Following the disruptions to City Council meetings that have occurred with regularity since the call to remove the statue of General Robert E. Lee was first made more than a year ago, councilors voted 5-0 to ditch the monikers honoring Confederate generals Lee and Stonewall Jackson and dub them, respectively, Emancipation and Justice parks.
The public comment period before the vote reflected the divisiveness between far left and right that’s played out in the city over the past few weeks since the visit of white nationalist Richard Spencer and his tiki-torch-carrying brigade.
Former NAACP chair Rick Turner called the statues symbols of “white supremacy and terrorism” that have “distorted our historical memory.”
City Council candidate Kenneth Jackson told councilors, “You guys are lucky enough to be the only City Council that this city has actually went to hell on,” and he accused the council of “generating an atmosphere of hate and intolerance.”
And when he said black residents “don’t care about that statue,” activist Veronica Fitzhugh, who was arrested for a May 20 confrontation with Spencer buddy Jason Kessler, stood behind Jackson with her middle fingers extended.
When John Heyden came up to object to what he calls the “kill your local Nazi” posters that have been plastered around town and to members of Showing up for Racial Justice getting within two inches of his face at Miller’s last week, SURJers in attendance started humming, causing Mayor Mike Signer to suspend the meeting.
“This is ridiculous,” scolded Signer. “You’re like adolescents.” He asked Fitzhugh, who had wandered to the podium, to return to her seat.
Kessler decried the lack of First Amendment rights granted to white people, right-wingers and Confederate supporters, such as those he said peacefully assembled in Lee Park. “This is hyperbolic, it’s out of control,” he said.
SURJ members began to sing, “Fuck white supremacy,” to the tune of “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me.” Signer again halted the meeting and police officers hauled out a handful of singers.
Council candidate Nikuyah Walker also attended the meeting, and said the statues have brought up a lot of trauma. “If we don’t fix those, we’ll never have peace in the community”, she said.
Don Gathers, who had been chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, noted the divisiveness and hostilities coming from “a chunk of rock.”
He said, “As a city, we’re better than this,” and he urged the different sides to listen to each other and “to accept different viewpoints.”
It was a couple of hours into the meeting when councilors turned to renaming the parks. Councilor Kristin Szakos pointed to a name not on the list from the citizen survey and from the recommendations of parks and rec and the Historic Resources Committee for “the park formerly known as Lee Park”: Emancipation Park.
And she agreed with Councilor Kathy Galvin’s proposal to rename Jackson Park “Justice Square,” although she took issue with “square” because the park is not square, there’s already a Court Square there and the sibilant sound of Justice Square.
Signer favored “a bolder, more conceptual” name for the parks and supported Emancipation because “it was really strong.”
Councilor Bob Fenwick pointed out that the court injunction prohibiting the removal of the statue likely would be upheld, and he questioned calling it Emancipation Park with the Lee statue still there.
It was Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy who praised the aspirational nature of Emancipation and Justice parks. He favored a bold approach, as well, and urged the councilors to “use our collective energy to move forward,” with Emancipation and Justice as two steps that “are going to push us in the right direction.”