This morning I am bracing for the steady stream of photographs and videos that will soon litter my social media feeds from my former home of Charlottesville, Virginia. As most of you know a neo-Nazi rally is planned for Emancipation (formerly Lee) Park to protest the planned removal of the Robert E. Lee Monument. Last night an unscheduled rally took place on the campus of the University of Virginia around a statue of the man who believed that the black and white races could never live peacefully together.
My hope is that the rally will remain peaceful, but I am under no illusions given the history of violence that these monuments represent. Lee himself fought a war to ensure that a slave based system built on white supremacy would have a future.
They city of Charlottesville will survive this and any future rallies planned. I suspect that it will have no impact on the eventual outcome surrounding the monument itself. As I understand it the courts will determine its future. Beyond that, the city will continue to make the necessary changes to its commemorative landscape that help the community address old wounds and perhaps even take a step forward.
I am more interested in the likely impact that this weekend’s events will have on Richmond’s current debate about its Confederate monuments. The mayor tasked its Monument Avenue Commission with engaging the public to find a middle-of-the-road solution that stopped short of removal. By all reports that agenda was not embraced by many of the people who attended the commission’s first public forum.
Some have expressed disappointment at the attendees, who quickly lined up on both sides of the question of removal. The mayor, however, should take some responsibility for believing that framing this issue in any other way was possible. He miscalculated. Perhaps his mandate was a political move to take the issue of removal off the table, at least for the remainder of his term.
Regardless of the reason, the rallies in Charlottesville and elsewhere are evidence that a moderate course is unlikely to be embraced by those who are most invested. For many, the embrace of the white supremacist legacy of Confederate iconography by neo-Nazi organizations has clarified their position and rightfully so.
Commission members heard exactly what they should have expected to hear the other night, but more importantly, they heard what they needed to hear. Today’s rally will likely further divide the Richmond community and embolden those on both sides of the monument debate. I still think there is an opportunity to engage the general public in a productive manner. The commission includes some very talented people, but I suspect that they (in consultation with the mayor) will have to re-think their mandate.