The message, scrawled in marker and taped to the front door of a bagel business near Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, gave me pause when I passed it Friday morning. The next day’s planned white supremacist rally near the Mall had been well-publicized, of course, but I’d never considered it could become a threat to public safety. There would be plenty of police there to keep protesters in check, I figured, and besides, what kind of riots could possibly happen in such a peaceful and progressive college town? By the time I’d reached Roanoke on my way to a weekend trip to southwest Virginia, I’d already forgotten about the note. But then Saturday happened.
The events of that day, amplified by an avalanche of horrifying photos and videos posted on social media, leave many searching with anger and fear for answers. It’s unlikely we’ll ever get satisfactory explanations for how young white men can feel so persecuted, or how only three of them were arrested for inciting so much violence, or how the city and its police could have failed so comprehensively to keep their community safe.
There’s one question, however, that the rally answered with absolute clarity and thunderous finality.
What should Richmond do with the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue?
The monuments should be removed from public display. The sooner, the better.
It’s important to recognize here that the monuments are protected by state law, and that the City can’t act unilaterally in removing them. And yes, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said in June – while announcing his Monument Avenue Commission – that though he wanted to help his city “redefine the [statues’] false narrative” he did not support their outright removal. But Charlottesville’s tragedy should force Stoney, his commission, and those in the Virginia General Assembly to reconsider their options.
There’s no narrative more false, it’s now abundantly clear, than the tired refrain that Confederate symbols like Richmond’s statues are about “heritage, not hate.” In dated terms that Southern sympathizers might understand, making that argument after Saturday is like telling someone you only subscribe to Playboy for the writing.
Still others may feel the monuments should remain out of a newly galvanized fear that their removal could inflict the kind of pain on our community that we witnessed on Saturday. Should the city take steps to remove its Confederate monuments, we can reasonably expect that white supremacists would soon visit with firearms brandished and fangs bared.
But hatred and fear shouldn’t dictate our city’s course. Rather than regard Saturday as a potential consequence, it’s imperative for city leaders to view it as an opportunity to repudiate the bigotry for which its statues now demonstrably stand, and for which their most ardent defenders will demonstrably kill.
Prior to Saturday, I’d endorsed the Monument Avenue Commission’s ostensible purpose to somehow lend historical context to the Confederate statues, perhaps by creating markers near each detailing the anguish produced by the systemic slavery each man fought to defend. These additions would, of course, fail to placate the vociferous contingents supporting the extreme ends of the debate. If neither side is happy with the incorporation of contextual markers, I’d thought, fancying myself some modern-day King Solomon, then that’s the most equitable solution!
But after Saturday, that idea seems like a hollow, even cowardly, half-measure. I stopped in Charlottesville Sunday afternoon on my way back to Richmond, and saw the street where a young woman had been murdered the day before by a white supremacist. Three blocks away, a man in a suit who had organized the rally was about to be tackled into a bush by a counterprotester, and yet it was on this crowded but silent street where emotions remained most raw.
On that street, the stakes of the debate over Confederate statues irrevocably changed. No marker can better contextualize or define what those statues symbolize today than the bouquets Fourth Street’s Sunday congregants knelt in genuflection to rest, reflecting on a life so senselessly lost, before finally rising, blinking, into the sunlight.