Va. House Democrats want to make it easier for localities to take down Confederate statues

Crews work to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Confederate monuments are already coming down or being marked for removal across Virginia, but the debate over the state-mandated process apparently isn’t over.

As part of their legislative proposals for the upcoming special session, Democrats in the House of Delegates want to revisit the law that took effect in July empowering local governments to begin removing statues. Their goal, according to a news release, is to give localities “greater latitude” to deal with their statues as they see fit.

Under legislation that passed the Democratic-led General Assembly earlier this year, localities can remove Confederate statues only after a public input process and waiting period. Before moving, covering or recontextualizing any war memorial, localities have to print a notice in a local newspaper and wait at least 30 days to hold a mandatory public hearing. 

After the hearing, if the local governing body votes to take action against a monument, the locality has to wait another 30 days while offering the monument  “for relocation and placement to any museum, historical society, government, or military battlefield.”

In an interview, House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, said that “instead of having so many hurdles in the way,” local leaders should be entrusted to make decisions on behalf of those who elected them.

“I think we’re also watching things sort of boil up,” Herring said. “These Confederate statues have been a source of pain for many people.”

The rush to remove Confederate statues this summer is unfolding in an environment few could have predicted when the legislation was being debated at the beginning of 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic and the eruption of widespread civil unrest over police brutality and racism.

The proposal could restart discussions about what kind of deliberative process should accompany the removal of Confederate statues, which were previously protected by a state law Republicans fought unsuccessfully to uphold. The House Democrats’ bill, which has not been introduced yet, is expected to resemble their original proposal from earlier this year, which empowered localities without establishing a detailed process for how they should go about taking statues down. Senate Democrats insisted on including requirements for public engagement, arguing sensitive decisions on war monuments shouldn’t be rushed.

Several localities — most notably the city of Richmond, the former Confederate capital — have sidestepped the legally defined process by saying the monuments have become public safety hazards. In ordering their removal, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney pointed to the fact that statues had been targeted in protests centered on Monument Avenue.

In Portsmouth, a man suffered a severe head injury when he was struck by a Confederate statue pulled down by protesters.

Though most of Richmond’s Confederate monuments have already been put in storage, an anonymous plaintiff filed a lawsuit claiming Stoney’s actions violated state law. A judge approved a 60-day injunction blocking further monument removals, saying the suit raised serious legal questions.

Other localities that have initiated statue removals have said they fully intend to comply with the new process.