Charlottesville mayor seeks removal of Confederate monuments, calls Lee statue ‘magnet for terrorism’

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Almost a week after deadly violence on the streets of his city during a white nationalist rally, Charlottesville mayor Mike Signer is asking Virginia’s governor and lawmakers to call an emergency session, with the goal of enabling localities to remove Confederate statues.

In a statement, Signer said the killing of Heather Heyer forced him to change his opinion on whether the statue honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee should be removed from Emancipation Park. Signer had previously voted to leave the statue in place, but add new context around it with plaques or other statues.

“Last weekend changed everything,” wrote Signer. “I realized at Heather’s memorial service that our Confederate statues’ historical meaning has been changed forever.”

“It’s historical meaning now, and forevermore, will be of a magnet for terrorism,” Signer wrote.

Virginia state law says localities cannot disturb existing war memorials.

Charlottesville’s city council voted to remove its statue of Lee, but a circuit court judge issued a 6-month stay after opponents filed a lawsuit. The city intends to sell the Lee statue.

This week, Gov. Terry McAuliffe reversed his previous position on war memorials, saying he now wants Confederate statues relocated to museums, as they have become a “barrier to progress, inclusion and equality in Virginia.”

Signer said last week’s “terrorist attack” and the grace of Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, in seeking “righteous action” in the wake of her daughter’s killing prompted his change of heart.

“We must respond by denying the Nazis and the KKK and the so-called alt-right the twisted totem they seek,” Signer wrote. “For the sake of public safety, public reassurance, to magnify Heather’s voice, and to repudiate the pure evil that visited us here, I am calling today for the removal of these Confederate statues from downtown Charlottesville.”

Signer called on the governor and the General Assembly to come together in a special session “to enable localities to determine the fate of monuments like the Lee statue.”

“Whether they go to museums, cemeteries, or other willing institutions, it is clear that they no longer can be celebrated in shared civic areas, like Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall,” he wrote.

In addition, Signer said he is calling on lawmakers to allow localities to ban the open or concealed carrying of weapons during public events that could reasonably pose a potential security threat.

Hundreds of armed white nationalists legally carried weapons during last Friday night’s torchlit march onto University of Virginia grounds, and Saturday’s rally through downtown Charlottesville.

Scuffles between protesters and counterprotesters did not escalate into gunfire, but 32-year-old Heyer was killed, allegedly by James Alex Fields, Jr., 20, of Ohio, when he drove his Dodge Challenger down 4th Street into a crowd of counterprotesters.

“In a new age of domestic terrorism, we need to re-examine the balance that we strike between public safety and violent protests,” Signer said.

“First, the danger is too great of a catastrophic incident,” he said. “Second, it is intimidating beyond any reasonable standard for citizens, particularly members of vulnerable communities.”

Finally, Signer encouraged Charlottesville residents to consider ways to memorialize Heyer’s name “and ensure her death and the message of her life will never be forgotten.”

Signer referred to Heyer as “a martyr.”

“I believe we must act to consecrate the memory of Heather Heyer,” said Signer, encouraging the city to “take concrete steps to memorialize Heather’s name and legacy.”

Signer originally intended to announce his recommendations in a news conference, but canceled it two hours before it was scheduled to begin.

By late Friday afternoon, McAuliffe had not responded to Signer’s call for a special session.

Late Friday, Charlottesville police charged Fields with five additional felonies — two counts of malicious wounding and three counts of aggravated malicious wounding.

He had previously been charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and hit and run.

On Friday, McAuliffe issued an executive order that halts the issuing of permits and that prohibits demonstrations at Richmond’s Lee Monument until new emergency regulations have been approved and implemented by Virginia’s Department of General Services.

“This is a temporary suspension, issued with the singular purpose of creating fail-safe regulations to preserve the health and well-being of our citizens and ensuring that nothing like what occurred in Charlottesville happens again,” the governor said in a statement.

WTOP’s Jack Pointer contributed to this report.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up