City Councilors respond to Lee statue protest
Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations among items discussed at meeting
The Charlottesville City Council met Monday and discussed the Saturday protest led by white supremacist groups in Lee Park. Council members issued their own statements before hearing from community members and the Blue Ribbon Commission on Monuments.
Mayor Mike Signer called the meeting to order and Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy opened with a personal statement.
“[W]hile I am extremely encouraged by what I saw [at Sunday’s vigil], I remain to be unmoved until we collectively decide to respect the feelings of everyone in our city,” Bellamy said. “At no point should we believe that one group of people are superior to another group.”
He said he hopes to see Charlottesville residents continue to fight for this equality, even if it is much more difficult than the alternative.
“What I’m going to do today and what I hope all of you do … is not ask for equality, not ask to just do kumbaya, just not ask to do something that’s easy, but demand justice and equity for everyone in this community,” Bellamy said. “If you do not respect and understand the feelings of other people who may not look like you or who are from a different place from you or who have a different educational background from you, then you, my friend, are not one of us … ”
In her personal statement, City Councillor Kristin Szakos responded to those who view the Council’s decision to remove Confederate monuments downtown “as the cause” of the weekend protest by groups who have “long identified with these symbols of white power.”
“If our actions as a city to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee remind them that Charlottesville is not their ally, I am glad of it. I believe that we need to continue to work toward racial justice in our community and to remove any obstacles to becoming the kind of welcoming and equitable community that we aspire to be,” Szakos said.
The mayor’s statement focused on anti-Semitic cyber threats circulating around the time of the protest.
“Anti-Semitism and racial bigotry are already in the trash heap of history. You will not succeed in coming here to intimidate us,” Signer said.
A six-month injunction was granted by a Circuit Court judge to postpone the moving of the Lee statue, but the plans to rename and redesign the park will continue at the Council’s next meeting.
Joe Starsia, an organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice, urged Signer and City Councillor Kathy Galvin to rethink their initial opposition to the removal of the statue.
The Council voted to remove the statue by a 3-2 margin in February, with Galvin and Signer opposed.
“Mayor Signer and Councilor Galvin, you are educated people. Can you not now understand that whatever educational and historic values these objects may have is far outweighed by their power as symbols of hate?” Starsia said. “Too long you have sat on the fence with the fictitious transform in place option and created a permission structure for our white moderate community to do the same. Can you not now see the power of our City Council standing united behind the removal of these symbols … ?”
Another citizen, Ben Doherty, said the protests should not be viewed as surprising considering the purpose behind the statues’ construction.
“[The Lee statue] was built in the 1920s as a threat, a reminder that this city was enforcing a racial hierarchy, a code of white supremacy enforced through violence,” Doherty said. “The torch-lit Klan rally we saw on Saturday night was a frightening emphasis of that threat, but the underlying threat of violence, the daily irreparable harm comes from the statue itself and everything it represents.”
Assistant City Manager Mike Murphy then moved into a discussion of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations for multiple city projects. The work session covered funding appropriation for the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, the Vinegar Hill monument, a petition led by the Equal Justice Initiative to design a lynching memorial in Albemarle County and the request for a proposal to be released for the redesign of Lee and Jackson Parks.
Some of the most pressing concerns revolve around the renaming and redesign of Lee and Jackson Parks. The Blue Ribbon Commission’s most recent recommendations are to rename these parks, “expedite the process” of issuing an RFP and placing signs in the parks to recontextualize them in the interim imposed by the court injunction on moving them.
“[These signs] should detail the history that Saturday night’s white nationalists and white supremacists want to replicate and it should expressly counter that history’s narrative and make clear the intent of transform the parks into anti-racist spaces,” Szakos said.
Mayor Signer and his fellow Council members said they will discuss the renaming of these parks, as well as their signage at the first June Council meeting and will move the issue along as quickly as possible in light of the protest.