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Surry proactive on monument debate

As communities across the country confront inevitable questions about whether statues of historical figures should stay or go, Surry County is setting a good example for making sure all voices are heard.

A public hearing is set for 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 13, to receive comment on the future of Surry County’s Confederate monument. The hearing will be conducted virtually to facilitate social distancing in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Effective July 1, the General Assembly granted local governments the authority to remove, relocate or add context to Confederate war memorials and monuments. Throughout Virginia and the nation, calls to remove Confederate monuments have escalated following the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In some instances, the public has damaged or torn down monuments before the pertinent local authorities could take official action.

To the credit of protesters and monument defenders alike, the debate in Surry has been peaceful to date. Law enforcement deserves some credit as well, resisting any inclination to be heavy-handed as citizens on both sides exercise their First Amendment rights.

Placed in 1909 and dedicated the following year, the granite and bronze monument is located at the county’s historic courthouse at 28 Colonial Trail East in the town of Surry. The monument is about 20 feet tall and includes a Confederate battle flag in granite. A statue of a Confederate soldier stands atop.

To participate in the hearing, citizens may call 1-877-568-4106 and use access code 447-043-91. Additional information on how to provide comments before or during the meeting is available on the county’s website, surrycountyva.gov.

Isle of Wight County would be wise to be proactive and schedule a similar public hearing on its Confederate soldier statue, erected in 1905 outside what was then the county’s courthouse.

Such a hearing will be necessary prior to any decision on whether or not to remove it, relocate it, cover it or add signage contextualizing it. Such a decision is coming, as the new state law has caused a significant shift from the last time the controversy flared in Isle of Wight.

That was in the aftermath of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. The Charlottesville rally was intended to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee but turned violent when tiki-torch-wielding white supremacists, neo-Nazis and armed militia groups, many from out of state, clashed with counter-protestors over the course of two days. Several dozen people were injured and 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed when James Alex Fields Jr., an avowed white supremacist who was later convicted of Heyer’s murder, plowed his car into a crowd of counter protesters.

Days later, Isle of Wight NAACP Chapter President Valerie Butler asked during a meeting of the county’s Board of Supervisors that the statue be removed, stating that she had received several phone calls from county residents concerned that a similarly violent rally would soon occur in Isle of Wight. At that time, however, the fate of the statue was out of the county’s hands.

Now that the county has a say in the matter, critics are sure to push again for the monument’s removal. Protests have erupted across the nation in recent weeks in response to Floyd’s death. A broader debate about police brutality and racism has swept the country and seen many controversial monuments — in Portsmouth and Richmond, for example — come down by force.

Isle of Wight and Surry have a chance to facilitate a more orderly process that respects the rule of law while giving every citizen the right to be heard. We give Surry credit for its proactiveness.