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Town Council declines to take stance on Confederate monument

Town Council declines to take stance on Confederate monument

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In the past couple weeks, the Floyd Town Council has received draft resolutions from folks on both sides of the debate about whether to remove the Confederate monument that stands in front of the local court house, despite the fact that it has no authority over the statue. Town of Floyd Mayor Will Griffin was quick to point out as much in his opening remarks during Thursday’s well-attended meeting.

The Council could—and some had hoped they would—take an official position on the monument issue and share that collective view with the Board of Supervisors, but ultimately, as Griffin said, “We are not part of the decision-making body.” After a lengthy public comment period and discussion among the Council members, they decided to table both resolutions and defer to the Supervisors’ authority on the issue.

Individual members of the Town Council did not decline to make their views known, however. As Councilman Chris Bond articulated, he didn’t want the lack of official Council action to appear like a shield for members of the Council to hide behind, to escape having to take a stand one way or the other. Bond, who missed the last Council meeting two weeks ago, said at the end of Thursday’s meeting, “I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and it’s kind of consumed my thoughts over the past two weeks.”

Bond said he didn’t believe that the debate over Confederate monuments in Floyd mirrors the national debate, despite what some proponents of preserving the statue have said. In bigger cities that have garnered national media attention, Bond said, “People have taken the law into their own hands” by vandalizing or pulling down monuments, and the same is not happening in Floyd.

And to those who claim that issues of racism are not relevant to Floyd County, Bond said, “There is a difference between violent racism and racism through words and subtle actions. I would trust those who have endured it.” Ultimately, Bond was one of four Councilman (five serve on the Council) to express support for the idea of removing the monument—but again, this was each Council member’s personal view, and doesn’t reflect any actual authority they have.

“I’m a white Christian living in the South, and I was raised to love one another,” said Bond. “I’ll side with my neighbors and my friends over a monument any day.”

Councilman David Whitaker handed out copies of the resolution supporting preservation of the monument prior to the meeting Thursday. In his view, the will of the majority should prevail, and he said, “For the past two weeks, I’ve been trying to talk to as many people as I can,” and everyone he spoke with supported keeping the monument, as well as a referendum on the issue.

Several members of the Council encouraged those who attended public comment to contact their district representative on the Board of Supervisors and share their thoughts, saying they had already done the same and trusted the Supervisors to make the right decision for the county.

Fifteen people spoke during public comment Thursday night—only four of whom identified themselves as residents of the Town of Floyd. The vast majority spoke in favor of preserving the monument, reiterating arguments that have been heard at other public meetings, including at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.

Edna Whittier, who spoke to the Supervisors via phone on Tuesday, expanded on her remarks Thursday night. She shared her experiences trying to plan and promote Floyd’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration without inspiring white supremacist backlash, and added that as evidenced by the recent cross-burning in the front yard of teenaged activist Travon Brown in Marion, Va., “You can see where this is still a concern, and the statue, unfortunately, is what inspires all of this.”

Most who spoke in favor of preserving the monument evoked themes of honoring those who had served during the Civil War, and ensuring that residents could remember and learn from our nation’s history. Bob Smith, for instance, who serves as Chairman of the Floyd County Electoral Board and in the Floyd County Republicans, called any attempt to remove Confederate monuments, “foolish, stupid and irresponsible.” He said the monument “represents an error that was made by this country,” and folks have the opportunity to learn from that.

Others, however, tried to draw connections between Floyd Community Action for Racial Equity (CARE), which organized the Black Lives Matter/Juneteenth vigil in Floyd, the movement to remove the monument, and national politics.

“If a decision is made to remove that monument because of this movement—let’s call it what it is, it’s a purge. It’s a cultural cleansing,” said Little River District resident Ed Woodruff. “Don’t appease the ring leaders.”

Kristen Koch, chair of the Executive Committee Republican Party of Floyd, said, “This movement led by Black Lives Matter…is an entirely political movement.” Koch claimed that Floyd CARE supports the campaigns of national political candidates such as former Vice President Joe Biden, and said on Democrats: “It benefits them for Black people to believe that they are oppressed (and) it’s not the truth. We have plenty of laws to ensure that everyone is equal.”

Several speakers during public comment said it was their view that racism does not exist in Floyd, but Black folks who weighed in, including local business owner Michele Morris and Councilman Bruce Turner, disputed that assertion. “Intimidation continues today,” said Morris, and added that the monument is “so hurtful and unwelcoming for so many.”

Morris also read a statement on behalf of Haden Polseno-Hensley, who co-owns Red Rooster Coffee in Floyd. “I was born and raised in Floyd and graduated from the high school in 1996,” Polseno-Hensley’s statement read, adding that he had family members in the Confederate Army and who killed Native people during westward expansion as well. “While I find my family’s history extremely interesting and worthy of study, I feel no sense of pride concerning the injustices they perpetrated. In fact, I disavow that behavior and through my own life and work I hope to make up for it in some small fashion,” the statement said. Ultimately, he expressed support for removing the monument.

Near the end of the meeting, Turner, who has vocally opposed a referendum on the monument and hopes Supervisors will feel empowered to unilaterally remove it, said, “There have been some good conversations here tonight, but there were some things said that just weren’t true.”

“Racism is in Floyd. Anyone who thinks it’s not, I don’t know where you’ve been.” He added, “Y’all are not Black. You will never, ever know what this stuff means to us—a lot of Black folks are not going to speak up because of the history. Black folks got their houses burned down, crosses burned in their yards. We talk about history; that’s the part of history we don’t seem to talk about,” he said.

Mayor Will Griffin also opposed a referendum, saying, “What if the Civil Rights Act had gone to a popular vote?” Referring to the Board of Supervisors, he said, “Sometimes the leaders have to make the right decision for the minority that don’t have the voice.”

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