- Wes Bellamyvice-mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, the city is preparing for a white nationalist rally on Saturday protesting against the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. The “Unite the Right” event is expected to draw several thousands of people, including counterprotesters. White nationalist Richard Spencer has organized similar protests earlier this year. City officials are reportedly scrambling to find ways to halt the event. At least 60 publicly funded Confederacy symbols have been removed or renamed since the 2015 massacre of nine black parishioners in a Charleston, South Carolina, church by a self-described white supremacist, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. We speak with Wes Bellamy, vice-mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the youngest person to ever be elected to the Charlottesville City Council and has been leading the opposition to a Robert E. Lee statue in the city.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the city is bracing for a white nationalist rally on Saturday protesting the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. The “Unite the Right” event is expected to draw several thousands of people, including counterprotesters. In June, the KKK held a similar rally. More than a thousand people joined that protest. After the hooded KKK members departed, police moved in and attacked the counterprotesters with tear gas and arrested 23 people. White nationalist Richard Spencer organized several similar protests earlier this year.
City officials in Charlottesville have reportedly been looking at options to halt Saturday’s Unite the Right event. A news conference is expected to take place later today to provide details about the plans for the rally.
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this year, when the Charlottesville City Council voted to sell the statue of Robert E. Lee, white nationalist groups, including the Virginia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, filed a lawsuit against the city. A circuit court judge then issued a six-month injunction to halt its removal. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least 60 publicly funded Confederacy symbols have been removed or renamed since the 2015 massacre of nine black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, by a self-described white supremacist.
To find out more, we go to Charlottesville to talk to Wes Bellamy, vice-mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, youngest person ever to be elected to the Charlottesville City Council. He is also the only African-American city councilor and has been leading the opposition to the Robert E. Lee statue in the city.
Wes Bellamy, welcome to Democracy Now!
WES BELLAMY: Thank you for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your original push to have the Robert E. Lee statue taken down and what you ultimately got, that isn’t talked about as much, which is some kind of—
WES BELLAMY: Equity package, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —some kind of funds for reparations?
WES BELLAMY: Yeah, so, this all started nearly a year and a half ago, in March of last year. I received several different phone calls, emails. There was a petition from a local student here in the area about an effort and a push to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee. People in Charlottesville have been talking about this for some years, but just last year there was a nuance in a bill that was vetoed at the state House by our governor that essentially said that if you want to move these kind of statues and things of that nature, it’s a local issue, so you have the right to be able to do so. My colleague and I, Ms. Kristin Szakos, we both decided to push really hard. We held a press conference in which there were probably about 150 people who came out. About 80—or, excuse me, I would say about 110, 120 people or so who were pro-moving the statue, and about 30 to 40 Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy, who came with their large flags, and very, very upset that we were pushing to do so.
Subsequently, since then, there’s been a lot of things that have transpired. I mean, I’ve received all kinds of death threats, been probably called every kind of N-word that you can think of. And it’s been a very interesting topic. But I think that we have awakened, to say the least. We’ve seen a group of people here in our community who have been marginalized, who haven’t necessarily had a voice. We’re waking up, and we’re saying that we are going to stand tall.
And in the midst of all of this, we also got an equity package passed, which I presented in January, before we had our first vote—and it was unanimously passed—which gave us $950,000 to our African American Heritage Center, $250,000 to build onto one of the parks in the local African-American community. We got $2.5 million to public housing redevelopment, $50,000 annually for anyone who lives in public housing to get free GED training, another $50,000 to anyone who lives 80 percent below the AMI, which is the annual median income, as well as public housing, to have scholarships of sorts to go to our local community college. We got a position for black male achievement, which we’re calling a youth opportunity coordinator. So, I mean, in all, in all, it was about $4 million, basically, from funding, put specifically into marginalized communities to help bridge the gap and create equity.
