VIRGINIA — Earlier this year, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer voted against moving the Robert E. Lee statue out of a city park. Instead, he wanted to create “a new context” around the statue of the Confederate general.
Now Signer has changed his mind. He wants Lee gone ASAP.
“I think everything changed last weekend,” Signer said Friday on CNN’s “AC360,” referring to the violence that broke out when white supremacists and neo-Nazis came to demonstrate against the removal of the statue and clashed with counterprotesters.
“I think that was one of those moments in the nation’s history where everything turns,” he said. “I’ve been likening it in my mind to Dylann Roof, and the water hoses on the peaceful protesters in Birmingham, or Joseph Welch confronting McCarthy, saying ‘At long last, have you no decency?'”
“All of a sudden these statues of Civil War generals installed in the Jim Crow era, they became touchstones of terror,” he continued, “the twisted totems that people are clearly drawn to, trying to create a whole architecture of intimidation and hatred around them that was visited around our town. It was evil.”
Moved by memorial service
Signer said his personal pivot moment came during a memorial service for Heather Heyer, 32, who was killed when a man attending the rally allegedly plowed a car into a group of counterprotesters. Signer said he didn’t wanted her life to be forgotten.
In a statement issued Friday, the mayor laid out a plan. “And so 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,” he said.
He asked that the Virginia legislature meet in emergency session to change the law so the city could swiftly take down its Confederate monuments — a request not likely to be granted, according to a spokesman for the governor.
Signer also called for a memorial to honor Heyer and legislation that would allow local authorities to ban “open or concealed carry of weapons” at public events where they might pose a security threat.
A weekend of violence
The protests have pulled Signer into the spotlight, though he’s no stranger to Democratic politics.
He unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor, worked as counsel for then-Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and served in John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign. He wrote a book about political demagogues. He’s now employed as general counsel at WillowTree, Inc., a mobile development company in Charlottesville.
As mayor, he is not vested with the unilateral power to change policy, as many mayors are. He’s an elected city council member chosen to be mayor by fellow council members, not the voting public. Any ordinance or policy change has to be done by a majority vote of the council.
Signer was on the losing side in February when the city council voted to remove the Lee statue, rename the location to Emancipation Park and sell the monument.
The council vote inflamed hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis who flowed into Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia. The violence left Heyer dead and 19 people injured. Two law enforcement officers died when a helicopter crashed.
Governor’s executive order
The statue of Lee still stands. A judge issued a temporary injunction in May stopping the city from moving it for six months. A hearing in the lawsuit is set for later in August.
That litigation is why Gov. Terry McAuliffe is unlikely to call the special session Signer requested, McAuliffe’s spokesman, Brian Coy, said Friday.
In the interim, Charlottesville Police say they are providing extra protection for the Lee statue out of concern for vandalism. Elsewhere in the country, like in Durham, North Carolina, crowds have pulled down or defaced Confederate monuments.
It’s unclear if Signer wants to move the statue of General Stonewall Jackson, which the city council has not yet voted to move.
McAuliffe signed an executive order on Friday that temporarily bans any protests at a Lee monument in Richmond until the state government can draw up new regulations.
A Heyer memorial
Signer said he will propose to the City Council and “stakeholders in our community” that steps be taken to “memorialize” Heyer’s “name and legacy.”
“Many good options may surface from our creative and loving community, and we should consider them all seriously, including whether Emancipation Park could include Heather’s memory in some fashion,” he said. “However we ultimately decide to remember Heather, it should be in a way that tells the truth of what happened in our city — before, during and after August 12, 2017 — and that should, again, magnify her voice.”
He said the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation has launched a “Heal Charlottesville Fund,” an initiative that “will work to provide immediate assistance and stabilization to residents, dialogues on reconciliation, and programs for restoration and healing.”