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Opinion/Editorial: Statues surrender to public

Opinion/Editorial: Statues surrender to public

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In less than 48 hours, Charlottesville’s — and UVa’s — agonized relationships with their McIntire-legacy statues were largely severed. All that remains now is to tie up some loose ends.

But that rapid denouement followed literally years of argument, anger, division and, yes, death.

On June 7, Charlottesville City Council voted — again — to remove the two Confederate statues in downtown parks. The original decision came in 2017.

In 2019, Council had approved removal of the Meriwether Lewis/William Clark/Sacagawea statue.

Last year, the University of Virginia’s board voted to divest itself of its statue of George Rogers Clark.

Implementing these decisions has been delayed in part by a state law protecting “war memorials” and by a suit against the city claiming the law applied to the Confederate generals.

In the meanwhile, Charlottesville and UVa endured a dual assault by white supremacists on the weekend of Aug. 11-12, 2017, which had been billed as a protest against removing the Robert E. Lee statue. The rally served as a focal point for alt-right agitators, and ended in the death of one counter-protester and injuries to many others.

That tragedy plunged the Charlottesville community into deep suffering, and shocked the nation.

It also stiffened activists’ resolve to eliminate the statues, a goal shared by many in the General Assembly after a Democratic majority took hold following the 2019 election. The legislature modified the war memorials law, clearing the way for localities to remove these statues.

Charlottesville has spent the past month meeting the law’s requirements. As soon as a mandated waiting period was over, it took decisive action.

But it acted in initial secrecy. The city issued a press release confirming the removal apparently only after that intent already had become clear. The city also acted under an “emergency” order that it did not explain.

There is value in moving quickly, without announcing the removal well in advance: That would have alerted white supremacists, who might have had time to organize another protest — and put more lives at risk.

But some notice would have been appropriate for — and respectful to — local residents. As it was, word got out quickly, and many locals crowded into viewing spots this past Saturday to watch the generals be lifted from their pedestals and trucked into storage.

Those removals went so smoothly, in fact, that the council held another emergency meeting on Saturday and approved the removal of the Sacagawea statue for later in the day.

UVa, meanwhile, had begun in mid-June to seek a contractor to remove its statue. On July 6, it signed an agreement for removal to occur on July 11, yesterday. The same company won both the city and university contracts.

As of this writing, the process at all locations has proceeded smoothly, without violence.

And as we’ve said before, Charlottesville has the right to change its mind on philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire’s statue gifts, as does UVa. Both entities are responding to public sentiment, which has rapidly come to view the statues as demeaning and even dangerous, to the extent they could encourage further violence. The statues ultimately are public property, and the public has changed its mind about them.

The statues now will be put in storage, while Charlottesville and UVa fulfill the section of the law governing their ultimate disposition.

This tying up of loose ends may appear to be anti-climactic, but it is not inconsequential. Controversy still remains over what to do with the statues.

That said, the major part of the fight at hand is over. The statues are down. They no longer preside over public spaces, sending messages that do not reflect growing public sentiment.

May the next phase of debate be conducted in a spirit of both thoughtfulness and compassion for all this community has endured.

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