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Dozens speak in favor of removing city statues; council agrees unanimously

Charlottesville City Council voted unanimously late Monday night to remove and recontextualize the Confederate statues in downtown parks.

After a 30-day waiting period required by Virginia statute, the city will be able to remove the statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

In April, the Supreme Court of Virginia sided with the city in its appeal of a Charlottesville Circuit Court ruling that found that the City Council violated state code when it voted to remove the statues in 2017. The high court ruled in part that a previous law preventing the removal of war monuments did not apply to statues erected before 1997, a view long held by city officials.

The city posted a Request for Statements of Interest on its website Monday night following the vote, offering to transfer ownership of one or both statues “to an entity, upon terms deemed by City Council to be appropriate and advantageous.” The offer is extended to any museum, historical society, government or military battlefield interested in acquiring the statues. If the statues have not been transferred for relocation and placement, the council may make other dispositions.

This Request for Statements of Interest is mandated by the state. However, the City Council is not required to allow the transfer of the statues to another entity. They can vote against this after reviewing the proposals.

Fifty-five people spoke at Monday’s public hearing, most of them in favor of removal of the statues.

The majority of speakers urged the council to demolish the statues and not allow them to be placed in a museum or in another locality.

Several survivors of the neo-Nazi rally on Aug. 12, 2017, urged the council to destroy the statues because of their history as a rallying point for white supremacists.

“As a survivor of violence in August 2017, I still get a fight or flight response walking near the corner by the library where I was stabbed in the stomach with a flagpole and actually thought, this is it,” said Brad Slocum. “These statues continue to be a rallying cry for [the far right], even as recently as the Jan. 6 insurrection … pictures of the statues were posted in far right forums online.”

Slocum said he used to think it would be appropriate to place the statues in a museum, but after his experience in 2017, he said the city must demolish them because of what they represent.

“I think it would be sweet to [sell] commemorative coins that say, ‘I helped take down the statues’ and then use those funds to help the folks who are still suffering from those events and the history and centuries of trauma,” he said.

Natalie Romero, also a survivor of the violence in August 2017, asked the council to consider how those events are still impacting people who counter-protested and to take the statues down.

“I was one of the unfortunate people in the crowd that day. And I want to remind you all that we actually haven’t come very far … many of us have not gotten our medical bills paid … so many of us are still dealing with our case. It’s literally like still happening,” Romero said. “This is one basic thing that you could get done and vote on.”

A few speakers asked the City Council to leave the statues standing.

Philip Hamilton, who is running as a Republican for state delegate in the 57th District, urged the council to consider erecting statues of Union soldiers alongside the Confederate statues.

“Instead of destroying our history, why don’t we add to our history? Let’s add context,” Hamilton said. “We have the 68 … Army soldiers and sailors who fought for the Union who went to the University of Virginia. There is nothing in the city of Charlottesville that honors those individuals.”

Other than Hamilton, most of the speakers in favor of leaving the statues up came from outside of the region, calling from as far away as Texas and California. These speakers said they had no connection to Charlottesville.

Several longtime residents spoke about how the statues held a particular significance to them, having grown up Black in Charlottesville, and that they need to be removed.

“I remember passing the Lee [statue], even as a child, and being told to get to stepping, because I was on the wrong side of Charlottesville,” said Sarah Kelley, 80, who said she has lived in the city her whole life.

Kelley said that as a child, she was upset she couldn’t go see the statue, because she loved horses and wanted to see the statue of a man on his horse. She said she didn’t know the history behind the statue until the events of August 2017.

“Now that I know the history and all the pain that I’ve gone through in these 80 years here in Charlottesville, I would love to see the horse riding away into a melting pot and being released, because it brought nothing but pain to us as Black people knowing … this was a place we couldn’t go,” Kelley said.

DeTeasa Gathers shared a similar experience.

“I want to speak as a 10-year-old girl. When I was growing up, I remember walking by that monument with my grandmother … When that monument went up in the [1920s], she was alive. And the only thing I can recall is walking by there and her actually saying, ‘we don’t go over there,’” Gathers said.

“Let’s make a move, take them down, take them down for that 10-year-old girl, take them down for the next 10-year-old girl, because I have a 10-year-old granddaughter now. What do I tell her? How do I explain this to her?” Gathers said.

Zyahna Bryant, a local activist and author of a 2016 petition that sought the removal of the statues, urged the council to consider the amount of work Black women have done to get the statues taken down and how this work has often been traumatic. Bryant said she has received hundreds of pieces of hate mail, as well as threats and harassment, since she started her petition.

“It’s up to you to make the right decision. And there’s no opportunity left to straddle the fence. Which side of history do you want to be on? Which kind of ancestor do you all wish to be?” Bryant said.

Some speakers suggested the statues could be melted down and the materials could be used to create new works of art that represent the city’s values.

“If you want to contextualize the parks, I might suggest this: Melt the statues and transform them into a rainbow ark in all the beautiful Pride colors and listen to white supremacists’ heads explode immediately afterwards,” said Don Gathers, who served as chairman of the Blue Ribbon Commission that advised the City Council to remove the statues in 2017.

After the vote, councilors thanked the community for their participation in the discussions.

“I want to thank the people who started this work in all sorts of forms over a very long time,” said Councilor Sena Magill. “And this isn’t just about us; this has been going on before this council got here.”

“We have so much work to do. And I know that people think the demands are too heavy … But I would implore everyone to understand that there was a 10-year-old girl at one time who is now many decades from 10,” said Mayor Nikuyah Walker, referencing DeTeasa Gathers’ comment. “There will be 10-year-olds who will have to continue to figure out … how to deal with the structure of whiteness.”


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