RICHMOND, Va. -- With a Confederate monument rally planned along Richmond's Monument Avenue Saturday, VCU President Michael Rao urged students and VCU employees to stay away from the protests around the university's Monroe Park campus.
"For your safety, I strongly encourage all members of the VCU community to avoid this area Saturday. There is precedence for violence at this kind of demonstration, and your safety is my paramount concern," Rao wrote in an email to staff sent Thursday. "We all have the freedom of speech, expression and peaceful assembly. As members of a research university community dedicated to education and creativity, we take those freedoms seriously. We also have the autonomy of sound judgment, and we recognize that difficult or contentious debates can be productive only when the threat of violence will not drown out our voices."
An out-of-state group has planned to rally Saturday to support of preserving Richmond's Confederate monuments.
Police expected counter-protesters to show up and express opposition to the pro-Confederate monument group's message.
The J. E. B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee monuments sit blocks from VCU's Monroe Park campus.
"Public safety officials from across the region, including VCU Police, have a plan in place, but this is likely to be an emotionally charged, volatile and unpredictable setting," Rao warned VCU staff members. "I will always support and encourage all of our people to stand up for your beliefs. But we must do so without physical confrontation and harm. Our educational mission—and indeed our democracy—depends on humans listening to and learning from each another and moving forward together, not silencing either by act or by intimidation of those with whom we disagree."
Families who live on Monument Avenue say they want people to stay away. Jimmy Wheat lives right by the Lee monument and says he hopes the event is peaceful. Wheat says he feels safe to stay in his home because RPD will have things under control.
"Hopefully whoever is here is quiet and doesn't create any problems around here. But we're moving all the cars and putting a few things away in the garage. I think we'll be okay, and we won't have a Charlottesville type situation here," said Wheat. '
RPD leaders are hosting a community meeting for those who live on Monument Avenue to make sure they know what to expect. The meeting is Thursday at 6 p.m. at First Baptist Church on Monument Avenue.
"We want them to know that we will be there for them, to protect their property. We just ask if they see anything they have good info to share to talk to a police officer on the scene or call 911. The more we know we will be able to help," said Gene Lepley, the director of public affairs for RPD. Affairs)
Last week, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney warned anyone who broke the law during Saturday's event would be arrested.
"If you’re going to bring hate, divisiveness and intolerance, then we don’t want you here... if you come here harming others or destroying property, we will lock you up," Stoney said during his September 9 interview. "I’m not fearful at all... we have one of the best police departments to handle these sort of demonstrations."
CSA II: The New Confederate States of America, led by out-of-towners Tom and Judy Crompton and Tara Brandau, plan to host a “Heritage not Hate” rally at the Robert E. Lee Monument on Monument Avenue.
Crime Insider sources said police believed the group would attract opposition from ANTIFA, an activist group that has exploded in numbers since the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
The group had a strong presence in Charlottesville when white supremacists and white nationalists gathered for a “Unite the Right” rally that saw deadly events unfold.
In a phone interview, Brandau explained her group would be armed since Virginia is an open-carry state.
"We are not here to stir up any trouble," Brandau said. "We are not a racist group. We are not a part of the League of the South, KKK, ANTIFA, or BLM [Black Lives Matter]."
Tom Crompton, with the Confederate group, said that the Department of General Services denied his group a permit for 50 people, but they plan to rally regardless.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans Virginia Division urged its members to avoid Saturday's rally.
"Outside agitators are coming to Richmond to cause more trouble similar to what they did in Charlottesville last month; we expect the city and state police to handle whatever may occur. We prefer to seek redress in the courts, the General Assembly and at the ballot box," a spokesperson for the group said in a written statement. "The SCV works in conjunction with other historical groups to preserve Confederate history. However, it is not affiliated with any other group. The SCV rejects any group whose actions tarnish or distort the image of the Confederate soldier or his defense of his homeland."