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VA House Bill Would Allow Localities To Decide Fate Of Confederate Monuments

Craig Carper/WCVE News

In August of 2017, white nationalists from across the country converged in Charlottesville to rally against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.

The protests began with tiki torch wielding protesters marching across the University of Virginia’s campus, chanting “You will not replace us” and "The South will rise again."

When the “Unite the Right” rally ended the next day, dozens were injured and counter protester Heather Heyer was dead.

Democratic Delegate David Toscano of Charlottesville says the rally changed the way the public viewed statues of Confederate leaders.

“When people first discussed removing the statues, the community I don’t think wanted them taken down,” he said. “But in the aftermath of the Unite The Right rally, folks said ‘Well hold on here. We can’t let those stand anymore.”

A state law, however, prevents localities from “disturbing or interfering with” war memorials. Confederate monuments were added to the list of protected memorials in 1998. Pro-Confederate groups have been locked in a years-long lawsuit against Charlottesville City Council for trying to remove the Robert E. Lee statue.

Toscano attempted to introduce legislation last year that would give localities control over the fate of their Confederate monuments.

“If they want to take them down, if they want to contextualize them, if they want to have a public referendum about them, let the localities decide,” Toscano said. “It shouldn’t be the state dictating to them.”

That bill was defeated, but Toscano is introducing it again this year. He’s hoping that Republican opponents can get past the controversy and see the monuments debate as an issue of local control.

The question of what to do with Confederate monuments has also come up in Richmond, where a commission was established in 2017 to discuss the future of five Confederate statues along Monument Avenue. Gregg Kimball co-chaired that commission. He says the debate about removal didn’t even come up in Richmond until after the Charlottesville rally.

“The original charge, which was primarily to look at ways of interpretation, changed,” Kimball said. “After Charlottesville, the question of removal was put on the table.”

After nearly a year of public forums and meetings with community groups, the commission issued a final report. The Jefferson Davis monument was the only statue recommended for removal.

Kimball says it was singled out because of the inscription on the statue itself.

“You get this clear ‘Lost Cause’ statement about how he’s this great advocate for states rights, which of course implies that was the cause of the Civil War. it’s just not true,” Kimball said.

For the other Confederate statues along Monument Avenue, the committee recommended adding signs to contextualize the era in which they went up, and the beliefs of the Confederate leaders. If Toscano’s bill fails this year, they may not be able to even do that. Those actions could be considered “disturbing” or “defacing” the monuments.

Toscano knows his bill will not be without its critics.

A number of groups spoke out against his bill when it went up for a committee vote last year, including members of the  Virginia Flaggers. They’re a statewide group that has protested the removal of Confederate statues across the state.

Spokesman Barry Isenhour says he and others in the group don’t see Confederate statues as glorifying slavery, but instead, as monuments to American war heroes that should be protected.

“These are statues that are honoring the soldiers who fought to preserve the Commonwealth of Virginia, so outside of that there’s nothing else to say,” Isenhour said.

Isenhour supports keeping the monument debate at the state rather than local level, because more people have a vested interest in monuments than just the citizens of a specific county or city.

“And I think under the current law, their voice is hear also,” he said.

People on both sides of the monuments debate will have an opportunity to make their voices heard about Toscano’s proposal, when it’s taken up by the House Counties, Cities and Towns Committee as early as this week.

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