Birmingham starts work to remove Confederate monument

BIRMINGHAM, Ala, (AP) — The mayor of Alabama's largest city declared a state of emergency, imposed a curfew and began work to remove a Confederate monument Monday after demonstrators smashed windows, robbed shops and set fires following a peaceful protest against the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.

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Mayor Randall Woodfin appealed for calm in a city known for civil rights demonstrations that turned violent in the 1960s when segregationist officials used dogs and fire hoses on protesters.

“Birmingham, this is not us. This is not who we are. This is not how we taught the world how to protest. Violence, bullying and chaos is not the road to reform,” Woodfin told a news conference while announcing efforts to quell the mayhem from hours earlier.

A city-wide curfew will begin at 7 p.m. nightly, he said, and several nearby suburbs imposed similar rules. Woodfin requested assistance from state police, an aide said, but he didn't immediately accept Gov. Kay Ivey's offer of National Guard troops.

Protesters on Sunday tried, but failed, to pull over a more than 50-foot-tall Confederate monument made of stone. Late Monday, after the curfew took effect and streets were mostly clear, crews hired by the city used heavy equipment to begin to take down the monument. Within a few hours they had removed the top of the obelisk.

Live video showed workers attaching straps to the peak of the obelisk so it could be lifted away with a crane. Earlier, Woodfin said the city would see if the memorial could be given to a museum or other group.

Woodfin said the fine the city may face for violating a state law banning the removal of Confederate and other long-standing monuments, is more affordable than the cost of continued unrest in the city. Attorney General Steve Marshall, in a statement, said the city would face an assessment of $25,000 if it removed the monument, which has been the subject of a court fight between the mostly black city and Republican-controlled state.

On Sunday, hundreds of people gathered peacefully in a downtown park, chanting and listening to speakers decrying police brutality before night fell. Some in the crowd toppled a bronze statue of city industrialist Charles Linn, who served in the Confederate Navy, but they couldn’t budge the huge stone obelisk, instead battering it with stones and hammers.

Video showed crowds then moved into commercial areas, and police said more than two dozen businesses were robbed or damaged. Two dozen people were arrested, Woodfin said, and two members of the media were injured in attacks.

The following morning, Wheelhouse Salon owner Johnny Grimes cleaned up smashed windows and determined how much of his computer equipment had been stolen by looters. The business had just been cleared to reopen after being shut down for two months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Grimes said he was frustrated by the destruction but sympathizes with demonstrators.

“I hope that this isn’t all for nothing. I hope that this does spark some type of national conversation on race, racial reconciliation, police brutality and how the African American, black community is treated in America,” said Grimes, who is white.

Protests have erupted around the country to protest the death of Floyd, an African American man, on May 25. Floyd was on the ground and handcuffed when a white police officer put his knee on Floyd's neck for several minutes.

Both peaceful protests and confrontations between police and demonstrations also occurred in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover and Mobile, where media outlets reported that police used tear gas and pepper balls to disperse crowds.

Ivey said state assistance was available to any city that asks.

“What I saw happen last night in Birmingham was unbecoming of all those who have worked to make Birmingham the great city it is,” she said in a statement. “Going forward, this cannot be tolerated.”

Demonstrations continued Monday night in Montgomery. Someone toppled a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that stands in front of Lee High School, local news outlets reported. The high school has a majority black student population. A crowd of protesters gathered in front of the Alabama Capitol but were dispersed by police because of the city’s 10 p.m. curfew.

Urging restraint in the state capital, where protests have been mostly calm, Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed talked about the city’s history of peaceful protests during the civil rights movement during an appearance before the media outside a school. Afterward, Reed, wearing a mask to guard against spreading the new coronavirus, stayed to talk with activists.

The Birmingham mayor also made a plea for peace, saying civil disobedience wasn't the same as civil unrest.

“Birmingham the world is watching,” Woodfin said.

Monday was a state holiday in Alabama for the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In Huntsville, hundreds of people marched around the closed county courthouse chanting Floyd’s name.

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Chandler reported from Montgomery.