Hungry for a decision on what to do with Charlottesville’s public monuments to Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, many residents were enraged when they were left without an answer from the City Council late Tuesday night.
Mayor Mike Signer struggled to maintain control of the meeting as many in attendance lashed out at what they perceived to be a slight against African-Americans and those in the community who see Confederate monuments as symbols of white supremacy, slavery and the Jim Crow era.
Things became tense moments after the council voted 2-2 on a motion to move the city’s statue of Lee from Lee Park to McIntire Park, per a recommendation from a community commission the council convened last year.
Signer and Councilor Kathy Galvin opposed the measure, citing potential ethical dilemmas, legal challenges, financial hurdles and public outrage that moving the statues could create. Councilor Bob Fenwick chose to abstain, prompting several shouts of “shame” and “coward” from some upset with the outcome of the vote.
Fenwick offered a biting criticism of the statues and said he would not vote to retain the statues in the park, but he added that he believes there are many opposed to moving the statues or who feel indifferent to them and said the city needs to prioritize other efforts aimed at creating an equitable city. He specifically mentioned funding for a field house at Tonsler Park, jail diversion programs and increased contributions to community agencies that provide public assistance.
As part of the discussion about the statues, the council unanimously agreed to consider a proposal from Councilor Wes Bellamy to fund a scholarship and several initiatives that would increase city spending by about $150,000. That, however, did not sway Fenwick, who said he wants to negotiate with councilors to gain support for several measures he’d like funded in the budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
“Enough symbolism. Enough with the declarations, proclamations, good intentions and written promises. We have been down that road before — more than once,” Fenwick said. “It’s time to show me the money. If these words tonight have any meaning, they will find their way into the city budget. It’s time to invest in our citizens.”
Shortly after the initial vote to move the statues, the meeting descended into a vitriolic back-and-forth between the councilors and a majority of the attendees who were advocating for the removal of the statues.
“You’re the worst type of racist. You’re the one that smiles and tell us that everything is going to be OK,” a man in the crowd shouted at Fenwick before leaving the chambers.
“It’s now clear to me that the people planning to vote against this were going to vote against it no matter what the commission said,” said Councilor Kristin Szakos.
About five years ago, Szakos said at a Festival of the Book event that she’d be interested in seeing the statues removed from the city. Last year, Bellamy called for the removal of the Lee statue.
The council responded to those calls last spring by putting together a commission to study the idea, along with other ways the city can publicly present its history as it relates to race.
In November, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces unanimously agreed to send a number of recommendations for ways the city can repair race relations and celebrate otherwise forgotten and seemingly disregarded aspects of its history.
As for the statues of Lee and Jackson, the commission recommended they be moved to McIntire Park or recontextualized in their place. Either decision hinged on contextualization so that the legacy of the statues and that of the Confederacy can be displayed in a broader way.
City staff estimated that moving either statue could cost approximately $350,000. Attorneys for the city have noted that legal challenges could come if a decision to move the statues, which the state considers to be war memorials, were made.
“For Mr. Fenwick, who earlier tonight was criticizing this council for not doing what our commissions ask us to do, I find it very troubling that all of the work done this past year to dismantle racism and create an equitable community, everything we have stood for, it’s undone by this vote,” Szakos said.
A nearly hour-long discussion after the initial vote bore no fruit. After going back and forth and taking two breaks, the council was unable to agree on what to do.
“What Fenwick did was a coward’s exit,” Blue Ribbon Commission Chairman Don Gathers said. “That was six months of work that’s amounted to absolutely nothing.”
“I really thought the council was going to go one way or another,” he said. “But to stay stagnant is just not acceptable to myself, the commission or the citizens of Charlottesville.”
While many left Tuesday’s meeting feeling defeated and furious over council’s inaction, others were pleased to see the council deadlocked on the matter.
“It is one thing to advocate for something, but you demonize the people you’re forcing to pay for your liberal agenda,” city resident John Heyden told the council in the public comment period earlier in the meeting.
“We’re tired of being disrespected by carpetbagging liberals who want to voice their racial hatred on those of us who were born here,” he said.
Citing a Facebook post from Bellamy on Tuesday afternoon calling on supporters to come to the meeting to challenge “white supremacists” who might be there, Teresa Kay Lam, of Elkton, said Bellamy is creating racial animosity.
“My ancestors fought under General Lee. I am kin to General Lee, and I will fight with honor to keep his monument where it is and run you out of town,” she said in an email. “He would never call you hateful names like you are doing to women and white people.”
Signer said Tuesday night that the topic of the statues could come before the council again but that it may be difficult to have at least three councilors agree to put it on a future agenda.
“The question will be whether there will be an appetite among my colleagues for revisiting the pain and chaos that attended Mr. Fenwick’s actions and statements,” Signer said.