Richmond City Council rejects councilman’s proposal on removal of Monument Avenue statues
By MARK ROBINSON
The Richmond City Council on Monday rejected a proposal to request the Virginia General Assembly grant the city authority to remove the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue.
The council rebuffed the proposal, put forth by 9th District Councilman Michael Jones, with six members opposed. A majority of council members said after an hourlong public hearing that they would not support Jones’ plan because Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s Monument Avenue Commission had not finished its public engagement process and rendered its recommendations.
In remarks before the hearing and the council vote, Jones made a passionate plea to his colleagues to support his proposal and do what he said was “morally right” by asking the state to give the council the authority to “control its own destiny” on the issue.
“To do anything to (the monuments) — whether you’re adding or taking away — we’re still going to need the General Assembly’s approval,” Jones said. “As a locality, I think we should have that right to say what it is we want to do.”
Ellen F. Robertson, the 6th District councilwoman, voted for Jones’ proposal. Cynthia I. Newbille, the council’s vice president, abstained.
The vote came after an hourlong public hearing that saw 23 speakers weigh in on the proposal and the larger discussion of the future of the monuments to Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson; the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis; and oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury, who served as a Confederate naval commander.
Ten people opposed the request. They argued that the monuments were historically and culturally relevant and that removing them would hurt tourism in the city or squander an opportunity for education or reconciliation.
“If I lived in any other city, I would 100 percent agree with you,” said Ned Ruffin, who said he did not support the proposal. He added later: “I do think we have an incredibly unique opportunity to add context, to teach folks about what was wrong and what can be right.”
On the other side, 13 speakers who supported Jones’ proposal and the removal or relocation of the monuments maintained that the statues were symbols of white supremacy that stood as an insult to many who call Richmond home, and could not be reinterpreted in a way that would change that.
“Earlier it was mentioned we should have pride in our history; I cannot explain to a black child why they should take pride in that statue being there,” said LeSean Greene. “I cannot find it in me to have a reason to say that ‘You should be proud of that statue.’”
Jones introduced the proposal in September. In it, he wrote that a white nationalist rally held in Charlottesville in August “demonstrates that memorials to historical figures associated with the Confederate States of America such as these five statues on Monument Avenue continue to inspire racial division.”
He presented the request of the General Assembly as an alternate path the council could take on monument removal, rather than deferring to Stoney’s Monument Avenue Commission. He also said in August that he was intent on getting his fellow council members on the record on the matter.
Many council members were skeptical of the proposal from the start, saying the council had other priorities to focus on.
Jones countered Monday, saying the city could “walk and chew gum” at the same time, balancing its consideration of the future of the monuments with its discussions of public education, crime prevention and neighborhood revitalization.
Others said they wanted to hear Stoney’s commission’s findings, and echoed that point Monday, lobbying Jones to continue the proposal until the panel wraps up its work.
“We’ve yet to conclude what our next best steps are,” said 1st District representative Andreas Addison, who serves on the commission.
Newbille, the 7th District representative, said delaying a vote would allow for a broader conversation with citizens about what she called a “polarizing” issue.
“I want to hear the full continuum of options,” Newbille said.
Stoney appointed the 10-person commission in July, tasking it with prescribing how the city could “add context” to the Confederate monuments. After Charlottesville, Stoney later expanded his charge to the commission to include a consideration of removal or relocation.
Last month, the commission members decided to hold meetings with community groups interested in the issue at their request. Those meetings will take place beginning in January, and the commission will make recommendations to Stoney in May.
The city has little latitude to remove the monuments, according to a legal opinion from City Attorney Allen Jackson sent to council members in September. Beyond the charter provision Jones wanted to change, a 1997 amendment to state law forbids localities from removing war memorials.
In October, a judge ruled that the law protects Charlottesville’s Lee statue, which the city’s council had voted to remove, triggering a lawsuit from a pro-statue group that includes pro-Confederates. Richmond could face similar court battles if it chooses to pursue statue removal, unless state lawmakers change the rule.
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