In a symbolic vote, the Richmond City Council has requested authority from the state to decide the fate of its Confederate iconography.
The 6-2 vote came at a special meeting Monday. It is an about-face for the nine-member body, which twice rejected similar requests earlier this term.
The decision comes as the Virginia General Assembly prepares to convene its annual legislative session Wednesday. Proponents of removing Confederate statues expect a long-standing state law protecting them to be changed now that Democrats have seized control.
“It’s not about tearing down statutes. It’s not about erasing or changing history. That’s not what this is about,” said Michael Jones, the 9th District councilman who proposed the resolution making the request. “This is about us as legislators doing what we were elected to do.”
Also supporting the resolution were Councilman Andreas Addison of the 1st District; Council Vice President Chris Hilbert of the 3rd District; Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch of the 5th District; Councilwoman Ellen Robertson of the 6th District; and Council President Cynthia Newbille of the 7th District.
Opposing it were Councilwomen Kristen Larson of the 4th District and Reva Trammell of the 8th District.
Absent was Kim Gray, the 2nd District councilwoman who represents much of Monument Avenue, on which five Confederate statues were unveiled from 1890 to 1929. Gray said last week that she did not support Jones’ resolution and called it “divisive.” Gray's liaison said she was unable to attend the meeting because she was at the hospital with her daughter.
State law limits local governments’ power to remove or modify war memorials. Attempts to overturn the law in recent years, after a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, have failed. The Democratic-led efforts met resistance in what was then a Republican-controlled General Assembly.
But this year, Democrats will control the statehouse for the first time in nearly three decades. Proponents of removing or contextualizing the monuments — Jones among them — expect the upcoming session to spell changes for the state law in question.
At the local level, Jones has led the push on the issue. He has said he views the statues that line Monument Avenue as symbols of racism and white supremacy that need to be removed, a view supporters of his resolution echoed at a public hearing the council held before its vote Monday.
“What was divisive was these monuments being put up in the first place,” said Hilbert, who voted against two previous attempts Jones made to pass the resolution in December 2017 and October 2018.
“There’s a progressive majority [in the General Assembly] that’s likely to pass this,” Hilbert said, explaining his switch.
Others on the council stood pat.
Trammell has opposed each of Jones’ three efforts related to the issue. Asked about her vote Monday, she cited feedback she received from her constituents.
“I was getting calls and I could show you the texts where people said: Don’t we have other things to worry about? Our schools, our streets, our sidewalks, drainage - all of that. Why is this so important when they’ve been up 200 years? And it’s dividing us.”
“What I’ve said: Let the General Assembly decide. Why get us divided like this on council when we have other things that we should be focusing on right now that’s getting ready to come up? And that’s what my people are saying.”
Larson, who voted against the measure, said she didn’t think it had been vetted through the council’s typical legislative process. The resolution was supposed to be heard by the council’s Land Use, Housing and Transportation Standing Committee in mid-December, but that meeting was canceled. A special meeting was scheduled for the council to vote on the resolution before the committee was scheduled to meet again.
“I don’t feel like this was on many people’s radar,” Larson said, citing the holiday season and the number of emails and calls she received in advance of the vote.
Fewer than 10 people spoke at a public hearing the council held before its vote. Opposition to the idea was sparse. Two people spoke against Jones’ resolution. Both identified themselves as residents of outside the region.
One speaker, Wendy Hayslett of Hampton, said Jones and the local branch of the NAACP, which supported his effort, “represent hate” and wanted to “dominate.”
“To say I represent or am for hate is a mischaracterization of who I am and what I stand for. ... I preach the gospel of Christ and the gospel of love and inclusion, not exclusion or hate, and I take offense to that.”
Mayor Levar Stoney wrote on Twitter after the vote:
“I'm encouraged that the Richmond City Council has taken this important step to tell the VA General Assembly that localities like Richmond need the authority to determine and control public spaces which reflect their values in 2020, not 1920. Now the ball is in the GA's court.”
In 2018, Stoney's Monument Avenue Commission recommended removing the statue honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It also recommended, among other things, adding context to the street's other Confederate statues.
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