By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]
Though Alexandria is more than two hours from Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists hosted a rally on Saturday that resulted in one death and numerous injuries, its impact was deeply felt by city leaders and residents.
The events at Charlottesville prompted, at least in part, the cancellation of a city meeting scheduled for Thursday evening about renaming Jefferson Davis Highway, a name that parts of U.S. 1 goes by within Alexandria city limits.
“The national attention on Charlottesville has generated significant local discussion of related issues. At the very least, the original meeting venue would not have been large enough for the expected crowd and we were concerned about finding a suitable new location and giving proper public notice in time for Thursday night,” City Spokesperson Craig Fifer said in an email. “The Advisory Group was also concerned that given the level of feedback the city is receiving on issues related to Charlottesville, but not the street name, that the hearing could be drowned out by issues not within its scope.”
Fifer said the meetings for Jefferson Davis Highway renaming would still be held on Sept. 25 and Oct. 5, as previously scheduled. A survey where residents can suggest new names is available until Sept. 15 on the city’s website, through the mail and in person, and the advisory group is still expected to give a recommendation to city council on a new name in October.
Former City Councilman Frank Fannon praised the move, saying a meeting at this time would further divide Alexandria residents.
“Thank you for canceling [the hearing]. We do not need the KKK, White Supremacist[s] and other evil people filled with hatred coming into our city,” Fannon said in a statement emailed to city council members. “I know you have been through this discussion and it is not pretty. You will only divide people further with this hearing. The Charlottesville city council has blood on their hands and none of this would have happened if they did not make the 3-2 vote to remove the [Robert E.] Lee Statue.”
Alexandria’s own Confederate statue, named “Appomattox,” for the final battle before Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, sits at the center of the intersection of Washington and Prince streets in Old Town. It depicts a weary, defeated Confederate soldier facing South, presumably toward his fallen comrades.
The Appomattox has been the subject of significant debate over the years. Last year, city council voted unanimously to move the statue, but the state legislature, which would have to pass legislation to make the move possible, has declined to do so.
Mayor Allison Silberberg condemned the events in Charlottesville over the weekend and said city council, through its unanimous vote to rename Jefferson Davis Highway and remove the Appomattox statue, has shown its commitment to diversity.
“What happened in Charlottesville is unbelievably tragic and shocking and there’s no place for intolerance in our community and the hate speech and actions of the white supremacists, KKK and Neo-Nazis have no place in Virginia, nor in America,” Silberberg said.
Silberberg cited Alexandria’s statement on inclusiveness, signed by all councilmembers in November 2016, and said the city will continue to push forward on moving the statue.
“I believe our country can come together and I hope and pray that it does. My thoughts and prayers go out to the loved ones of Heather Heyer, the young woman who died in Charlottesville, as well as the two Virginia State Police Troopers [Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates, who died in a helicopter crash]. It’s unbelievably tragic. Then there are a number of individuals injured and terrorized by these hate groups. We should call it out as it is. That’s not the country we all love,” Silberberg said.
Councilman John Chapman said even before the events in Charlottesville this weekend, the removal of the statue and the renaming of Jefferson Davis Highway have been a priority for city leaders.
“I would start off by saying even before this weekend, it’s been extremely important for us,” Chapman said. “This spotlights the importance of it for people who haven’t been paying attention.”
Chapman said there’s a difference between remembering history and glorifying heroes of the Confederacy.
“By allowing names and statues to continue, we indicate we’re in a lockstep with previous generations,” Chapman said. “This signifies they did something valiant, when history says differently.” The events at Charlottesville led to a local demonstration on Sunday organized by Grassroots Alexandria, which was held near alt-right leader Richard Spencer’s office at 1001 King St. in Old Town.
Dimitry Valueva, who attended the event, said around 100 people participated. An additional event, Picnic for Peace, took place on Wednesday night.
“Many people were upset and horrified about what happened on that day [in
Charlottesville]. People were carrying signs with slogans… What I found very appropriate was that people started singing ‘We shall overcome,’” Valuev said. “Sometimes songs can say more than words. Maybe it was the right time for that.”
An Alexandria resident also organized a small silent vigil on the sidewalk across the street from Spencer’s office.
Boyd Walker, who attended the vigil, said Spencer surprised the crowd by showing up in person. This appearance was also shown in a video Walker posted on Facebook.In Walker’s video, vigil attendees sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” which Spencer appeared to mock. Spencer, who Walker said spent 10 to 15 minutes interacting with vigil attendees, also asked those gathered, “do any of you not suck?” No violence, however, took place and, shortly after, Boyd said Spencer left the scene of the vigil.