A lawsuit to intercept the effort to melt down and repurpose remnants of Charlottesville’s statue of Civil War general Robert E. Lee inched closer to trial during a hearing Monday.
Judge Paul Peatross announced he plans to hold a one-day, non-jury trial on Feb. 1. At stake is the bronze itself. If the plaintiffs win and the Lee statue can be reassembled, they will have stopped the plan of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center to create a locally relevant artwork out of that divisive bronze.
“Charlottesville made a decision about what it wants to do with its statues,” said the Center’s Andrea Douglas after the morning hearing.
Last December the city agreed to give the statue to the Center to melt and refashion that bronze as part of a project called Swords into Plowshares. The city and the Center remain parties in the lawsuit filed by a pair of would-be bidders for the the larger-than-life equestrian statue.
The Lee statue attracted hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and white supremacists to Market Street Park in August, 2017. Their Unite the Right rally never happened as street fighting broke out between the rallygoers and counter-protestors.
After the clash broke up, James A. Fields, Jr., a neo-Nazi from Ohio drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 35 others.
“Today, the eyes of the world are on Charlottesville,” said former City Councilor Kristin Szakos during a pre-hearing event outside the courthouse. “The Swords into Plowshares project promises to serve as a model to other communities who are grappling with what do to with these symbols of division.”
While the court of public opinion seems to side with supporters of the Swords into Plowshares concept, at least 50 of whom rallied in advance of Monday’s hearing, the plaintiffs have fared better in court.
In April, Peatross green-lighted the case for trial by indicating that the amended state law on statues did not give the city the right to melt the statue and that the plaintiffs have legal standing to sue. He went on to indicate that the Virginia Procurement Act appears to give losing bidders the right to attempt to overturn the bidding process.
The plaintiffs claim that they were unfairly shut out of the bidding process or otherwise overlooked. One plaintiff is the Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation Inc., which is dedicated to saving America’s largest all-cavalry Civil War battle site, located about four miles west of the town of Louisa.
The other plaintiff is the Ratcliffe Foundation, which operates a former home of a brother to Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart as the Ellenbrook Museum, located in southwest Virginia. The plaintiffs pressed the judge to help them learn what happened to the Lee statue after it was hoisted off its pedestal last year.
“All we’re asking is where it’s located, who has the possession of it, and what its condition is,” said plaintiff attorney Braxton Puryear.
He alleged that the defense hasn’t been cooperating during the trial’s discovery process, so he filed a motion to compel the defendants to answer.
“We would have answered that question had a protective order been in place,” replied defense counsel Christopher Tate. “We want an extra layer of protection.”
Tate said a few years without violence doesn’t mitigate the risk to contractors and others involved in melting down the Lee statue.
Tate took particular aim at Jock Yellott, a former lawyer and now independent paralegal who was sitting quietly at the plaintiffs table Monday. Tate said that Yellott, an officer for a plaintiff in the separate case that long stymied the city’s effort to remove the Lee statue, formerly had a habit of urging citizens to serve as protective “sentries” for the Lee statue.
“That led to a number of confrontations,” said Tate.
The judge agreed to force Tate to answer the questions but said he’d be signing an order than punishes anyone, including Yellott, who reveals the information about where the Lee bronze has gone. Prior filings indicate that the figures of Lee and his horse Traveller may have already been cut into pieces in anticipation of smelting.
Judge Peatross also rejected the city’s effort to get a pre-trial appeal in front of the Virginia Court of Appeals. At the same time, he delivered a blow to the plaintiffs by rejecting their motion for a summary judgment, a ruling they sought to give their side a victory without trial.
The plaintiffs declined to comment as they exited the courthouse, but defense attorney Tate spoke on the topic of answering what happened to the bronze.
“All we want is for everybody to be safe,” said Tate, expressing confidence in the outcome of the trial.