Over the weekend, unknown persons three times did what plaintiffs in a lawsuit against City Council want done: removed the tarps covering statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
Almost exactly a year after City Council voted 3-2 to remove the statues on February 6, 2017, Judge Rick Moore heard a motion from plaintiffs in Charlottesville Circuit Court February 5 asking that the tarps covering the statues be removed immediately, and to fine the city if it doesn’t.
City Council voted to shroud the statues August 21 in mourning for the deaths of Heather Heyer and Virginia State Police Lieutenant Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke Bates following the deadly August 12 Unite the Right rally. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit—11 individuals, the Monument Fund and the Sons of Confederate Veterans—contend that the city used mourning as a “pretext” and intends to permanently cover the statues with “trash bags,” according to attorney Braxton Puryear.
He cited a November 6 City Council resolution to create a new master plan for Emancipation and Justice parks that included screening to more elegantly conceal the statues. “There’s no fixed time for removal,” said Puryear. “They’re not temporary but permanent.”
The plaintiffs called a funeral director as an expert witness on mourning periods, despite Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson’s objection that he wasn’t an expert for dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic community event.
Hill & Wood’s John Mathis testified about various religious mourning practices, which Moore said were not relevant, as well as public mourning practices for deceased police officers or firefighters: mourning badges, bunting, flags at half mast, wreaths and processions.
Robertson asked about the significance of the first anniversary of a death, and Mathis said it was a milestone “for family, but not for the people who came to the funeral.”
“There’s no mourning period that goes on five months,” said Puryear.
He also argued that the city did not get approval from the Board of Architectural Review to cover the statues with “trash bags.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney Ralph Main called City Manager Maurice Jones as an “adversarial witness.” Jones said the tarps cost $3,000 each and City Council had discussed when the tarps would come off and that August 12, 2018, was a possibility.
The tarps unlawfully interfere with the statues and prevent citizen enjoyment of them, said Main. “We have them to see them,” he said, comparing the draping with going to Paris to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, only to find it covered because “someone may not like Leonardo’s views.”
Robertson said it made sense to look at the first anniversary to end the mourning period because the event is now “referred to by the date it happened.”
That’s what gave Moore pause.
He said he needed more time before making a decision. His biggest concern is that since the decision to shroud August 21, “Council has had plenty of time to say how long” the statues should remain covered and then the city comes to court and says it should be one year, he said. “That’s what I’m struggling with.”
Moore says he’ll have a decision on the tarps by February 27 when he hears the city’s demurrer on the lawsuit. He also set a couple of trial dates for the lawsuit against City Council: January 31-February 1, 2019, for a two-day trial, and October 26 if the parties decide they can do it in one day.