change as statues commemorating Confederate leaders come down and protests and counter-protests swirl. NPR's Hannah Allam has been covering it all in Richmond, and she joins us now.

Good morning.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Hi there.

DETROW: So you're still in Richmond. What has the mood been like at these protest sites?

ALLAM: Well, it's calm, but there is an edge. Most of the attention's been focused on Monument Avenue. That's home to some of the Confederate statues the mayor has ordered removed since protests began after the killing of George Floyd. The big win - the prize for protesters is still up. There's legal battle over it, and that's the one of Robert E. Lee on his horse. It's been covered with graffiti and artwork in support of Black Lives Matter. A lot of families and students visit the site, take pictures.

That's where I met a man named George Goldsborough. He's a Black man who's lived in Richmond for 30 years. And he says the removal of the statues is an important step, but it must come with a broader rethinking of race and power in America. Here's what he said, and he's speaking through a mask.

GEORGE GOLDSBOROUGH: Looking at this movement, unfortunately, it had to - taken lives of so many wonderful young people to bring this about. But now that it's here, we can't let it stop. And it's the young people movement. So this is it, and I don't think it's going to stop.

DETROW: And of course, as we know, not everyone is happy about these statues being removed. How visible was the opposition this weekend?

ALLAM: Well, it's expressed in a few different ways. There's the formal way with the pro-Confederate groups and the sort of heritage-not-hate crowd. They write letters, speak at community forums. And then there are the more extreme expressions that show this is clearly not just about some statues but something much deeper.

At the Capitol in Richmond on the 4, there was a Second Amendment rally that was disrupted by some white nationalists. It was just a handful of them in a crowd of a few hundred. But their focus was essentially replacement theory - this idea that white people are being replaced, that their monuments are being destroyed, their streets are being overrun with protesters. And they made it clear that they're willing to fight to stop that.

DETROW: And those are ideas that have long existed on the fringe, but the marches and the violence and the chanting in Charlottesville three years ago was an early sign to many people that they might now have a more visible platform. Has that continued to be the case?

ALLAM: That's right. Extremism analysts have warned for a while now that these ideas are seeping into the mainstream in an alarming way and that this is a very dangerous time in terms of the potential for those issues to explode into violence, especially when we've got the election looming. And they say President Trump is only fueling it with us-versus-them rhetoric, the kind that we heard in the president's speech Friday at Mount Rushmore. The themes of that speech - this perceived loss of heritage, of history, of territory - were echoed in very stark racist terms at the rally. I also saw some guys do the white power salute. I heard chants of white power. And that's the same slogan that was in a video Trump tweeted just last week.

DETROW: So in the end, that Second Amendment rally that you attended - what was that rally really about?

ALLAM: Well, it was organized by members of the heavily armed movement known as the Boogaloos - Boogaloo Boys. They say they're prepping for a second civil war. But it's not one specific group, and they're all over the place on ideology and goals. And you can easily spot them because they like to wear their signature colorful Hawaiian shirts.

But it really was a hodgepodge. We had the white nationalists or white separatists there, too. And then you add to this mix a group of armed Black protesters that showed up. And it was the 4, so there was this one surreal moment where all of these disparate groups - the Boogaloo crowd, the Black Lives Matter protesters and the white nationalists - all start to sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) America, America, God shed his grace on thee.

ALLAM: Yeah. So they're standing there singing "America The Beautiful" together.

DETROW: Wow.

ALLAM: But - yeah. It was surreal, as I said. But, you know, this "Kumbaya" moment doesn't last. And immediately from the speeches and the sideline interactions right after, it - we get right back to this fundamental question of race and how it fits into the future of the country. And so what we witnessed was a small extreme version of the debate, the one underpinning the protests and, indeed, the election. And that is, is the United States a place founded on ideas or on identity?

DETROW: Yeah. That's NPR's Hannah Allam.

Thank you so much.

ALLAM: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.