Confederate monuments have toppled across the South since the slaying of George Floyd at the hands of police. In Charlottesville, statues of generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson still stand, and continue to attract nighttime patrols from both statue defenders and opponents.
In the wee hours of June 28—three days before a law went into effect allowing Virginia localities to determine the destinies of their own Confederate war memorials—Lee was once again splattered with red paint, and later that night, police responded to a call about a man with a gun at Court Square Park, where Jackson resides.
Statue defenders have been on alert for weeks: In Richmond, after the United Daughters of the Confederacy headquarters was set on fire May 31 and several Confederate monuments were graffitied, local statue supporters organized sign-up sheets to defend the generals.
Brian Lambert, a member of the Gordonsville Grays chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, called for monument guards on social media. “Here in Charlottesville, we were able to stop an assault on our local Memorials by Antifa, with the cooperation of CPD,” he wrote.
It’s the alleged cooperation with the Charlottesville Police Department that troubles anti-racist activists.
Activist Molly Conger tweeted on June 19 that when she went to check on the “confederate vigilantes,” one of them called 911, and seven police cars responded.
UVA prof Jalane Schmidt regularly leads tours of Confederate markers in the Court Square area. After a June 11 tour, “I was stopped by police because of suspicious behavior,” says Schmidt. “They called in about 30 officers,” and had paddy wagons and squad cars circling the parks while officers questioned tour participants. She says she pointed to the armed statue defenders as those who were suspicious.
A Facebook page called Save the Robert E. Lee Statue, which lists a link to the Monument Fund (one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the city for its vote to remove the Confederate generals), thanks the volunteer statue guards.
“Nightly, there are cars and people on foot casing the monuments, hoping for an opportunity to strike,” says the post. “Social media trolls have threatened to ‘dox’ the monument guards; and those standing guard have been verbally assaulted and had the Police called on them with fabricated stories of threats of harm.”
Attorney Buddy Weber, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and the group’s spokesperson, did not respond to phone calls from C-VILLE.
Lambert declined to comment when contacted by C-VILLE, and we didn’t get to ask whether he was the man with a gun reported to police June 28.
Schmidt says her neighbors are “so unnerved seeing these guys with guns that they stopped walking in the parks.”
Robert Klonoski lives across from Market Street Park and has observed the statue protectors almost every night. “I don’t like having people hanging around my neighborhood with guns,” he says.
Charlottesville Police spokesperson Tyler Hawn declined to comment on how many calls police have gotten about gun-toting statue defenders or about would-be vandals, and refused to provide any information on the June 28 call about an armed man at Court Square Park.
“The vandalism incidents in front of the police department and at Market Street Park are under investigation,” Hawn says.
According to the Emergency Communications Center, 30 calls were made in June about suspicious behavior in the two parks.
By June 29, Lee had been scrubbed clean, although a Black Lives Matter T-shirt hung from Traveller’s bridle. Jock Yellott, a plaintiff in the statue lawsuit against the city, sat on a bench in Market Street Park reading Aristotle in the early evening.
A stream of out-of-towners came through to inspect the statues. Rhode Islander Marlene Yang had already seen the graffitied Lee statue in Richmond. “It really opens a lot of discussion on what people think is important,” she says.
A visitor from New York, who declined to give his name, says, “For the record, we love the statues.” He had just been to Gettysburg. “We wanted to see them while they’re still here,” says his wife.
Even the Monument Fund, which won an injunction prohibiting removal, acknowledges the statues’ days in city parks are numbered. The plaintiffs, who are still seeking attorneys’ fees, filed a motion June 5 with Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Rick Moore to partially dissolve the injunction.
The city has appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court to entirely dissolve the injunction so it can proceed under the new state law.
A statue supporter, who spoke only on the condition he not be named, is concerned about the safety of the Confederate monuments, which have been repeatedly vandalized. “People of goodwill are looking for a place to put them,” he says. “We can’t do that if they’re destroyed. Whether you like them or not, vandalism isn’t a good idea.”
While Richmond hoisted Stonewall Jackson off his pedestal July 1, Charlottesville continues to wait for the legal process to unwind.
“The nice thing about here is there’s a clear exit ramp with the motion to the Virginia Supreme Court,” says Schmidt. “It’s slower, but at least I’m seeing steady progress.”