Mike's Statement on Charlottesville's Confederate Statues

February 6, 2017

[NOTE:  After delivering this statement, Mike voted for a motion that passed unanimously to "transform in place" for the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monuments through new memorials, allocating up to $1 million for that purpose, while renaming both parks to reflect current values].

I am going to vote against this motion, for reasons I will explain shortly.  But I want to be very clear.  My vote is not for the statue.  I despise the Jim Crow era, and I revile the racism and white supremacy of our past that certainly is included in these statues’ history and meaning. 

However, as I have explained in the past, my vote will be to support one of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations that, in this case, we add to history, rather than subtract from it.  The Commission’s charge was to change the narrative in Charlottesville by telling the full story of race through our public spaces. 

After studying the issue for six months and listening to thousands of people, they voted, no matter what, to keep the statues within the borders of Charlottesville.  One of their two recommendations was to “transform in place.”  I will be voting today for a motion to support such a plan, one that would tie together Lee Park, Jackson Park, the slave auction block, and the Freedmen’s Bureau in such a way that would challenge and transform the statues’ Jim Crow legacy and that would, forever, change the narrative in Charlottesville.  I envision a magnificent new memorial to civil rights victories in Lee Park, and a magnificent new memorial to the slave auction block in Jackson Park, we would create a dynamic conversation, adding to our history and changing our narrative.  And this can happen regardless of whether the Lee statue is moved.

In focusing on addition rather than subtraction, we would be continuing an approach that is making real progress in Charlottesville.  And we will be focusing on the impressive list of less controversial but extremely important recommendations that were contained in the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report.  In the last year alone, this City Council allocated $80,000 to the rehabilitation of the Daughters of Zion cemetery; reinstituted the Bridge Builders Award at Drewary Brown Bridge; funded a new Vinegar Hill park; and recently committed to funding the African-American Heritage Center with almost $1 million of new funding.  Meanwhile a new memorial to Gregory Swanson, who desegregated UVA Law School in a historic case, was installed in our public library, which previously served as a courthouse.

It’s worth noting that the Commission did make a second recommendation to move the Lee statue to McIntire Park.  But that recommendation did not consider the master plan for McIntire Park, or any cost, legal, or logistical concerns.  The Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee was not even consulted.  And just as there is opposition to the statue being in Lee Park, there will certainly be opposition to it being moved to the pristine turf of McIntire Park.

That brings me to my conclusion on the motion here.  I am not supporting a motion to remove the Lee statue for three main reasons. 

First, I worry about the impulse to remove, delete, and expunge that which offends us.  It’s no accident that in the course of this debate, many on both sides have attacked their opponents as immoral.  To me, that approach means the two sides are unlikely ever to try and understand each other, to see the issue through another’s eyes.  But in a year of grappling with this issue, the one thing that is even more clear to me than when we started is that this is an issue about which people of good faith can disagree.  Otherwise, how can so many good people believe the statues should stay? 

And so I’m concerned that this enterprise may unintentionally damage the progressive project.  Attempts to cleanse the public realm of irritants to progressive aims, to barricade liberal values behind seeming victories such as removing a statue, lead to more fury over those walls.  Indeed, we have seen just that violent cycle with the campaign of Donald Trump, where we saw an intense attack against progressivism in general resonate with millions of people.    

Second, I am concerned that this approach can deprive the project for racial justice of the richness and context it needs to thrive.  The following quote is from the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report:

"Numerous Charlottesville African-American residents who have lived through decades of suppression of their history oppose removal on the grounds that it would be yet another example of hiding their experience.  For them, transforming the statues in place forces remembrance of the dominance of slavery and Jim Crow white supremacy (10)."

The Commission’s finding was consistent with what I’ve heard in two town hall meetings at black churches and private conversations with hundreds of folks in this City.  For instance, the night before the last vote, at an MLK Day celebration convened by the Abundant Life Ministry, five African-American women who grew up in C'ville told me they thought the statues should stay.  I’ve heard similar ideas from many African-American leaders in our community, who have said they believe the statues should remain as “teachable moments.” 

Some have said that I should not be so deeply impacted by these voices.  They have said that African-Americans who oppose moving the statues are doing so out of fear, denial, or inability to support change, that they are exhibiting a sort of false consciousness.  Some have argued that in weighing African-American voices so heavily, I am forcing on them a burden to make this decision that is not fair to them.  But I find these arguments patronizing at best. 

The idea I believe they were expressing is that to move forward, we must visibly push against the past.  That we must see and defy these monuments to overcome what they mean.  That is a more uncomfortable reality, to be sure.  But I believe that this dialectical exhibit, and underlying process, of visible thesis, antithesis, and synthesis will create more vibrancy and dynamism for the progressive project in Charlottesville than the alternative.

Finally, there are the specific practical, legal, and logistical obstacles that suggest that this vote will not actually result in any action for a very long time.  An existing state statute prohibits the removal.  There are also documents associated with the gift from Paul Goodloe McIntire that prohibit removal.  We will likely be sued immediately on both fronts.  We will be forced to pay for the costs not only of removal, but of defending the lawsuits.  All of those concerns can certainly be outweighed by other benefits.  But on an issue that is not just black and white, but that contains many shades of gray, and requires, for me at least, the balancing of many concerns, I believe the “transform in place” option represents a better path for our government and for our city.

In conclusion, I see my job as being to try and represent all of Charlottesville as best as I can.  I have tried to do my best to make decisions to fulfill the mission we set out for the Blue Ribbon Commission, with the understanding that I am very definitely a fallible and flawed human being, and with the understanding that a very diverse portion of Charlottesville will be upset with me no matter what decision I make. 

Thank you.