- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2017

For more than a century, Confederate monuments in Virginia have been protected by a law that blocks local authorities from removing, defacing or disturbing them.

But in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this month, Democrats in the commonwealth’s legislature say it’s time to nix the law and allow localities to tear down statues they no longer want to host.

House Minority Leader David Toscano, who represents Charlottesville in the General Assembly, is working on the changes, which likely will be among the proposals greeting lawmakers when they return to Richmond early next year.

In the meantime, the issue is playing out in state politics: Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the Democratic nominee for governor, is open to changing the law, while Republican nominee Ed Gillespie isn’t angling for any alterations.

The law protects dozens of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and other statues to Confederate troops that dot Virginia’s landscape.

It was a statue of Lee in a Charlottesville park that was the nexus for the neo-Nazi and white nationalist protest two weeks ago that sparked a national debate on race, free speech and history.

The City Council voted to take the statue down and rename the park, but a state judge — while agreeing to the renaming — said the statue itself was likely protected by a law preventing local governments from disturbing such monuments.

Charlottesville Circuit Judge Robert Moore issued a six-month injunction in May halting the statue’s removal. The next hearing is scheduled for Aug. 30.

The City Council this week voted to shroud the statue, as well as one of Jackson, in black tarps to symbolize a period of mourning following the death of Heather Heyer, who was killed after a car allegedly driven by James A. Fields Jr. plowed into a crowd of anti-racism counterprotesters.

The law dates back to 1902, when the General Assembly approved a request from the Essex County Women’s Monument Association to erect a monument in memory of the soldiers and sailors “who were killed or died in the service of the Confederate States.”

Lawmakers said that once the monument was approved by the county board of supervisors, “it shall not be lawful thereafter for the authorities of said county, or any other person or persons whatever, to disturb or interfere with any monument so erected.”

Lawmakers signed off on similar requests in 1903 from King William, Campbell, Botetourt and Greenesville counties. A year later the General Assembly said every county in the state could build Confederate monuments that would be protected in perpetuity.

The law has remained mostly intact, including a 1997 revision that explicitly applied the protection to cities and towns, as well as counties. The law now says it is “unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with any 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 same.”

Citing the revision, some have questioned whether any statue erected in a city or town before 1997 could be removed.

Mr. Toscano said his proposal would make it clear that local governments can remove memorials if they so choose.

“Localities, rather than Richmond, should be given the authority to erect, contextualize and remove statues as they deem appropriate for their communities,” he said. “That said, Republicans are aggressively attempting to shift the conversation to statues and away from what really happened in Charlottesville: a deadly terrorist attack by white supremacists and neo-Nazis who President Trump defended as ‘very fine people.’”

The last time the General Assembly grappled with the issue, in 2016, lawmakers approved a bill to apply the law to protect all monuments regardless of when they were erected. It was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who said it was a “sweeping override of local authority,” and the legislature failed to override his veto.

The lone Democratic holdout was Delegate Stephen E. Heretick of Hampton Roads, who told The Washington Times he cast his vote for his father, who served as a bomber in World War II and struggled when he returned home to comes to grips with the orders he carried out that led to deaths across Europe.

“He was a foot soldier. He did what he was told, and he came home. That to me is the start and finish of war monuments,” he said. “We are the sum of our history, and I think it diminishes us in many ways to push that aside no matter how noble the reason or compelling the cause.”

Still, following the violence in Charlottesville, Mr. Heretick said he welcomes a debate over whether localities should be the final arbiters when it comes to statues.

“There was community conversation when the statuary was erected, so to some extent I think there needs to be community involvement in discussion to move them or to change them,” he said. “It is a tough call for me.”

 

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