After a woman died in Charlottesville, Virginia, during last summer’s violent protests over the removal of two Confederate statues, the city hung black tarps over the controversial monuments to mark a period of mourning. But as Matthew Haag of the New York Times reports, a judge has now ordered the city to take down the tarps, arguing that their presence interferes with the public’s right to view the statues.
Judge Richard E. Moore of the Charlottesville Circuit Court has given the city 15 days to remove the shrouds that are draped over monuments to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. According to Phil Gast of CNN, the lawsuit claimed that the city had overstepped its bounds in deciding to cover the statues after the tragedy.
The Confederate statues were at the heart of the rally last August, when hundreds of white nationalists converged in Charlottesville to protest the city’s efforts to take the monuments down. The rally turned deadly when a man drove a car into a crowd of protestors, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Two Virginia State Police troopers also died when their helicopter crashed during patrols of the rally.
Charlottesville's city council had voted unanimously to shroud the statues in the aftermath of the three deaths. In the subsequent months, however, an informal battle to keep the tarps on has been fought as a group led by self-described "white advocate" Jason Kessler has removed the tarps from the statues multiple times, forcing officials to pay to replace the tarps in multiple instances.
Haag reports that Judge Moore has blocked previous attempts to force the city to unveil the monuments, allowing the tarps to temporarily remain in place. But in his ruling on Tuesday, he criticized officials for failing to define the length of time that the statues would be covered.
“I cannot find that council ever intended for them to be temporary and they have never, until recently, even discussed that possibility,” he wrote in a letter to lawyers.
During the trial proceedings, the court heard from a funeral director in Charlottesville, who said that public mourning generally lasts for a period of 30 to 40 days, reports Caleb Stewart of WHSV. Ultimately, though, Judge Moore said that the case was “not a matter of the ‘mourning’ having gone on too long.” The tarps, he argued, violated the public’s right to view the monuments.
“The harm to defendants from removing the tarps and not being able to shield them until the matter goes to trial is outweighed by the harm to plaintiffs and the general public in not being able to view or enjoy them,” he wrote in his decision. Brian Wheeler, Charlottesville's director of communications, has not yet commented on whether the city will appeal the ruling.
The court is not expected to decide the fate of the statues themselves until later this year. Prior to the white nationalist rally in August, the city council had voted to take the Lee statue down and redesign the Jackson monument. Several groups, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans, subsequently sued the city in an effort to block its plans.
Under Virginia law, Charlottesville does not have the authority to remove certain monuments and war memorials, and the city has been unsuccessful in its efforts to lobby the State Legislature for more autonomy in this matter. While the legal case is still pending, city officials have issued a plan to erect additional monuments and markers in the parks where the contentious statues stand.
Wheeler tells Gast of CNN that the “basic goal is to provide a more complete history of our community that includes the history of slavery and addresses the community's concerns about the history of white supremacy.”