When Mayor Levar Stoney proffered a “mend it, don’t end it” approach to our Confederate monument question, he clearly intended to straddle the fence on a contentious issue.
Well, the fence is on fire.
Wednesday night’s standing-room-only hearing by the Monument Avenue Commission suggests that adding context to the monuments, rather than removing them, will not tamp down emotions.
The mayor’s moderate approach — in contrast to more aggressive removal efforts in Charlottesville, New Orleans and elsewhere — left a trail of jeers on both sides of the issue and collapsed the middle ground he sought.
“They’ve taken off the table the obvious option of taking the statues down,” said activist Phil Wilayto of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality. “This commission is illegitimate. It cannot be the body that decides what happens to the statues.”
On the other side of the issue, one pro-monuments speaker said tourists do not want to see a politically correct Monument Avenue. And another assured the audience that any context at the statues would be “nasty,” “racist” and “vile.”
Or as Jim Leach of Williamsburg said: “I think it’s a mistake to do anything to these monuments. I believe it’s a sacrilege.”
“I believe desecration of these monuments will increase racial strife, not lessen it,” he said. “I would request that the blue-ribbon commission not be run as an African-American 101 class.”
Call it a sign of the times, but dialogue nowadays is overrated; our capacity to change hearts and minds, critically challenged. Folks come to any debate armed with a bad attitude and their own set of facts, such as the speaker who said slavery existed 89 years in the U.S. (Well, yes, if one ignores the additional century and a half of African subjugation before the Declaration of Independence.)
As a result, you get the sort of tone deafness that led one speaker to fondly refer to Gen. Robert E. Lee as “Marse Robert.”
The evening was long on polemical speeches and short on constructive suggestions, unless you like the idea of a separate monuments row for black heroes on the Boulevard. The irony of segregating statues seemed lost Wednesday.
After a while, it became difficult to see the event leading anywhere useful, as Paul Benson noted before leaving the event. “It’s not a conversation anymore. It’s a theater of the absurd.”
The mayor was absent from Wednesday’s hearing, attending a leadership fellowship program in Salt Lake City. There were moments Wednesday night when I wished for even more distance from the proceedings. I suspected that co-chair Gregg Kimball, the night’s designated referee, was making a mental note to contact his travel agent.
But afterward, Kimball, the director of education and outreach at the Library of Virginia, was keeping hope alive.
“Democracy is messy,” he said. “I could not see doing this process without public hearings.”
But public sentiment has always tended to trail movements of social change. Activist Bree Newsome, in the aftermath of the murder of nine black churchgoers by a Confederate sympathizer in Charleston, did not wait for a referendum before climbing a flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol and removing the Confederate battle flag.
Soon, it was permanently removed.
Wednesday night at the Virginia Historical Society, we were also confronted with questions of proximity and who gets a say. As attendee Thomas Raper observed, a number of the speakers lived outside the Richmond metro area. “They literally took the place of locals that could have spoken,” he said. (Others were turned away at the door of the overflow gathering.)
The lottery system that governed speakers was also hit-and-miss, with some people allowed to voice an opinion without a number and others talking beyond the allotted time.
There were moments of simplicity, clarity and humanity.
“I stand here on the backs of my ancestors who helped build Virginia. But I don’t see that reflected on Monument Avenue,” said Thelma Brown of Richmond. “Virginia has a debt to pay, and we’re waiting.”
But if Monument Avenue lacks diversity — Arthur Ashe notwithstanding — so did an audience that was no more than 10 percent African-American.
Perhaps we were put off by the narrow scope of the mayor’s charge. “This is not an inclusive nor comprehensive discussion due to (Stoney’s) limitation,” Raper surmised.
Maybe. I say there’s no excuse for black folks not to engage this issue unless they’re fine with the status quo.
Amid the revisionist history, the groans, the boos and the flame-throwing, it was left to former Richmond City Councilman Chuck Richardson to be the voice of reason.
“We see different things, and it hurts us,” he said. “We need to forgive you, and you need to ask forgiveness.”
That moment ended moments later when a speaker complained that “we need to stop bowing down in the face of political correctness.”
So much for the premature kudos of Richmond being a shining example of how to handle this matter with civility. Some issues don’t lend themselves to compromise or appeasement.
Perhaps it was delusional to think there was an acrimony-free path toward reconciliation. Consensus on how to address Richmond’s Confederate monuments has the look of a lost cause.