Charlottesville City Councilor Kristin Szakos decried what she saw as a “firestorm of vitriol and hatred” that came her way after she publicly floated the idea of tearing down Civil War statues.
In an emotional speech at Monday’s council meeting, Szakos said she expected her comments at a Virginia Festival of the Book event last month to “ruffle some feathers” and start conversations, but she didn’t expect the hatred directed toward her in online comments, emails and phone calls to her house.
“Tell your mother that she’s a F’in whore and to get her F’in hands off our heritage,” Szakos recounted a caller saying to one of her children.
Szakos stood by the need to have the conversation.
“I’d like to know what you think about it, but please do me a favor, if you want to call me names or be hateful, don’t do it through my kids,” Szakos said.
After a March 22 speech by historian Edward Ayers, Szakos asked about Confederate statues and whether the city should talk about tearing them down or balancing them out.
“By the gasps around me, you’d have thought I’d asked if it was OK to torture puppies,” Szakos said Monday.
Szakos said she was told she had stirred up disharmony between races, warned that violence would ensue if she pursued taking statues down and that she didn’t understand Southern heritage.
Not all comments were negative or hateful, Szakos said, recalling one person who had originally gone to an online comment section to suggest the statues were purely historical and have no other meaning.
“But after reading the bigotry and some of the other comments, I realized the statues may still represent something hateful to a small but vocal subset of our community,” Szakos said, quoting the comment. “If it turns out this is true, and these are not just Internet trolls, I would be amenable to moving the statues to a new, specific historical and educational setting. And replacing them in our municipal parks with something that represents the community we live in today.”
Szakos said she doesn’t believe that the worst comments came from city residents, but insisted that the “hate-filled bigotry” she experienced reminded her of her childhood in Mississippi, when her parents suffered abuse for standing up for civil rights and a neighbor’s house was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan.
“The South does have a proud heritage,” Szakos said. “The heritage of those like my parents and others who fought for equal rights in the 1960s and still do today; the heritage of countless enslaved parents who taught their children to believe in themselves in a society that considered them property; the heritage of people who farmed and loved this land before the Europeans came … I’m proud of our Southern heritage. So proud that it saddened me to see it reduced to two Confederate generals and the myth of the superiority of a proud, noble, slave-holding South, in which only a few held power.”
Councilors were also asked to support a resolution supporting the decriminalization of marijuana. The item wasn’t placed on the agenda, but some councilors indicated a willingness to explore the subject further.
Jordan McNeish, an activist who has been involved in Occupy Charlottesville and a group called Charlottesville Residents for the Decriminalization of Marijuana, presented councilors with a resolution making marijuana offenses the bottom priority for the city police department.
“Now, therefore, let it be resolved, that Charlottesville City Council recognizes that marijuana offenses, in which cannabis is intended for adult, personal use and intoxicated driving is not involved, should be Charlottesville’s lowest law-enforcement priority,” the resolution states. “Law enforcement should perform all other duties before using valuable time and resources pursuing possible marijuana violations. Those limited resources should be directed primarily toward violent and serious crime rather than non-violent cannabis users.”
McNeish got the strongest support from Councilor Dave Norris, who said he’d support the policy change if it came up for a vote.
“We should be looking at education and other things instead of enforcement,” Norris said.
Other councilors said they’d support more study, but stopped short of endorsing any specific proposal.
“Because I see this as a very serious issue, I do not have the information right now to say that I’m going to endorse any statement anyone’s made tonight,” said Councilor Kathy Galvin, who suggested revisiting sentencing guidelines for drug offenses.
“I have some concerns,” said Mayor Satyendra Huja. “I want to study it, and I’m not sure where I would land, but I’ll at least explore the possibility.”
The city is barred from decriminalizing marijuana locally because it would conflict with state law.
The City Council also held a public hearing on the budget proposal for fiscal year 2013, which fell slightly to $146.1 million after a few minor tweaks to revenues and expenditures.
During the public comments, speakers urged councilors to fund various groups supporting the elderly, youth and the arts. Councilors did not respond as of press time.
The budget, which maintains tax rates without making major cuts, will be finalized in the coming days before going to councilors for a vote on April 10.
The few remaining budget issues will be resolved at a work session starting at 5 p.m. today in the basement conference room at City Hall.