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Charlottesville’s statue defenders win partial victory in lawsuit

The debated statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stands in the center of the renamed Emancipation Park in Charlottesville. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

A judge in Charlottesville has dealt a blow to the city’s plans to take down two Confederate monuments, ruling that the statues qualify as war memorials under a Virginia law that prohibits the removal or alteration of such tributes.

The decision by state Judge Richard E. Moore was a victory for the monument defenders who sued Charlottesville in March 2017, seeking to preserve statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in public parks. But the litigation will continue because Moore has yet to rule on another major issue in the case.

The endangered Lee statue was nominally the reason for the Unite the Right rally by hundreds of ethno-fascists who clashed with throngs of counterprotesters in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017, a seminal event in the rise of emboldened white supremacism in the United States. A woman was killed and at least 35 people were injured when an avowed neo-Nazi rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.

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In its responses to the lawsuit, the city says that the law protecting war memorials does not apply to the Lee and Jackson statues for two reasons: because the sculptures are not war memorials but tributes to an era of institutionalized racism; and because the protection law, when it was enacted in 1904, applied to Virginia counties but not cities such as Charlottesville.

That second issue is still to be decided by Moore in Charlottesville Circuit Court. Long after the Lee and Jackson statues were erected, the protection law was amended in 1997 to include cities, and Charlottesville says that it should not be applied retroactively. Lawyers have said privately that whichever side loses, the case will almost certainly be appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, where the matter will ultimately be decided.

As for whether the Lee and Jackson statues qualify as war memorials, Moore was emphatic in a ruling delivered to lawyers late last week after hours of legal arguments at court hearings over the past two years.

“I find that there is no other reasonable conclusion but that these statues are monuments and memorials to Lee and Jackson as Generals of the Confederate States of America, and that as such they are monuments or memorials to veterans of one of the wars listed” in the state’s memorial protection law, the judge wrote.

He said lawyers for the city “have confused or conflated 1) what the statues are with 2) the intentions or motivations of some involved in erecting them, or the impact they might have on some people and how they might make people feel.”

A Charlottesville spokesman, Brian Wheeler, said the city attorney’s office would have no comment on the substance of the ruling. Lawyers for the monument defenders, who could not be located for comment Tuesday, have long declined to discuss developments in the case.

Lawsuit hinges on application of a 1904 Virginia law

The bronze equestrian statues of Jackson and Lee, each sculpted on a heroic scale, were installed in 1921 and 1924, respectively, at a time when Charlottesville, like the rest of the South, was steeped in the legalized white supremacism of Jim Crow.

The two statues and the racially segregated parks surrounding them were donated by philanthropist Paul G. McIntire, whose father, once a prosperous slave owner in Charlottesville, had been financially humbled by the Civil War. McIntire, born in 1860, amassed a fortune in Chicago and New York before he retired in his hometown.

Referring to the sculptures, Moore wrote: “There is certainly much dispute about their effect and purpose, why they were put there, their impact on people, the justification and rationale for them, and the intent of the benefactor and the City itself. But there is no real factual dispute as to what they are,” meaning war memorials.

After a blue-ribbon commission appointed by the Charlottesville City Council found that the statues were racially “problematic,” the council in February 2017 voted to take down the Lee monument and add new interpretive information to the Jackson sculpture. The statue defenders sued the city the following month.

Later, stunned by the hate-mongering and fatal mayhem of Aug. 12, the council voted to remove the Jackson statue along with the Lee monument, selling each to the highest bidder willing to haul it away. But the actions are on hold while the lawsuit is pending.

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