Charlottesville mayor calls for removal of statue at heart of protests

By Eric DuVall   |   Aug. 18, 2017 at 5:04 PM
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Aug. 18 (UPI) -- Charlottesville, Va., Mayor Mike Signer on Friday called for an emergency session of the Virginia General Assembly to approve legislation that would enable his city to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The statue was a flashpoint for violent protests last weekend that featured neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan. One woman died and at least 19 others were injured when police say one rally attendee drove into a crowd of counter-demonstrators.

Signer, in an op-ed for The Atlantic, said he had previously opposed calls for the statue's removal, but in the wake of last week's violence, said the meaning of the statue "has been changed forever."

"[I]t will never be possible again for the Lee statue to only tell the story of what happened here during the Civil War and the Jim Crow era," Signer wrote. "Its historical meaning now, and forevermore, will be of a magnet for terrorism."

The Charlottesville City Council previously voted in favor of removing and selling the Lee statue -- a measure Signer opposed at the time. Instead, he sided with a commission his administration empaneled that recommended Confederate monuments across the city remain in place, but be put into proper historical context to explain how slavery and Jim Crow laws affected the South.

After the vote to remove the statue, opponents sued, saying the city did not have authority to remove the statue under state law, a case that is still being fought in court.

On Friday, Signer called on Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, to convene an emergency session of the Legislature to approve a bill that would permit the city and others across Virginia to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces if they choose.

In the wake of the violence that led to the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer, 32, on Saturday, Signer said the Lee statue, which was the flashpoint that sparked protests that included hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi sympathizers, needs to be removed.

"With the terrorist attack, these monuments were transformed from equestrian statues into lightning rods. We can, and we must, respond by denying the Nazis and the KKK and the so-called alt-right the twisted totem they seek," he wrote.

In addition to removing the statue, Signer said the city would review its public demonstration permitting process. The city approved the rally near the Lee statue, which sits in a small park in the heart of Charlottesville's downtown. After the city sought to move the site of the protest to another larger park where crowds would have been easier to manage, a protest group filed suit and a federal judge agreed with them, only hours before the protest was set to begin.

Signer pledged a "comprehensive review of our permitting process to give the city the maximum ability to prioritize public safety in such situations, including by limiting the size of events and by exploring updating the current legal 'credible threat of violence' standard with a new approach that can address the threat of the intentional creation of mayhem before it happens."

He also called for legislation that would prohibit protesters from carrying firearms, concealed or otherwise "in public events reasonably deemed to pose a potential security threat."

He condemned members of the far-right groups who brandished rifles and wore holstered handguns they justified as needed for self-defense.

Signer said the practical effect of armed protesters was "intimidating beyond any reasonable standard for citizens, particularly members of vulnerable communities."

Finally, Signer called for a public memorial to Heyer, the Charlottesville resident killed when a car rammed into a crowd of counter-protesters. Police have arrested rally attendee James Alex Fields, Jr., in Heyer's death. Fields' former high school social studies teacher, Derek Weimer, has said Fields "bought into" white supremacy beliefs.

Signer said the memorial could be placed inside Emancipation Park, the same location where the Lee statue that sparked the protest presently sits.

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