‘Trash bags’ can stay: Statue lawsuit moves forward

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A judge has ruled that the General Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson statues may temporarily stay covered. Photo by Eze Amos A judge has ruled that the General Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson statues may temporarily stay covered. Photo by Eze Amos

In the case of whether the city’s longstanding General Robert E. Lee statue should remain on its feet, a judge ruled October 4 that a lawsuit protecting it can go forward, and the black shrouds temporarily draped over Lee and his buddy, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, can also stay.

In Charlottesville Circuit Court, S. Braxton Puryear—one of several attorneys representing plaintiffs who want to overrule City Council’s March decision to remove the Lee statue—argued that the tarps could cause irreparable harm to the monuments.

“It’s not a shroud, it’s a trash bag,” he said, bringing to mind an image of the statues as giant bags of leaves set out on the curb.

The city’s Parks and Recreation department sheathed Lee and Jackson August 23, to mourn the loss of Heather Heyer and two Virginia State Police officers, who died during the August 12 white supremacist rally.

“Every minute those covers are in place, there’s harm being done,” Puryear said, and he cited evidence from experts on corrosion and aeronautics, who testified that the tarps could trap moisture that corrodes the statues, or catch like a sail in the wind and blow the whole monument over.

A stifled snarl could be heard from someone who appeared to believe Charlottesville winds are incapable of blowing away a massive bronze war memorial.

Lisa Robertson, the deputy city attorney representing Charlottesville in the case, motioned to strike all of the plantiffs’ evidence, and said she doesn’t think the shrouds have caused irreparable harm to the statues.

“Like it or not, since the covers have gone on, things seem to have calmed down,” she said. She called City Manager Maurice Jones to the stand, who said Parks and Rec employees intermittently check on the statues and haven’t reported any damages.

The shrouds have, however, been ripped from the statues so many times we’ve lost count. Now, Lee and Jackson are surrounded by orange fencing and no trespassing signs. Moore ruled they can stay that way for an undisclosed amount of time, so long as the coverings and barriers are temporary.

The judge also ruled that while a Virginia statute protecting war memorials does apply in this case—a major win for the plaintiffs—they have not convinced him that the Lee sculpture falls into that category. He gave them 21 days to amend their pleading and refile.

The code says it’s illegal for any locality “to disturb or interfere with any [war] monuments or memorials so erected, or to prevent its citizens from taking proper measures and exercising proper means for the protection, preservation and care of the same.”

Puryear’s pretty sure the Lee and Jackson statues are war memorials. “These are not a couple of old guys out riding on a horse,” he said. “These are Confederate generals.”

Plaintiffs also asked the judge to extend the injunction of the removal of the statue until May 2018, but he ruled that he would not expand it further than its November expiration date. He did allow the injunction to include the Jackson monument, because City Council has also voted to remove that one, too.

Robertson offered to tell the court the full costs of the Unite the Right rally on August 12, and said the “sole purpose” of the deadly white supremacist gathering was to protest the removal of General Lee.

Judge Moore called her comment a “red herring,” meant to distract from the questions at hand in the lawsuit.

“No one had to show up to confront those people,” Moore said, accompanied by groans from those in favor of tearing the statue down. “The statues didn’t cause anything. People did.”

Robertson replied, “Your honor, you don’t have to tell me that.”

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