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Protests reignite debate about whether to move ‘Fame’ Confederate statue

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Tuesday’s city council meeting became heated, with more than an hour spent discussing the relocation of the “Fame” Confederate statue after Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins and more than a dozen members of the public noted events associated with recent protests there made it a public safety issue.

Fame was the site of two gunshots fired Sunday evening during a protest held in response to George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis last week. A police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for several minutes before Floyd, a North Carolina native, stopped breathing. The shots were allegedly fired by Jeffrey Allan Long, a man from Kernersville with ties to Confederate groups. Police in Salisbury used riot gear and tear gas to disperse protesters on Monday night.

At the beginning of the council meeting, Heggins requested adding to the agenda discussion about relocating the “Fame” statue in light of the protests and state of emergency that Mayor Karen Alexander implemented on Tuesday, calling the statue’s location a “public safety issue” and public nuisance. Heggins’ request was for the council to place it on the agenda to allow the city manager and city attorney to obtain and then bring forward legal information about relocating the statue. She asked the council to express their opinions about whether it should be moved or stay in its current location.

However, Alexander as well as council members David Post and Brian Miller said they were opposed to adding her motion as she worded it to the agenda due to insufficient notice to the public.

Heggins responded that she didn’t think “it’s a surprise that ‘Fame’ has been a lightning rod in our community.” She called the council’s hesitation to discuss it on Tuesday a “pretext for the council not stepping up.”

“We already know what the input from the public is,” Heggins said.

Heggins’ suggestion did not pass after a roll call vote from the council. Only Heggins and council member Tamara Sheffield supported her motion.

More than a dozen individuals then spoke in favor of relocating the statue during the virtual public comment period.

Bob Johnsen, a history teacher at Jesse C. Carson High in China Grove, spoke and he read posts from the Facebook pages Confederate Wire Rowan and Fame Preservation Group, which he called both clear examples of white nationalist groups. The posts he read called for people to come and defend the monument and used slurs to describe protesters.

Confederate Wire Rowan describes itself on Facebook as an independent, “conservative nationalist” news source. Fame Preservation Group describes itself as an independent organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the Fame Confederate monument.

Johnsen added that the two to three shots fired on Sunday makes “abundantly clear that this monument is dangerous.”

“Some members of this council have, for years, hidden behind legal questions to perpetuate the status quo,” Johnsen said. “And in doing so, you have put the people of Salisbury at risk. If that monument to white supremacy remains where it is, someone will get hurt. That is abundantly clear and a near certainty at this point. How will you deal with the fact that you, as an elected official, had the duty to protect the people of this city and you failed to act?”

Another speaker was Mary Rosser, who said the statue can exist elsewhere. Rosser said it serves as a nuisance since it blocks views of traffic. She added that, while it’s not an easy decision and lots of people feel passionately, people who would be upset by its relocation have upset others in the community for years.

Jackie Miller called on the board to “relocate this symbol of hate from public display.” Miller added, “The number of police officers needed at a peaceful protest shows the extent of safety issues surrounding Fame.”

Corey Hill said the body that owns the statue — the United Daughters of the Confederacy — could decide where it’s relocated, but that the board was elected to protect all citizens.

Following the public comment period and as the council prepared to discuss budget matters, Heggins stopped the council with an impassioned plea that members take a moment to acknowledge the comments provided.

“We got statements tonight about the preservation of lives and the value of black and brown people in this city,” Heggins said. “And I think the least we can do as a council, if we truly represent everybody in this city, is to say, ‘We hear you.’ And not just move on like nothing has been said to us tonight.”

Post said he opposed the statue in all regards, spoke of his Jewish heritage and said he understands the outrage behind the statue. He referenced his experience with being unable to “go anywhere without a prayer” that goes against his religion, even though it’s not his religion. He added that while he was required in school to attend Bible classes, the other council members weren’t required to take Judaism classes.

“I am a Jew. I get this,” Post said. “There are people out there that say, ‘Well, you’re white. Because you’re white, you don’t understand this.’ ”

He then added, “My skin is white — I acknowledge that. But I’ve never hidden behind the fact that I’m a Jew. And I know that puts me in the smallest minority in Rowan County.”

He added that Jews had to represent Nazis because Jews believe in the rule of law.

And as a lawyer, Post said, he’s burdened with following the law and believes it’s fair for the board to allow other sides to be heard. He suggested a couple of solutions, including the filing of a lawsuit to move the statue and paying to have it moved. He noted both processes would be challenging, but thought the city would win the lawsuit.

Miller said the statue’s presence isn’t worth anyone’s life, but added that while he understands it’s a symbol of hate to some members of the community, it represents something else for others who the council also serves. He added that removing the statue or keeping it in its current location won’t cause him “any loss of sleep” because it’s an inanimate object. And while Miller said he was willing to entertain solutions, he added it sounded like all the public comments were written by the same person, calling it an “organized hit job.” Other council members suggested the same.

Heggins responded to Miller’s comments by saying one speaker said they were inspired to say something after hearing Johnsen’s comments, adding that she was unclear as to why it was suggested that comments were organized and led by her.

Heggins said the presence of “Fame” in its current location is a public safety issue and that the law allows for relocation in that case.

“When we’re serving everybody, we protect everybody,” she said.

Sheffield said she believed the city was “years past” moving the statue and that the council has erred on the side of allowing the law to dictate what’s done. She called it an excuse because other cities in the U.S. have been able to figure it out. She added that doing so — figuring out how to move it — is the right thing, even if the five members of the board weren’t re-elected in the future.

Alexander said changes should go through the proper legal channels. She added that, while she doesn’t want to lose a single life over this issue, she has to uphold the duty to respect all opinions.

The board ultimately agreed to make the discussion an agenda item for the next meeting, which didn’t require a vote.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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