Richmond public meeting: the future of Monument Avenue

After my delightful time in the Charlottesville Historical Society researching the Lee Statue, and lunch with my brother, author Stefan Bechtel, I drove to Richmond for the public meeting on the future of Monument Avenue and its Confederate monuments, which was to be held in the Virginia Historical Society building (adjacent to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts). I arrived about 4:30, two hours ahead of the scheduled meeting time.  Coming up to the entrance, I was puzzled, then moved by this remarkable  sculpture on the plaza. What a bony, beaten-looking animal, to be memorialized in bronze, just beside the front door!  Then I came around to the street side, and saw the inscription: In memory of the one and one half million horses and mules of the Confederate and Union armies who were killed, were wounded, or died from disease in the Civil War. Only a few days earlier I had been sculpting “Dante, the Donkey,” and thus had been reading about, and seeing images from, the long history of heavy labor and casual abuse which donkeys have endured over the centuries, and because  all the way from Charlottesville I had been listening to an audio book, “News of the World,” by Paulette Giles, a novel rich with details about hard working horses.

I lingered long enough with this memorial, that I stepped into the building with only 15 minutes remaining before closing time; enough time, however, to be overwhelmed by a room of  vivid, masterful murals by Charles Hoffbauer. Truly, the story of the Confederacy is deeply woven into the history of Richmond.







The guard gave me a kindly “five minutes until closing” warning, and so I thanked her, and exited into the warm evening. Hungry, I walked down North Boulevard a few blocks, and got myself a small cheese and mushroom pizza and carton of milk, and returned to the VHS, where I enjoyed my pizza at a table on the plaza, and listened to a fellow occupying the next table talking on his phone, explaining, after describing certain hospital procedures, about the Monuments, a subject on which he was clearly well informed.  Along the street, camera crews were setting up. Finished with supper, I walked around the side of the building to the auditorium, where the  meeting was to be held. I had supposed that arriving 30 minutes early would certainly be adequate, but I was wrong: the atrium was already packed, with two long lines snaking their way slowly toward a sign-in table. There were a number of gentleman, some in long beards, gaudily decked out in hats and vests bespangled with Confederate badges and other memorabilia. I got in the line for people who wanted to speak, and was given a lottery number, “25,” and a program. With these items,  I went into the auditorium,  and chose out a good seat at a middle distance from the stage.

By the time the meeting started at 6:45, every seat was taken, and  cameras on tripods were lined up all along the back wall. Members of a special commission, convened Mayor Stoney for the express purpose of deciding how best to deal with the Confederate monuments, sat in a line on stage. But as their spokesperson told us, they were present to listen, not to speak; in particular, commission members were asking that persons address two questions, posted on a screen: 1) what “context” should be added to the monuments; and 2) what people or events should be memorialized in additional monuments. Having gone over these,  the moderator called out lottery numbers, and persons with these numbers made their way to a microphone. Speakers were told they had two minutes to speak, and a large time clock with bright read numbers counted down their time by the second. Everyone was asked to be civil. And so, one by one, citizens, mainly from Richmond, stepped to the microphone at the nod of a facilitator, and spoke their peace. Initially, most speakers spoke fondly of Richmond’s rich past, and the importance of preserving Monument Avenue and its statues as they were; other speakers, teachers among them, were in favor of adding contextual signage, of some kind; an occasional speaker was told enough to suggest removal.  A reasonable consensus was clear.

However, after about the first thirty minutes or so, speakers began to stretch their two-minute limit, and dispense with prepared remarks for more extemporaneous ones. Simple introductions–name and address–expanded into brief family histories, including, when possible, links to ancestors, especially  Confederate soldiers, with rank achieved and battles fought. Listeners, rather than remaining politely silent, for the most part, became more vocal–applauding, cheering, or speaking out of turn. People down front waved papers which said, in large letters: NO CONTEXT/NO COMPROMISE. Unfortunately, the moderator, a nice enough fellow, I’m sure, preferred not to exercise much control, beyond remarking, in a plaintive tone, when the audience began too demonstrative, or the speaker too emphatic, “oh, now, do we really need that?” This only elicited titters. Eventually, speakers discarded restraint altogether, and treated the audience to harangues, sermonettes, or condensed history lessons. In retrospect, there was a certain comic element to this, but in the moment only a sense that resignation would be required: people were bound and determined to speak what they had come to speak, never mind what the commissioners were asking for. Things really started to get out of hand when a young man, who began by reading prepared remarks, discarded the pretense and began shouting, seemingly at everyone in the room older than fifty: “you lost the war! Get over it!” He then thrust his fist in the air and exclaimed, “down with white supremacy!” Raucous cheers broke out from a contingent of millennials near the back. This outburst deserved a rejoinder, of course, and a tall young man in a ten-gallon hat delivered: he’d been handing out postcards before the meeting, and now went over the contents of these cards: the explicit symbolism of each monument, from Lee on down. A young woman came to the microphone, and began, apologetically, reading text from her phone, and promising to hurry. Apparently, she was hurrying to get to her tirade, which was a doozy, as she fairly screamed that the monuments must be removed, which then shifted into a battle cry for people to join her in Charlottesville the following Saturday to counter the white supremacists. She finally had to be ushered from the room, still shouting.

I suppose I had expected this kind of thing from the bespangled Confederate defenders, not from these “liberal” millennials. Their stridency carried a disturbing note of vindictiveness, an almost Cromwellian desire to smash and destroy. A Monuments defender, shortly afterwards asked, “what will they get rid of next, the American flag?” He gestured to the flag on stage. “Thirteen stripes for thirteen slave holding states.” More cheers.  He shrugged, as if to say, “See?”

President Obama was fond of saying, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Too much of perfect doesn’t allow for much error, or diversity, for that matter. Doctrinal purity is pretty much a straight line to totalitarianism, I think, and such lines can come from the left, just as well as from the right. One thing is for sure: a good moderator is golden! Even with one, a certain a certain mutual respect is required of participants, a willingness to listen, as well as speak. Do we still know how to do that?