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Charlottesville plans to melt Robert E. Lee statue to create public art installation


Racial justice advocates in Charlottesville, Va., are reclaiming one of the symbols that sparked a deadly and violent white nationalist rally five years ago this week. The city has approved a plan to melt down a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and create a more inclusive public art installation. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports it is one of several anti-hate initiatives in response to the white supremacist violence there in 2017.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: In a downtown Charlottesville park, grass now grows over the spot where Robert E. Lee sat astride his horse, Traveller.

DON GATHERS: It's different. It's much more serene.

ELLIOTT: Don Gathers is a co-founder of the local Black Lives Matter group and served on a citizens advisory committee that recommended Charlottesville remove Confederate symbols from public spaces. He was among the hundreds of counterprotesters who turned out five years ago to stand against the white nationalists fighting to protect the Lee statue.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Chanting) Black lives matter. Black lives matter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting) Blood and soil. Blood and soil.

ELLIOTT: On the night of August 11, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansman and other white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia campus bearing torches. The next day, they showed up at the downtown park.

GATHERS: It's not what you can remember. It's what you're still trying to forget. I remember the entire day, all the hatefulness and the evilness that that that that transpired here.

ELLIOTT: Here's how KKK leader David Duke described the mission during the Unite the Right rally.


DAVID DUKE: This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We're going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump because he said he's going to take our country back.

ELLIOTT: Gathers recalls things escalated quickly.

GATHERS: As they lobbed all manner of things - rocks, soda cans filled with concrete and cement, water bottles filled with urine, tear gas and smoke grenades and literally every 5 to 7 feet, I'd say, fights breaking out.

ELLIOTT: Gather says police didn't intervene until the governor declared a state of emergency and shut down the rally. Later, as white supremacists spread through town, a neo-Nazi rammed his car through a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of people. Two state police officers monitoring the scene died in a helicopter crash. His hometown was ravaged by white supremacists. Because of President Trump, Gather says, they felt they had cover to come out of the shadows.

GATHERS: No longer are they embarrassed. They are emboldened. Much of that goes to the credit of 45, with his continuous dog whistles to them. And, you know, no one wanted to accept that or believe it as it was unfolding. But after August 11 and 12 Charlottesville, there was January 6.

ELLIOTT: As the fighting broke out in Charlottesville, Trump responded by placing equal blame on the anti-racists and the white supremacists.


DONALD TRUMP: This egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.

ELLIOTT: Days later, reporters questioned his response. Trump declared that there were, quote, "very fine people" on both sides.

EMILY GORCENSKI: I think that Charlottesville was the early warning sign.

ELLIOTT: Anti-hate activist Emily Gorcenski.

GORCENSKI: You can draw a straight line from the events of Charlottesville to January 6.

ELLIOTT: Gorcenski, a transgender woman, was attacked during Unite the Right events in Charlottesville and pepper-sprayed by a white supremacist who later pleaded guilty to assault charges. After a series of death threats, she moved to Germany but remains active in fighting the groups responsible for what happened in her hometown. Her experience led her to use her training as a data scientist to track white supremacists and neo-Nazis through online projects called First Vigil and HowHateSleeps.

GORCENSKI: There isn't awareness of the ways that these white supremacist groups recruit, attract members, share their ideology, share their messaging. And that's a real problem because we can't simply eliminate the groups to solve the problem. We have to eliminate the undercurrents of white supremacy that give rise to these groups.

ELLIOTT: Another project in Charlottesville is trying to upend the narrative around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It's called Swords Into Ploughshares and is being overseen by the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. Here's director Andrea Douglas.

ANDREA DOUGLAS: Taking something that was harmful and then transforming it into something that is useful and of the cultural desire of the place.

ELLIOTT: The city donated the statue to the Heritage Center after approving its plan to melt down the bronze and use it for a new work of public art. Two groups have filed a lawsuit trying to stop the plan, but Douglas says they're moving ahead and gathering public input.

DOUGLAS: This is about doing something different than what was done before. Before, one portion of this community made decisions about what would be in our common spaces and negated the voice that, had it not been for Jim Crow, could have had a voice. So we are trying to return that voice.

ELLIOTT: Douglas says the idea is to create an inviting and equitable space where all of Charlottesville can interact with one another and the reworked art. For Don Gathers, it's still hard to come to the park where Robert E. Lee stood sentry since 1924.

GATHERS: It's kind of surreal because the ghost of his presence still permeates heavily in this space.

ELLIOTT: Much like the country, he says, it feels like there are warring spirits vying for dominance. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Charlottesville, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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