Two people were arrested in Charlottesville, Virginia, Thursday morning trying to vandalize a statue glorifying Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. It was the fourth—no, wait, fifth—time since September the monument and a nearby statue of Robert E. Lee have been targeted by anti-racist activists frustrated by the markers’ continuing presence. More than two years since throngs of violent neo-Nazis claiming a need to “defend” the statues from proposed removal injured 35 protesters, and one of them murdered anti-racist activist Heather Heyer, the incident demonstrated how Confederate markers continue to be a local nuisance.
Despite the deadly rally and City Council votes to take the markers down, they remain in place thanks to Lost Cause apologist judges, monied neo-Confederate litigants and, crucially, a state law that prevents their removal.
But for the first time in a very long time—since 1995, in fact—Virginia’s congressional Democrats have the numbers to change that legislation. We will see soon what those numbers are worth, when Democratic State Senator Creigh Deeds, Delegate Jay Jones and Delegate-elect Sally Hudson propose a bill that would give decision-making power over Confederate statues to local jurisdictions at the start of the January legislative session.
Virginia’s Heritage Law—drafted by racist politicians in 1904 and strengthened by their Republican heirs in 1998—has done over a century of heavy lifting for the racist zealots who erected a staggering 110 statuary tributes to defenders of black enslavement. Historically, “state’s rights” and various other calls for local control have been thinly veiled invocations of racialized power, but the new bill is a rare example of local control being used as a mechanism to allow communities to undo the monuments to that power. Lawmakers who don’t support the change are nothing short of complicit in protecting tributes to white supremacist violence and terror.
Charlottesville residents have seen this shake-out firsthand with an unstinting pattern of white supremacist activity, including open incitements to violence, since the murderous violence of the Unite the Right rally. In September, the Hiwaymen—who also made an appearance at the 2017 white supremacist demonstration—showed up at the Jackson statue to wave Confederate flags and create a general atmosphere of menace. (One member of the group told police they planned to “subdue” anyone who harmed the monument.) Nearly a month to the day later, members of Patriot Front left white supremacist paraphernalia along a street named in honor of Heather Heyer, including graffiti demanding her murderer be freed.
In response to the defacement of Lee and Jackson in recent months, neo-Confederates have used social media to advocate various forms of vigilante violence, floating the idea of shooting a local anti-racist activist and random teenagers engaging in the suspicious activity of hanging out in a public park.
This month, neo-Confederates impersonating undercover cops began questioning people in the parks where Lee and Jackson stand and, in at least one case, they ordered a private citizen to leave a public space. Glaring historical parallels tie this neo-Confederate occupation of Charlottesville’s public spaces to the racist colonization of those same spaces by those who put up the statues they so revere. Both harassment campaigns yielded the intended fear, intimidation and confusion. (“You don't have any idea of whether you should run from this person or, if you run from them and they're a cop, they might just shoot you,” one anti-racist activist told me.) All of this is happening against the backdrop of ongoing criminal trials of Unite the Right figures, whose court dates draw yet more crowds of white supremacists and their supporters to town.
The constant potential for violence surrounding Charlottesville’s Confederate statues has greased the skids for potential change to the Heritage law in at least one way: It’s made the town’s white residents aware of the threat black residents have felt from Jackson and Lee since they were erected in 1921 and 1927, respectively. Confederate statues, in Virginia and elsewhere, weren’t suddenly transformed into sites of terror two years ago—that terror just became palpable to people who’d never before been concerned it might touch their lives. Communities long forced to live with that terror—as well as those only now aware of it—would finally be able to remove the physically tangible sources of that terror from their midst under the new bill.
That’s important not just in the city of Charlottesville, but throughout Virginia. Once the capital of the Confederacy, the state is today home to more statuary tributes to the South’s treasonous campaign than any other state in the country. Virginia’s longstanding Confederate Heritage legislation—like the “memorials of the War Between the States” it protects—is “Ol' Virginny” slavery apologia encoded into law. The new bill erases the Heritage law’s lengthy dictum prohibiting Confederate statue removal, replacing it with a sentence that allows localities to “remove or provide for the upkeep, maintenance, or contextualization of any [Confederate] monument or memorial located in its public space, regardless of when erected.” A final draft of the legislation, which is based on a proposal that previously died in subcommittee, is expected to be completed by Dec. 30.
“As long as we've been a legislature, we've also been a place that's rooted in slavery. That's the foundation of this. And there's serious policy work that happened in all of that,” Delegate-elect Hudson, of Charlottesville, told me. “We're not going to undo redlining by taking down a statue, but symbols matter. In Virginia, and really the whole country, we are finally starting to have an honest public reckoning with how white supremacist narratives prop up so much of our culture. These statues were erected at the dawn of Jim Crow, with the Ku Klux Klan was present, and the police chief was a member. The era of Virginia history that we don't tell—the period between the Civil War and Jim Crow where we actually started to make progress—erecting these statues was part of an intentional backlash to strip black residents of the progress they made during that time. So that's why this bill is so important for Virginia. And that’s the reason why we should have been [trying to change the law] always.”
Charlottesville’s Lee and Jackson monuments have become this country’s most notorious—and arguably, most intensely watched—Confederate statues. The impact of their removal would be both symbolically and substantively significant. Too often, change that promotes racial justice and reconciliation comes only after tragedy. While the shadow cast by Unite the Right over the new legislation is undeniable, the bill’s passage would prove each legislative movement doesn’t have to be a reaction to some new, fresh horror. Southern states where Heritage laws prevent communities from purging public spaces of white supremacist symbols might even be inspired by Virginia’s leadership, and maybe even moved to work up the political will to remove Confederate statues that dot their own landscapes.
Above all, the law would allow Virginia communities to end unchecked historical whitewashing of slavery, Jim Crow, racial terror and white supremacy in a moment when the country has been backsliding. The bill would prove that the removal of Confederate monuments—overt symbols of white supremacy, racist intimidation and terror—is an achievable baby step forward. And, at least in Charlottesville, it would help get rid of objects of hate that continue to endanger the city’s denizens, though a conversation about why those objects stood for so long should necessarily continue.
Lawmakers plan to submit the revised law on or before Jan. 8, the first day of the new legislative session. And Delegate-elect Hudson, of Charlottesville, says she wants to attract broad support.
“Our goal is to build a broad coalition of both legislators and constituents from all across the Commonwealth to raise up the broader mission, which is for all of Virginia to begin this conversation. I don't want this to be the ‘hashtag Charlottesville’ bill, because this isn’t just a Charlottesville problem. So we're working to make sure we have patrons from all across the state. That's really important,” she told The Daily Beast.
“But if I only get a narrower version of the bill that only allows Charlottesville to move the statues, that's what needs to happen,” Hudson added. “Because our community is still under constant threat and the statues are an ongoing danger to our community. The cameras left a long time ago but there are still ongoing echoes—every week somebody's getting arraigned or there's a lawsuit or there's a new court proceeding. It's very much an open wound, and my first job is to serve these constituents. But we would be missing a critical opportunity for Virginia to have an honest reckoning with its history.”