Charlottesville votes to shroud statues in chaotic meeting

Published 9:29 pm Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Charlottesville City Council voted to drape two Confederate statues in black fabric during a chaotic meeting packed with irate residents who screamed and cursed at councilors over the city’s response to a white nationalist rally.

The anger at Monday night’s meeting, during which three people were arrested, forced the council to abandon its agenda and focus instead on the tragedy. Covering the statues is intended to signal the city’s mourning for Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer, who was killed when a car slammed into a crowd protesting the rally.

“I think what you saw last night was a traumatized community beginning the process of catharsis,” Mayor Mike Signer told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

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The council meeting was the first since the “Unite the Right” event, which was believed to be the largest gathering of white nationalists in a decade. The demonstrators arrived in Charlottesville partly to protest the city council’s vote to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

That removal is in the midst of a legal challenge. A state law passed in 1998 forbids local governments from removing, damaging or defacing war monuments, but there is legal ambiguity about whether that applies to statues such as the Lee monument, which was erected before the law was passed. A judge has issued an injunction preventing the city from removing the Lee statue while the lawsuit plays out.

Signer said Tuesday that city staff had begun working to find a way to cover the large statues with a material that can withstand the elements. The council believes doing so would not violate the state law, he said.

At the meeting, many speakers directed their anger at Signer. They expressed frustration that city leaders had granted a permit for the rally and criticized police for allowing the two sides to clash violently before the rally even started. That fighting went on largely uninterrupted by authorities, until the event was declared an unlawful assembly and the crowd was forced to disperse.

“Why did you think that you could walk in here and do business as usual after what happened on the 12th?” City Council candidate and community activist Nikuyah Walker said.

The mayor tried to restore order, but as tensions escalated, the meeting was temporarily suspended. Video showed protesters chanting “blood on your hands” as Signer stood at the front of the room. Others held signs calling for his resignation.

When the meeting resumed, the agenda was scuttled and the council listened to input from residents.

Three people were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct or obstruction, police said.

The council also voted to take the procedural first steps toward removing a statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. City leaders had initially planned to leave it in place.

“I believe that the removal of the Confederate statues is a necessary part of showing that this community can be truly a community of mutual respect,” Councilwoman Kristin Szakos, who proposed covering the statues, said in a statement. “We must do that if we hope to move forward to true justice and equity. We should have done it years ago.”

A woman who told the council her daughter was hurt in the car collision also asked why the number of injured had been widely reported as 19 when she believed it was higher.

The University of Virginia Medical Center said it treated 19 patients — a number the city repeated in a news release. On Tuesday, a spokesman for Sentara Martha Jefferson hospital said it treated 15 patients from the rally over the weekend. Eleven were directly related to the car incident, and one was transferred to UVA, he said.

Later Tuesday, University of Virginia police disclosed they had obtained arrest warrants for a white nationalist in connection with crimes they say were committed on campus a day before a rally that ended in deadly violence.

Police said in a statement Tuesday that Christopher Cantwell of Keene, New Hampshire, was being sought on three felony charges: two counts of the illegal use of tear gas or other gases and one count of malicious bodily injury with a “caustic substance,” explosive or fire.

The statement said the warrants stem from incidents on campus the evening of Aug. 11, when hundreds of white nationalists marched across the grounds, chanting anti-Semitic slogans and carrying torches. At one point, the marchers were confronted by a much smaller group of counter-protesters. But police didn’t elaborate on the allegations against Cantwell.

On Tuesday night, the Norfolk City Council approved a resolution declaring its desire to move an 80-foot Confederate monument from its downtown to a cemetery as soon as state law allows it. The measure asks Virginia’s attorney general to clarify what state law permits.