Charlottesville mayor calls for removal of downtown Confederate statues

City officials began to remove the third of four New Orleans Confederate monuments Tuesday, May 16, 2017 evening. Mayor Mitch Landrieu took these photographs of the removal of the P.G.T. Beauregard statue and posted them on his verified Twitter page.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Earlier this year, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer voted against the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from a city park. Instead, he wanted to create “a new context” around the statue of the Confederate general.

Now Signer wants Lee gone.

On Friday, he called for the Virginia legislature to meet in emergency session to change the law so the city could swiftly take down Confederate monuments in the city.

The decision comes nearly a week after a group of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched to oppose the statue’s removal and clashed violently with counterprotesters.

“With the terrorist attack, these monuments were transformed from equestrian statues into lightning rods,” Signer said in a statement, referring to a car ramming attack on counterprotesters that killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer. “We can, and we must, respond by denying the Nazis and the KKK and the so-called alt-right the twisted totem they seek.”

“And so for the sake of public safety, public reassurance, to magnify Heather’s voice, and to repudiate the pure evil that visited us here, I am calling today for the removal of these Confederate statues from downtown Charlottesville.”

He also called for a memorial to honor Heyer and legislation that would allow local authorities to ban “open or concealed carry of weapons in public events reasonably deemed to pose a potential security threat.”

A weekend of violence

The Charlottesville City Council voted in February to remove the Lee statue, rename the location to Emancipation Park and sell the monument. Signer and one other council member voted against the idea.

“But last weekend changed everything,” Signer said in his Friday statement. Heyer’s memorial service was “a profound turning point for me and many others,” the mayor said.

Signer asked Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to call a special session to change the law so local governments can have more authority in deciding what to do with Confederate monuments.

It’s unclear if Signer wants to move the statue of General Stonewall Jackson, which the city council has not voted to move yet.

But McAuliffe’s spokesman, Brian Coy, said Friday the governor probably won’t call a special session because of a lawsuit that challenges the Lee statue’s removal.

A judge issued a temporary injunction in May stopping Charlottesville from moving the statue for six months. A court hearing in the lawsuit is set for later in August.

McAuliffe did, however, sign an executive order temporarily banning any protests at the Lee monument in Charlottesville until the state government can draw up new regulations.

Last weekend’s outpouring of neo-Nazis marching through the streets of the quiet college town while yelling racist and anti-Semitic slurs caught worldwide attention. Charlottesville is the home of the University of Virginia. The stated intent of the “Unite the Right” rally of neo-Nazi and other far-right groups was to oppose removing the Lee statue.

On Saturday, angry confrontations and skirmishes ensued between armed white nationalists carrying Confederate flags and counterprotesters, including anti-fascist groups.

Heyer was killed when a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters. Nineteen others were injured.

A Heyer memorial

Signer said he will propose to the City Council and “stakeholders in our community” that steps be taken to “memorialize” Heyer’s “name and legacy.”

“Many good options may surface from our creative and loving community, and we should consider them all seriously, including whether Emancipation Park could include Heather’s memory in some fashion,” he said. “However we ultimately decide to remember Heather, it should be in a way that tells the truth of what happened in our city — before, during and after August 12, 2017 — and that should, again, magnify her voice.”

He said the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation has launched a “Heal Charlottesville Fund,” an initiative that “will work to provide immediate assistance and stabilization to residents, dialogues on reconciliation, and programs for restoration and healing.”

CNN affiliate WVIR notes that “currently state code makes it unlawful for anyone to disturb, damage, or interfere with monuments or memorials in relation to any war or conflict.”

“Whether they go to museums, cemeteries, or other willing institutions, it is clear that they no longer can be celebrated in shared civic areas, like Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall,” Signer said.

“These steps would allow Charlottesville City Council’s decision earlier this year to move and sell the Lee statue to happen as soon as possible.”

The Charlottesville mayor is not vested with the unilateral power to create or change policy. He is an elected city council member chosen to be mayor by fellow city council members, not the voting public. Any ordinance or policy change, like the one in February to rename the park, has to be done by a majority vote of the council.

Firearms and public safety

Signer said that, while he is a supporter of the Second Amendment, it shouldn’t be “acceptable to open carry or concealed carry firearms at an event of the sort we saw last weekend,” citing the intimidation of citizens and the danger of violence.

“I am going to work with my colleagues on City Council to demand that our General Assembly swiftly enact legislation allowing localities to ban the open or concealed carry of weapons in public events reasonably deemed to pose a potential security threat,” he said.

Permits

Signer said he is going to “launch a comprehensive review” of the city’s system in permitting permits.

He said he wants 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.”

“We need to refine our approach for devious developments among today’s bigots and alt-right,” Signer added, referring to the neo-Nazis and other white supremacists who converged in Charlottesville last weekend. “The alt-right protesters often framed their provocations, the weapons they carried, and their uniforms, as self-defense — but it became clear once they arrived that these were all preparations to draw others into conflict.”