Nearly four years after a student’s petition called for their ouster, three years after a City Council vote to remove them, two years after a deadly white supremacist rally in support of them, and months after a judge ruled generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson must stay, Confederate statues continue to roil Charlottesville.
In the latest skirmishes, vandalizations of the statues have prompted Confederate monument supporters to mount their own security measures, including the installation of a trail camera and a tripwire at the Jackson statue, and hiring private security.
Those who want the statues removed say they’ve been accosted while traveling through Market Street and Court Square parks by people impersonating police and city employees, creating a confusing and dangerous situation.
UVA prof and activist Jalane Schmidt says she was questioned December 8 by a man in civilian attire with a badge purporting to be a Charlottesville cop, who asked what she was doing in the public park, which is open until 11pm.
Schmidt, who regularly conducts tours of Confederate markers around Court Square, says the private security efforts intimidate the public in what historically was a whites-only park and “are making the police an extension of their neo-Confederate organizations.”
Following her encounter with the alleged undercover cop, Schmidt led an impromptu 9pm tour December 9 that was attended by around three dozen people—including a few monument supporters. A member of the National Lawyers Guild offered a brief tutorial on citizen rights during encounters with police in public spaces.
Activist Molly Conger says she was told to leave the park December 7 by a man wearing a green vest who claimed he worked for the city. The man identified himself as Mr. Green and said he was securing the statue. When pressed on which department he worked for, the man replied, “The statue,” says Conger.
She’s also spotted convicted tarp-ripper Brian Lambert, who was banned from the parks, wearing a city-logoed sweatshirt in hope of looking like a city employee, according to a video he posted. Lambert also was on the periphery of the tour. He did not return a phone call from C-VILLE.
A group called the Gordonsville Grays, a newly chartered Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter to which Lambert belongs, says on social media that its members have worked to protect the statues and patrol the parks. Virginia Flaggers, known for hoisting giant Confederate battle flags along interstates, will be “contracting private security to give the folks on the ground a hand,” according to its blog. Neither the Grays nor the Flaggers responded to requests for comment.
After a couple of teens were spotted in one of the parks, there was talk on neo-Confederate sites of shooting them, according to Schmidt and Conger. The Grays also have posted that Conger is on their “watch list.”
“It’s a continuance of state-sanctioned white supremacy,” says Conger. “They’re openly organizing to shoot people.”
Grays commander William Shifflett is also associated with a neo-Confederate group called Identity Dixie, according to Conger. That group, says The Southern Poverty Law Center, helped organize the Unite the Right rally. Shifflett did not respond to a Facebook message from C-VILLE.
“The Charlottesville Police Department recently received information that private citizens are walking through the parks during hours when the park is open to everyone,” says spokesman Tyler Hawn in an email. “These citizens have been seen wearing reflective safety vests, and are believed to be concerned over the recent vandalisms at both parks. The police department has not received a report of any of these citizens acting inappropriately.”
Nor, he says, have police received any reports of citizens being “accosted” in the parks. He notes that officers are either in uniform, or, if in plain clothes, “carry appropriate identification and will present it to a citizen should there be a concern as to their identity or authority.”
Anyone with information about the vandalizations is encouraged to call police, he adds, and a citizen has donated a $1,285 reward for information leading to an arrest.
Local Cynthia Neff was at the park as a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild, and says she witnessed the private security guards. “I worry it will have a chilling effect on people wanting to assemble or access this public resource, especially if it is patrolled by people that are perceived as a direct threat to anti-racist residents and visitors.”
John Heyden, 66, a Charlottesville native who says he has been “guarding” the parks, attended Schmidt’s December 9 monument tour. He confirms he photographed Conger and says he’s given license plate numbers of people coming in and out of the parks to police. “They’ve basically ignored them,” he says.
Heyden says he’s not a neo-Confederate, nor is he a Gordonsville Gray, “I don’t know what that is.”
He’s not worried about the potential for violence in the parks—at least not from anyone he knows. “Wouldn’t you consider the damage they’re doing [to the statues] violence in the first place?” he asks.
Both statues have been repeatedly spray painted with messages like “1619,” referring to the year the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia, and “this is racist.” The base of the Jackson statue has suffered noticeable chisel damage, including the figures of Valor and Faith losing their noses.
Resolution may end up coming from Richmond, where a Democratic majority takes hold of both houses of the General Assembly in January. Several bills have been filed to strike the Virginia law that prohibits localities from ditching Confederate statuary.