Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Vandals desecrated statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson over the weekend and Gov. Mark Warner denounced the vandalism yesterday as “hatemongering.” Richmond police, however, declined to classify the incident as a hate crime.

The statue of Lee, which stands with other Confederate heroes on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, was spray-painted early Saturday morning with “Death to Nazis” and “Happy birthday, MLK.”

“Vandalism is a crime,” the governor said. “The message spray-painted on the statue was certainly hatemongering. A cowardly act like that is not at all what Dr. King advocated.”

The governor attended a Roman Catholic Mass yesterday commemorating Martin Luther King, the slain civil rights leader.

Authorities have elevated the spray-painting incident to felony vandalism under a code protecting monuments and could investigate it as a hate crime, said Maj. Mike Jones, assistant chief of the Virginia Capitol Police.

The Lee statue is owned by the state and protected by the Capitol Police. The statue of Jackson was splattered with green paint.

Maj. Jones said the vandals would have required only 30 to 45 seconds at the Lee statue to cause the damage, estimated at more than $1,000, making the crime a felony.

He said police have some leads but are encouraging anyone with information to call 804/786-4357.

“Crimes like this are traditionally done in darkness, usually by a coward not willing to stand up for what they are doing,” Maj. Jones said.

The vandalism was cleaned before the holiday events yesterday. The leaders of a Civil War heritage group urged authorities to prosecute the vandalism as a hate crime and said that members have volunteered to guard the monuments next year during the Lee-Jackson holiday.

“This is definitely a hate crime,” said Brag Bowling, commander of the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Mr. Bowling wants cameras installed to guard the frequently vandalized statues on Monument Avenue.

“These monuments are the city’s biggest tourist attraction,” he said. “The police are being way too casual on this.”

Mr. Bowling said members of his group will guard the monuments at night and may hire a private security firm. The group offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Maryland and Virginia Sons of Union Veterans urged the governor to issue a proclamation for a Civil War History Month, a Confederate History Month or a Union Soldier Month, but he declined to do so. The groups urged Mr. Warner to pay attention to the historical significance of the war.

Before 2000, Virginia had a combined holiday for Lee, Jackson and King.

The state now observes the federal holiday of the third Monday in January to honor King and the preceding Friday as Lee-Jackson Day. Yesterday was Lee’s 197th birthday, which is commemorated as a holiday in most Southern states. He was born in 1807 in Westmoreland County and has traditionally been regarded, along with George Washington, as Virginia’s favorite son.

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