How much longer does Richmond think it can get away with not addressing the myriad of complex issues surrounding the city’s Confederate symbols? While the city conveniently ignores this ticking time-bomb, in the past week, we have seen protests and arrests in New Orleans during the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. And in Charlottesville on Saturday night a rabble of torch bearing white nationalists, led by none other than “alt-right” poster child Richard Spencer, surrounded the statue of Robert E. Lee in Lee Park – also scheduled for removal.
The Charlottesville story has now broken in multiple national and international news outlets.
But before we move forward, let’s take a moment to acknowledge just how threatening a rabble of torch bearing white nationalists is and the historical message that this conveys to communities of color. The fact that this kind of demonstration can even be planned should provide a barometer on just how emboldened the forces of white nationalism have become.
This cannot be overstated as we brace ourselves for the continued fight over our city’s own Confederate symbols, no matter how hard certain elements within the city want to maintain the status quo.
These tensions do not exist in a vacuum, however. What the Mayor and Richmond’s City Council needs to consider is that baseless claims of ‘preserving heritage’ continue to be a red herring that masks something much more insidious. Such claims are now being compelled by a re-energized brand of extremist politics, which is fusing old hatreds with populist resentments in what has become the modern Republican Party.
As an example, look no further than the campaign advertisements by leading Republican Candidates in Virginia, whether or not it is the second place GOP gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart (see above) and his very public obsession with Confederate symbols or Lt. Gov. candidate Bryce Reeve’s fear mongering against our Muslim neighbors (see below).
This is the backdrop and political climate which our elected officials now have to make the determination against, as they decide what to do about our own Confederate symbols. Because the time for having it both ways is over, not when emboldened white nationalists’ can engineer a public show of force like they did in Charlottesville on Saturday. This incident should give the city a renewed focus to resolve this issue before something similar happens in our own streets.
The city must also understand that as political and social entrenchment continues to grow and Confederate symbols start to be used more regularly by emerging “alt-right” and white nationalist groups, Richmond will inevitably become the front line of this debate: based on our history, the context in which it still exists and our vast store of available symbols. Knowing this, the city’s leaders need to start providing detailed guidance on how this complex history should be reconciled and the contemporary connection we want associated with it.
Democratic candidate for Governor, Tom Perriello, in light of this incident, has renewed his calls for a statewide commission on racial healing and transformation. City leaders in Richmond should be taking this que and leading this dialogue statewide.
Because no amount of craft brewery openings, beer launches or farm to table restaurants is going to counterbalance the reality of how significant our city is to this debate. Certainly not when the most visible aspects of this conversation remain enshrined in all aspects of the city’s dominant landmarks.
Additionally, given the incident in Charlottesville, now is the time for the city to make a bold statement and actively disengage from any conversation on the issue that might include “preservation of heritage”
This does not mean there is no place for valuable historical insight, very much to the contrary. But we need to recognize these coded terms for what they really represent, which is a communication tactic for “alt-right” groups and white nationalists to further their own supremacist agenda. And until the city elevates all aspects of historical preservation, specifically African American history, to the same status, this line of reasoning remains hypocritical at best and morally corrupt at worst.
Furthermore, we should not be doing the work of these groups for them by engaging in these kinds of maligned conversations. Both Democratic candidates for Governor: Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello, have already strongly condemned what happened in Charlottesville. Yet absent from this conversation is any real position from our own city officials, which seems strange given our relative proximity to Charlottesville and the fact that Richmond is ground zero for this debate.
Given the historical relevance of this city, our role needs to be both symbolic and preeminent in determining the place these symbols should have in public spaces. We need to be setting the example for other southern states and the entire county in how to reconcile past and present, which starts with reducing the role of all Confederate symbols in our city.
This is how Richmond can claim the moniker of the Progressive South.
Anything short of this is just a continuation of the status-quo and setting the stage for a showdown this city is uniquely unprepared for.
Words by Landon Shroder