Last month’s City Council vote on a motion to remove the statue of General Robert E. Lee deadlocked 2-2 and left the chamber in disarray for 30 minutes. The issue was back on the agenda February 6 after Councilor Bob Fenwick announced he was changing his abstention to a vote to remove the statue, and council voted 3-2 to pack up Lee.
The question remains: Can City Council actually remove the statue in the face of state statutes, a promised lawsuit and the terms of Lee Park donor Paul Goodloe McIntire’s will?
Councilors acknowledged that the vote could be symbolic, and Fenwick said he’d welcome a lawsuit because it was an issue facing localities throughout Virginia. “For the sake of the state, it should be litigated as soon as possible,” he said.
Attorney Lewis Martin says a lawsuit is imminent, and while he won’t be filing it, three other attorneys—Colt Puryear from Madison, Ralph Main and Elliott Harding—will be doing so within days.
Fenwick joined councilors Wes Bellamy and Kristin Szakos in the vote to remove Lee. Mayor Mike Signer and Kathy Galvin opposed the removal and favored recontextualization.
The councilors were unanimous on a motion to rename Lee Park, and Galvin proposed a resolution to implement the other recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission and develop a master plan to do so, with a budget of up to $1 million. She pointed out those measures could occur before the Lee statue removal, which could be tied up in litigation for years. Councilors also approved that measure 5-0.
The chamber was packed with attendees holding up signs—“remove the statue” or “save history”—and Signer seemed determined to avoid the chaos of the last council meeting. He requested “civility and decorum” and introduced two Charlottesville police officers, and said the rules would be “strictly enforced.”
Signer also suggested attendees show their support with a raised hand and their disapproval with a thumbs down.
One woman’s extended coughing jag during Signer’s comments on the upcoming vote had him pause. He commended her attempt at “civil disobedience,” but warned she’d be removed if it continued.
Two people were taken out during Bellamy’s remarks, including council regular John Heyden. “When Wes Bellamy was reading off his wish list of what I consider racist equity demands because they benefit one race over the other, I said, ‘That’s racist,’” said Heyden the next day.
Councilors expressed their struggles with making a decision on the symbol so closely tied to slavery. Szakos cited her Christianity, which “helps inform the way I approach issues, particularly with ethical and moral components,” and favored removal because of the “harm” the statue inflicts on “our neighbors.”
Galvin, too, was “moved by the Beatitudes” in her “stressful and very difficult” decision that the statue should remain.
And Bellamy took a love-thy-neighbor stance, and said it was okay to disagree on this issue. To the statue supporters, he said, “You are not my enemy,” but added, “We will not be bullied, we will not be pushed away.”