We CAN remove a war memorial! Governor vetoes HB 587

Did you know about §15.2-1812 of the Code of Virginia?? If it weren’t for HB 587, we wouldn’t either! Allow us to explain.

Photo by: TerryBrock

Update #2 — March 10, 2016; 7:30 PM

Guys, wait, wait, the governor has vetoed HB 587! While we still really should get rid of § 15.2-1812 entirely, since localities still are not allowed to tear down war memorials (even if they were the ones who erected them), IF they were erected after 1998. But this veto does not close the (unintentional) 1998 loophole.

In any possible interpretation, this is a larger government (the state) not wanting to encroach on the autonomy of a smaller government (Virginia localities)

Here’s McAuliffe’s statement:

March 10, 2016

Pursuant to Article V, Section 6, of the Constitution of Virginia, I veto House Bill 587, which overrides the authority of local governments to remove or modify monuments or war memorials erected before 1998.

The rich history of our Commonwealth is one of our great assets. My administration strongly supports historic preservation efforts, including the preservation of war memorials and monuments. However, this legislation would have been a sweeping override of local authority over these monuments and memorials including potential ramifications for interpretive signage to tell the story of some of our darkest moments during the Civil War.

There is a legitimate discussion going on in localities across the Commonwealth regarding whether to retain, remove, or alter certain symbols of the Confederacy. These discussions are often difficult and complicated. They are unique to each community’s specific history and the specific monument or memorial being discussed. This bill effectively ends these important conversations.

I am committed to supporting a constructive dialogue regarding the preservation of war memorials and monuments, but I do not support this override of local authority.

Accordingly, I veto this bill.


Terence R. McAuliffe

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Update #1 — March 1, 2016; 11:09 AM

The Senate has passed HB 587 with 21 supporting and 17 opposed (this is a much closer margin than the House vote, which was 82-16). The governor could still choose to veto, which, again, would only keep the “pre-1998” loophole open. New legislation would still need to be introduced and passed next year in order to cancel out § 15.2-1812 of the Code of Virginia (see original post below).

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Original — February 23, 2016

Remember last summer when everyone in town briefly argued with each other about whether or not we should remove from public ground monuments that honor Confederate dudes?

To recap, after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine Black people in a Charleston church, various Southern cities started shifting around in their figurative chairs, suddenly uncomfortable with how they’ve been treating the Confederate symbols that Roof loved to brandish. Do these symbols–the flag, the monuments, the roads, the schools, the public buildings that honor Confederate leaders–mean threatening things to other people? Yep! Do they mean non-threatening things to others? Yep!

Well, actually, only sort of. “Pride in their heritage” isn’t threatening to those who are taking pride in it. But the heritage they’re taking pride in here is, by virtue of the symbols they’re choosing, the heritage of going to war to preserve an economy based on owning other human beings. Personally, I’d rather choose other Southern symbols to represent my heritage. How about a magnolia? A buttermilk pie? A shirt that says “Y’all” in huge letters?

Why not just say, “Whoops, sorry it seems like we still espouse racism, that was not our intention in keeping these monuments up. We’ll go ahead and put them in a museum or sell them to a private bidder.”

The Economist had some great things to say about New Orleans’ mayor’s (successful) call to remove their Confederate statues (emphasis mine).

The “removers,” led by the mayor, quite reasonably noted that few Nazis are commemorated in modern Germany. They also pointed out that public spaces are routinely transformed: it’s what cities do.

Lee Circle, for instance–the iconic roundabout near New Orleans’ downtown where the general presides from a lofty perch–used to be called Tivoli Circle, and it had no such statue. It was only in 1884, when the city’s whites were trying to remind blacks of their place in the racial pecking order, that the column on which Lee stands was erected.

As is inevitable in such debates, the “slippery slope” argument was raised. In this case, it took the form of: where will we stop? Will every monument honoring someone with political views that don’t comport with modern mores be removed? What about Andrew Jackson, who famously persecuted native Americans and whose statue and name adorns the city’s riverfront square in the French quarter?

That argument was fairly easily demolished. [Mayor] Landrieu and others pointed out that the line could be easily drawn by asking why a particular person was being honored publicly. If the honour primarily owed to that person’s support for a cause like segregation, or the Confederacy, then perhaps the monument should come down. That logic would leave a personage like Jackson–who inarguably did some terrible things, but is honored in New Orleans for defending the city during the War of 1812–unaffected.

