Charlottesville’s confrontation with its slave-owning past has resulted in difficult discussions since Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy and Councilor Kristin Szakos called for the removal last March of statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and the renaming of the parks where they reside.
At City Council’s January 17 meeting, the debate spiraled out of control when enraged citizens, many carrying signs calling for the statues’ removal, shouted and refused to come to order for approximately 30 minutes after councilors voted 2-2 on a motion to remove the statues, with Councilor Bob Fenwick abstaining.
“Shame on you, Bob!” yelled an attendee.
All of the councilors made statements before several votes were taken, each abhorring slavery and its legacy.
“At its core, this discussion is about racism,” said Fenwick, who urged investing funds into the citizenry rather than in removing the statues.
Bellamy, the only African-American on council, quoted Martin Luther King Jr. about the danger of “the white moderates” who say they agree on an issue but want to wait until a more convenient time to take action.
He referred to Charlottesville as a “beautiful but ugly city,” a term used during the funeral service two weeks ago of former vice-mayor Holly Edwards. The phrase was repeated during public comment by activist attorney Jeff Fogel, and earlier that day at a press conference for a new political group, Equity and Progress in Charlottesville.
And Bellamy also noted his first-hand experience with the hatred and racial divide exposed since his call in March to remove the statues. “I have received death threats,” said Bellamy. He said he’s had phone calls that mentioned his daughters by name, stuffed monkeys and bananas thrown on his property and a stalker trying to intimidate him.
Szakos called for an immediate vote because of the “concentrated hate campaign” against Bellamy. “I believe we need to make a decision quickly on these two matters because until we do, we will continue to attract unwanted interference from the Confederate heritage groups and white supremacy activists around the country, many of whom have no stake in our local decision.”
Councilor Kathy Galvin spoke of the “moral dilemma” of removing Jim Crow-era statues, and said she believed it was “morally wrong” to scrub historic symbols of slavery, Reconstruction and segregation.
Mayor Mike Signer called slavery “the great shame of this nation,” but said he would not vote to remove the statues because of the recommendation of the Blue Ribbon Commission, whose creation he had instigated, and because of the lack of consensus in the community.
After the first tied vote on Szakos’ motion to remove the statues, the chamber erupted and Signer suspended the meeting for five minutes to try to get it back under control.
John Heyden is a regular City Council public commenter who often has contentious exchanges with Szakos and Bellamy, and he says he’s seen such chaos before. “It strikes me that one faction of people is allowed to break the rules and other factions are shut down immediately.”
Attendee Mason Pickett says he was body slammed during one of the breaks. “The remove-the-statue people showed themselves to be immature bullies when they didn’t get what they wanted at the City Council meeting,” he says.
“I was cruelly disappointed by the fact that we could not move past the status quo,” said Signer after the meeting. That doesn’t mean the city can’t implement some of the other commission recommendations, such as renaming Lee and Jackson parks.
Three votes are necessary to put the issue back on the agenda, he says. “I don’t know whether there’s an appetite for my colleagues to revisit the pain and chaos.”
However, Szakos, Fenwick and Bellamy all say they expect the issue to come before council again. “We’re not done yet,” says Szakos, who made three motions to remove the statues. “We asked this commission of citizens to spend six months of their lives under public scrutiny and abuse, and their strongest recommendation was to remove the statues.”
“We can’t ignore it,” says Fenwick. “We have to deal with it.”
While many denounced his decision to abstain at the meeting, Fenwick says he’s had different reactions following it. “People are coming up to me on the street and agreeing with me,” he says.
He says he was caught in the middle between two sides locked in their decisions, and he’d thought there would be a proposal for compromise.
Fenwick seemed to have his own agenda at the meeting as far as city spending, and at a press conference January 22, he reiterated some of those points, criticizing the $1 million spent on West Main consultants and the hundreds of thousands spent on parking or lighting studies, while councilors slashed funding for the Legal Aid Justice Center. He said he’d like to ax the $1.5 million skate park that went out for bid in December and build a field house at Tonsler Park and keep community centers open all day.
He called the City Council meeting chaotic. “That was the worst I’ve seen,” he says.
Signer, who implemented controversial rules for conducting City Council meetings when he took office a year ago, said the out-of-control scene January 17 “was one of the greatest challenges I’ve had in public life, trying to navigate the emotions on an issue that truly divides us.”
Signer says he made a decision not to eject anyone from the meeting “given the climate” and the “emotions,” but in the future, outbursts from the floor “can’t be allowed to prevent us from doing the people’s work.”
However, Bellamy says he’s seen other council meetings “get hectic,” and that there’s a history of the city saying it wanted to hear from people—and then ignoring them. “People feel passionate about these topics,” he says. “I definitely empathize and I understand it.”
Says Bellamy, “That City Council meeting draws a strong parallel with the Women’s March in Washington, and the voices saying, ‘Hear me, hear me, hear me.’”