Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer called on the Virginia state legislature on Friday to convene a special session to push for new laws that would give local governments power to decide the fates of their Confederate war memorials.
Signer, a Democrat, also asked that localities be able to suspend some gun laws after his city was besieged by violence during a white nationalist rally last weekend.
Signer issued a lengthy, six-page statement outlining what he views as the next steps for the progressive Southern college town reeling from the fallout of the violence, attention and outrage that has made Charlottesville the center of a national debate about Confederate history and white supremacy.
“Last weekend changed not only Charlottesville, but America,” Signer wrote. “While we are getting back on our feet, we are still traumatized. . . . But we will overcome this hatred.”
Charlottesville is in recovery mode after a week in which the city became the furious flash point of opposing values and interpretations of American history, spilling violently into the streets of a city in a state that was once part of the Confederacy.
This turning point, as Signer called it, comes just as a new semester begins at the University of Virginia and the city readies itself to welcome thousands of families in luggage-loaded vehicles moving their young adults into the state’s flagship college.
Downtown, businesses and residents have moved quickly to replace the images of hate seen around the country with love — literally, giant letters spelling L-O-V-E were installed by the state tourism board as public art on the pedestrian mall. Shops carried signs celebrating diversity, and faith leaders are calling for reconciliation and healing.
But some activists say healing can’t begin without apologies and accountability.
U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan announced Friday that she had put together a working group to evaluate the institution’s response to a torch rally staged by white nationalists in which some students were surrounded and threatened a week ago. She appointed a civil rights scholar and law professor to lead the group’s examination of school policies.
“We must recover from violence, from bigotry, from vulnerability. We must heal,” Risa Goluboff, dean of the university’s School of Law, said in a statement. “We must also act.”
To that end, the mayor is also moving forward by asking the General Assembly to give localities authority over their monuments and the power to ban open-carry or concealed weapons during public events that pose security threats.
“I think these people came like arsonists, they are intending to burn down the pillars of a constitutional democracy, compromise civility, deliberation, tolerance, reconciliation and it falls to all of us to overcome it,” Signer said in an interview.
Michael Rodi, owner of downtown restaurant and nightclub Rapture, is organizing with other downtown Charlottesville business leaders for the same kinds of regulations Signer is calling for to protect residents and businesses if and when the groups return.
“This is not over,” said Rodi. “They need to give us the tools to prevent another invasion. This was an act of war on the city.”
Signer said he is also working with his colleagues to launch a “comprehensive review” of Charlottesville’s permitting process to provide city officials with more tools to address potential public safety threats and “prevent mayhem before it happens.”
One person was killed and 19 others were injured after police say James Alex Fields, 20, of Maumee, Ohio, plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters last Saturday with his Dodge Challenger. Fields has been charged with second-degree murder after 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed in the crash.
Heyer, who has been heralded as a hero, was memorialized during a public service this week in which her mother, Susan Bro, called on the country to channel anger into “righteous action.”
It was in that spirit, Signer said, that he is proposing that the Charlottesville City Council consider creating a permanent memorial in Emancipation Park or elsewhere honoring Heyer’s memory in a way that “tells the truth about what happened in our city — before, during and after August 12, 2017.”
The statement comes after Signer canceled a news conference Friday in which he was expected to make a major announcement. The mayor’s policy proposals will require votes from the other four members of the city council, including Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy who led efforts to remove the statute of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park.
Charlottesville city leaders voted to move the statue earlier this year but opposition groups sued to stop them and the issue is now before a judge. Virginia law makes it illegal for localities to disturb or interfere with erected memorials and Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) had vetoed a bill to strengthen that prohibition in 2016.
But after a Danville, Va., judge ruled those protections do not apply to statues or monuments erected before 1998, there is some debate as to the breadth of the law.
Nevertheless, the public park became the backdrop of violent clashes between participants in the “Unite the Right” rally, an event bringing together right-wing groups protesting efforts to remove Lee’s statue, and counterprotesters.
The equestrian monument was transformed into a lightning rod, Signer said.
“We can, and we must, respond by denying the Nazis and the KKK and the so-called alt-right the twisted totem they seek,” he said in the statement. “And so for the sake of public safety, public reassurance, to magnify Heather’s voice, and to repudiate the pure evil that visited us here, I am calling today for the removal of these Confederate statues from downtown Charlottesville.”
Rev. Alvin Edwards of Mount Zion First African Baptist Church said the city needs time to debrief and reconcile. “I’m not sure exactly what’s next” said Edwards, who delivered the eulogy at Heyer’s memorial service this week. “But I do believe something good will come out of this.”
For community activist and associate professor Walter Heinecke, the best form of revenge is not simply living well, as the adage goes, but challenging institutional racism within the city, university and the country.
“We must build communities that are racially just and harmonious,” said Heinecke, who applied for counterprotester permits with the city. “That is how we defeat them. We need to overcome the legacy of white supremacy.’