As we outlined back in July, Richmond’s monuments were erected during specific pivotal years. They were essentially big middle fingers to those who wanted to give African Americans equal rights–and to serve as towering reminders to those living in town that Richmond shall never bend to those integration-loving jerks from the northernly direction! (It eventually did, thank goodness).

The ferocity to which 21st century citizens cling to these symbols is alarming (the guy who got the contract to remove the statues in New Orleans had his car set on fire in his company’s parking lot and has since bailed from the project). The arguments we had about it last summer made me feel physically ill. Is dedicating your energy to preserving the statues of these men really how you’d like to spend your time? Is there another way you can feel Southern pride? Must it always be wrapped up in this bloody conflict?

Turns out…

Your answer should be “No, it’s not worth my time to chain myself to the monuments,” however you feel. Because it turns out we couldn’t take the statues down anyway. At the very least, there would be a really strong case from state attorneys that Richmond voting to remove the statues would be illegal.

Feast your eyes on § 15.2-1812 of the Code of Virginia, which tells us that…

A locality may, within the geographical limits of the locality, authorize and permit the erection of monuments or memorials for any war or conflict, or for any engagement of such war or conflict, to include the following monuments or memorials: Algonquin (1622), French and Indian (1754-1763), Revolutionary (1775-1783), War of 1812 (1812-1815), Mexican (1846-1848), Confederate or Union monuments or memorials of the War Between the States (1861-1865), Spanish-American (1898), World War I (1917-1918), World War II (1941-1945), Korean (1950-1953), Vietnam (1965-1973), Operation Desert Shield-Desert Storm (1990-1991), Global War on Terrorism (2000- ), Operation Enduring Freedom (2001- ), and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003- ).

If such are erected, it shall be unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected, or to prevent its citizens from taking proper measures and exercising proper means for the protection, preservation and care of same. For purposes of this section, “disturb or interfere with” includes removal of, damaging or defacing monuments or memorials, or, in the case of the War Between the States, the placement of Union markings or monuments on previously designated Confederate memorials or the placement of Confederate markings or monuments on previously designated Union memorials.

The language “if such are erected,” creates a slight and unintentional loophole that makes it seem like this might only apply to memorials erected after the legislation was entered into the Code (i.e. 1998).

The General Assembly is closing that loophole right up with HB 587, which passed the House and is likely to pass the Senate. This bill adds some language to the code that makes it clear that it applies to all monuments past, present, and future.

I spoke with Chris Peace, delegate of the 97th district and co-patron of HB 587, about the intent of the law.

“I think the policy is that we honor our veterans,” he says. “We honor those who have sacrificed for our freedoms, and if there was a decision made at a particular point in time that would recognize those actions of Americans, then it really shouldn’t be up to the whims of a new generation to undo that. At some point if George Washington becomes very unpopular, should we remove his statue from the Capitol?”

However! Does George really represent a war? Does the legislation’s protection extend to individuals? George Washington fought in a war, sure, but means more to us as a symbol of lots of other things. One could certainly argue that, say, Robert E. Lee is a symbol of things both positive and negative to different people…but not necessarily when he serves as a representative of the soldiers who died in the Civil War.

Chris considered that, and said “It only really speaks to monuments or memorials for any war or conflict or for any engagement of any such war or conflict, so it doesn’t speak–I don’t think now reading this–to individuals. But I think one could argue that if there’s a monument to a particular individual, like A.P. Hill, that that’s also a monument or a memorial to that effort, or related to that war or conflict.”

Thus, §15.2-1812 is most likely enforced using that same New Orleans logic–that we should consider the spirit in which the monuments were erected–only in reverse. If it’s an individual who represents the cause of a war, the hands-off-this-statue rule probably applies.

And if Richmond can’t remove our monuments, who can?

“That’s an interesting thought,” says Chris Peace. “It’s silent on who has the authority to remove [them].”

So what’s the next step for Richmond’s “removers,” as they call them in New Orleans? They could encourage lawmakers to take a closer look at §15.2-1812 and make sure we have some sort of process that allows us to decide we definitively do not currently agree with the spirit in which the monuments were erected and the specific aspect of the individual that the public wished to honor at that time.

Talk to your representative about getting a bill drafted for next year. In the meantime, you can write your representatives about this loophole closer, which will be read by the Senate Local Government committee today, February 23rd–Midlothian has a couple reps in the committee itself. When it comes up for a vote, your representative may just listen to you.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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