Charlottesville to remove statue of Lee that sparked rally


RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee who has become a rallying point for white supremacists and helped inspire their infamous 2017 rally in Charlottesville will be hoisted from its pedestal this weekend and sent to storage, officials said Friday.

The statue of Lee and another nearby Confederate tribute are both scheduled to be removed on Saturday, nearly four years after violence erupted at the “Unite the Right” rally. The chaos left 32-year-old protester Heather Heyer dead and sparked a nationwide racial fairness debate, still ignited by former President Donald Trump insistence that there was “blame on both sides”.

A coalition of activists released a statement on Friday celebrating the announcement. Due to litigation and changes to a state law regarding memorials, the city had not been able to act until now.

As long as the statues “remain standing in our downtown public spaces, they indicate that our community has tolerated white supremacy and the lost cause these generals fought for,” said the coalition called Take ‘Em Down Cville.

Preparations around the parks where the statues are located was due to start on Friday and included the installation of protective fencing, the press release said. Designated public viewing areas for abductions will be established.

Only the statues of Lee and Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson will be removed at this time, the city said. The stone plinths of the monuments will be left in place temporarily and removed later.

The statues are perched in relatively prominent places in Charlottesville, a quaint little town at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains and home to the University of Virginia. Commissioned by an AVU graduate and erected in the 1920s when Jim Crow laws eroded the rights of black citizens, the statues are only a few blocks from each other.

Charlottesville City Council voted in February 2017 to bring down the statue of Lee amid mounting public pressure, including a petition started by black high school student Zyahna Bryant.

A lawsuit was quickly filed, putting plans for the city on hold, and white supremacists took to the issue.

First, they rallied by torchlight in front of the statue in May 2017, then a small group of Klan men gathered in July, far outnumbering the peaceful protesters.

The issue came to a head in August, when white supremacists and neo-Nazi organizers of the Rally “Unite the Right” gathered in the city to defend the statue of Lee and seize the issue for publicity purposes, meeting in what was the largest gathering of such extremists in at least a decade.

They brawled in the streets near the statue with anti-racist counter-protesters as police largely stood next to the statue. The scenes of intense violence shocked the nation. Soon after, an avowed white supremacist and Adolf Hitler admirer intentionally rammed his car into a crowd of people, killing Heyer and leaving others with life-changing injuries.

Trump’s suggestion at a subsequent press conference that there had been “very good people, on both sides” led to a crush of criticism from Republicans, Democrats and business leaders.

Charlottesville continued to fight in court for the removal of the Lee statue and further voted for the removal of the Jackson figure. But a circuit court judge even prevented the city from wrapping the statues in tarpaulins.

After Democrats took control of the General Assembly in the 2019 election, the monument protection law has been rewritten in 2020. Since then, local governments across the state have removed statues that have been around for a century or more.

Charlottesville, however, waited for the resolution of the lawsuit, which took place in April, when the state’s highest court face with the city.

Since that decision, the city government has worked to meet the requirements of the new law, such as holding a public hearing and offering the statue to a museum or historical society for possible relocation. The offer period for Charlottesville statues ended Thursday.

Ten responses have been received so far, according to Friday’s statement, and the city remains open to “further expressions of interest.” Under the new law, the city has the final say on the arrangement of the statues.

Both will be stored in a secure location on city property until city council makes a final decision, the statement said.

In the aftermath of the rally, residents of Charlottesville unleashed a torrent of pain, anger and frustration to city and state officials, laying bare deeper issues on race and economic inequalities. Activists have since pushed the city to address its legacy of racism and slavery and its shortage of affordable housing and police accountability, among other issues.

Kristin Szakos, who was a member of city council at the time of the rally, said in an interview earlier this week that there was a determination to ensure that the lessons of 2017 are learned.

“It really raised awareness of the white supremacy that comes not just from visitors to Idaho, but also from the structures of our own culture and our own institutions that we have to contend with. And that this is more important than just chasing the Nazis out of our city, ”she said.

Szakos, who is no longer in office, said the city has made progress in this work and that removing the statues would be another step in the right direction.

City officials said they plan to redesign the spaces in the park where the statues are located “in a way that promotes healing and tells a fuller story of Charlottesville.”


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