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Editorial: Different cities, different approaches to Confederate statues
Confederate statues

Editorial: Different cities, different approaches to Confederate statues

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Protesters pulled down the statue of Confederate Gen. Williams Carter Wickham in Monroe Park on June 6.

This past Friday, on the morning of Juneteenth — the day that Americans mark as the end of slavery — residents in Farmville discovered that the Confederate statue in the town’s center was gone from its pedestal.

The previous evening, Farmville Town Council voted unanimously to remove the statue, located at the intersection of High and Randolph streets. Within an hour, it was removed without fanfare by a crane and trailered away for safekeeping, according to The Farmville Herald.

In interviews with the newspaper, council members in the Southside town explained that they pursued a proactive path in taking down the 7-foot bronze soldier to avoid the violence plaguing other localities.

The 120-year-old statue, which is hollow, was held in place by one bolt in the center of the base, meaning it would be easy to topple if someone had a rope and vehicle, town officials said. No vocal protests had erupted over the statue, so its abrupt removal caught many by surprise.

“The decision before council was to take no action, which represented the strong possibility that confrontation would occur with likely bodily and property injury and the destruction of the statue,” Mayor David Whitus told The Herald. “The other option was to act quickly and remove the statue, preserve it and avert confrontation and all that comes with it.”

By acting quickly, he said, “We have a statue to have a conversation about, and we have no collateral damage.” The community will talk about what to do with the empty pedestal and how best to proceed.

The battle over Lost Cause statuary wages as a monumental civil war in the 21st century. On July 1, a new state law goes into effect that lets localities decide whether they can remove war memorials. But citing public safety, some local governments are acting pre-emptively — avoiding the clashes and mayhem that have engulfed Richmond for the past three weeks.

Across the state in Norfolk, the 113-year old Confederate statue dubbed “Johnny Reb” no longer stands in the city’s downtown. Earlier this month, at the request of the city, the 16-foot tall bronze likeness of a Confederate soldier was removed, and nearly all of the marble pedestal is gone.

Similar to the Farmville statue, a single bolt held down the hollow 2,000 pound statue, allowing for relatively easy removal. Plans call for the soldier to be moved to a nearby cemetery and join other monuments to Confederate war dead.

According to The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk City Council had discussed taking the statue down for at least five years, voting in 2017 to remove it once legal questions had been resolved.

But after a protester in neighboring Portsmouth suffered serious injuries when a Confederate statue struck him as it was being pulled down by demonstrators, Norfolk sprang into action. Citing safety concerns, in a matter of days the statue was removed.

The city plans to hold a public hearing next month “and take solicitations from places like museums or battlefields that may want to host the monument themselves,” a city spokeswoman told The Pilot.

As to what will happen to the monument’s now-empty site, The Pilot reported that Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander “wants to leave that spot fallow until the city can have a discussion and figure something out thorough an open process, to make sure that spot is safe for whatever is located there and for anyone who would visit it.”

What is Richmond’s plan?

The city needs one. Since the city’s daily protests began, several statues in the capital city have been toppled. Earlier this week, protesters unsuccessfully tried to take down the J.E.B. Stuart statue with ropes. Amazingly, no one has been hurt.

The death of George Floyd, an African American, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis on Memorial Day sparked nationwide and global protests over police brutality and systemic racism. In Richmond, that action turned to riots as demonstrators vandalized Monument Avenue’s iconic Confederate statues, smothering them in spray paint and demanding their removal.

City and state officials responded: Richmond City Council members and Mayor Levar Stoney unanimously back removing the statues along Monument Avenue. An effort by Gov. Ralph Northam to take down the state-owned Robert E. Lee statue is tied up in a court.

The mayor wants to rid the city of the statues immediately, the RTD reported earlier this week. His administration is looking for a legal avenue to remove the statues ahead of next week’s new law. The city’s lawyers cautioned that could invite legal repercussions. Meanwhile, protests continue at the monuments.

The new law outlines a process for removing the statues, including a public hearing and the option of a nonbinding referendum. It’s up to the city to decide the disposition of the controversial icons; it’s not up to protesters to take matters into their own hands. How is the city ensuring the safety of its residents?

— Pamela Stallsmith

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