Bill to allow removal of Confederate monuments dies in subcommittee

Archive image of a February 2017 rally at the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville.
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RICHMOND, VA (WHSV) — UPDATE (Jan. 30):

Tension filled the room Wednesday as a House subcommittee voted to kill a bill that would have let localities decide whether to remove or modify Confederate monuments in their jurisdictions.

Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, introduced House
House Bill 2377, which sought to change the current law that makes it illegal to disturb or interfere with war monuments. His bill would have given cities and counties authority to remove Confederate or Union monuments. This is the second year Toscano has sponsored such legislation.

“We give localities the ability to control the cutting of weeds. But we haven’t yet given them the control over monuments that might have detrimental effects on the atmosphere and the feeling of the community,” Toscano said. “If you weren’t in Charlottesville in August of 2017, it would be hard to understand all of this.”

He said people across Virginia want the ability to decide what to do with the monuments in their towns.

Toscano said the monuments were erected during the “lost cause” movement, which viewed the Confederacy as heroic and the Civil War as a conflict not over slavery but over “states’ rights.”

He addressed a subcommittee of the House Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns. The subcommittee’s chair, Del. Charles D. Poindexter, R-Franklin, gave those on each side of the debate five minutes to state their case. With a packed audience filling the small committee room, each person had little more than one minute to speak.

Supporters of Toscano’s legislation held up blue signs with messages such as “Lose The Lost Cause” and “Local Authority for War Memorials” printed in black ink.

Lisa Draine had tears in her eyes as she spoke of her daughter, Sophie, who was severely injured when a white supremacist, James Alex Fields Jr., drove his car into a crowd of people demonstrating against racism in Charlottesville.

Fields, who was sentenced to life in prison last month for killing Heather Heyer, was part of the “Unite the Right” rally protesting the city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a local park.

“I couldn’t imagine that a statue had brought this to our town,” Draine said. “My daughter could have been your daughter.”

A member of the Charlottesville City Council, Kathy Galvin, spoke in favor of the bill, citing the need for local legislators to have authority over the monuments.

Matthew Christensen, an activist from Charlottesville, said it was an issue of “basic human decency” and the right of local governments. “They own the land, they own the statue, they should be able to decide what to do with it,” he said.

Ed Willis, an opponent of Toscano’s bill, said it violates provisions in the Virginia Constitution prohibiting discrimination. “It’s painfully clear discrimination based on Confederate national origin is the basis of this bill,” he said.

Like other opponents, Willis said his ancestors served in the Civil War. Some spoke of their families’ long heritage in Virginia and opposed what they felt was the attempt to sanitize or alter their history.

Frank Earnest said he blamed the “improper actions” of the Charlottesville city government for the mayhem that took place in August 2017.

“Just like the other socialist takeovers,” Earnest said, “it’ll be Confederate statues today, but don’t think they won’t be back next year to expand it to another war, another time in history.”

The subcommittee voted 2-6 against the bill. Dels. John Bell and David Reid, both Democrats from Loudoun County, voted to approve the bill. Opposing that motion were Democratic Del. Steve Heretick of Portsmouth and five Republicans: Dels. Poindexter, Terry Austin of Botetourt County, Jeffrey Campbell of Smyth County, John McGuire of Henrico County, and Robert Thomas of Stafford County.

Supporters of the bill met with Toscano in his office after the meeting. He said he knew the bill’s defeat was a “foregone conclusion.” HB 2377 was heard last in the meeting, giving little time for debate or discussion.

People who want to remove the monuments asked Toscano, “How do we make this happen?”

Toscano picked up a glass candy dish from his desk and placed a chocolate coin wrapped in blue foil in each person’s hand. This represented his desire for a Democratic majority in the House of Delegates, where Republicans hold 51 of the 100 seats.

Toscano said he fought for years to get from 34 Democratic delegates to the 49 now serving. He urged the group to vote for those who share their concerns this November.

“It’s all about the General Assembly,” he said.

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ORIGINAL STORY (Jan. 11):

A bill introduced to the General Assembly would allow any city to remove any war monument regardless of when it was erected.

The bill was proposed by Del. David Toscano of Charlottesville and reads “A locality may also remove or provide for the upkeep, maintenance, or contextualization of any such monument or memorial located in its public space, regardless of when erected.”

It's directly relevant to Charlottesville as the city continues to battle a lawsuit from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others about the city's 2017 decision to remove statues of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.

The Lee statue decision was the initial motivation of the August 2017 "Unite the Right" rally that ended with white nationalist James Alex Fields, Jr. plowing a car into a crowd of protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring others.

The lawsuit is centered around whether the city has the legal authority to remove the statue. A state law makes it "unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with" any war monuments, but the city argued that state law applied only to war memorials built after the law was amended in 1998 (the statute was originally codified in the 1950s, after the statues were erected in the 1920s).

Judge Richard E. Moore ruled that the law applies to all war monuments, regardless of when they were erected, but said plaintiffs did not adequately prove that the Lee statue is a war monument. That lawsuit now covers the Jackson statue and could hold individual city councilmembers responsible.

Toscano's bill would nullify the monument protections of that law.

It also affects Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy. In 2018, the Monument Avenue Commission recommended removal of a statue of Jefferson Davis in Richmond and providing contextual elements to other statues on Monument Avenue of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart.

The bill also allows any war monument to be erected for any American conflict dating back to Algonquin in 1622 to the Global War on Terrorism.

The bill has been referred to committee. Read the full text of the bill here.

Similar bills proposed in the past have never made it to a floor vote.