All of this is about equity. We need equity, and not equality. Those are two different things. Equity is giving everyone what they need in order to have the same playing field. Equality is just giving everyone the same thing. I don’t want equality. I want us to have equity. And we’re going to push for equity in every space, whether that’s public parks, whether that’s in our city budget, no matter where it is, as long as I’m on council. And I’m going to push for it until the day I die.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Vice-Mayor Bellamy, the interesting thing, though, is that you were offered—the majority agreed to the equity package as an attempted compromise to convince you to hold off on the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. Could you talk about that effort on their part?
WES BELLAMY: Yeah. So, I think my colleagues, they wanted to see how we can find a compromise of sorts and move forward with the equity package. And I think—I personally believe that all of my colleagues on council, they firmly also believe in equity. We may all have different ways in which we want to go about it. So we thought it was a great idea. When we had the first vote to move the statue, it was—it’s only five of us on council. It was a 2-2 vote, and one of my colleagues abstained. So, it wasn’t until our next City Council that he, Mr. Bob Fenwick, decided to come on board and vote to remove the statue. So, essentially, the statue was moved—or, we had the votes to remove the statue, as well as getting the equity package.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And have you been surprised by the enormous backlash and the—and these white supremacists organizing rallies in your town now?
WES BELLAMY: No, sir. I’m a student of history. We see this is oftentimes what happened when you have specifically—let’s just call a spade a spade. When you have African Americans who decide to stand up in nontraditional African-American places, in places in which we haven’t been very vocal or in which we haven’t, quote-unquote, “caused trouble” or stirred things up, whenever we decide to do so, and our white brothers and sisters or Latino brothers and sisters, our brothers and sisters of different hues and persuasions decide to rally and ride with us, whenever you see that kind of uprising, the majority, and specifically individuals who believe that things should be the way they’ve always been, they normally push back. You’ve seen this from the '40s to the ’50s to the ’60s. And in no by shape, form or fashion, am I Dr. King or anything. But we've seen this kind of story and this playbook play out. There’s always going to be met with opposition when you’re doing something right. And, I mean, the threats and the people who are saying they’re going to do this and they’re going to do that, and these rallies that have been coming about as of late, in my opinion, it just shows that we’re doing something right. It’s been troubling for many people in our community. But I think, personally, what I often tell myself, and I tell the little kids who I talk to every single day, and when we’re walking around the city, in order for us to get to the clear water, the clean water, you have to go through the mud. And right now we’re kind of in the muddy part. But I would much rather us go through the mud and get clean now than just pretend as if these issues don’t exist and let’s not do anything for another generation.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to comments about the August 12th rally by the Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler, who posted the video on his Twitter account on Saturday.
JASON KESSLER: These people who are trying to erase white people from history. And that’s the other question: Like is this a white supremacist event? This is not a white supremacist event. This is a pro-white event.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about those who are saying don’t go to this, what Jason Kessler is saying, who he is? And also, did you vote to remove or sell the statue?
WES BELLAMY: Yeah, so, there’s several questions that you asked there. You were breaking up a little bit, and I couldn’t hear the first—the first two. What did you say?
AMY GOODMAN: Who Jason Kessler is, and those who are saying, like the University of Charlottesville president, encouraging students not to go to this rally—
WES BELLAMY: Oh, OK.
AMY GOODMAN: —concerned about violence.
WES BELLAMY: Yeah. Well, I believe that I have a ton of respect for—
AMY GOODMAN: To protest it.
WES BELLAMY: Yes, I have a ton of respect for Dr. Sullivan. And I agree. You know, if some individuals choose to not attend the rally, that’s their choice. But one thing that I believe that is important for us to all understand is that we have to allow people to express themselves as they want to. The same way that Mr. Kessler has the opportunity and he has the right to be able to express himself, other individuals have that same right. And if they choose to go to the rally, I don’t want to get into a position in which I’m telling people don’t go and say anything, don’t go and counterprotest, because what we saw from the event that occurred on July 8th is that there are a lot of people from different persuasions, that are professors, that are people who live in the community, that are people who normally never protest, can be meek, and they can be solemn. We have clergy people. All feel as if it’s important for them to voice their opinion and voice their opposition. So, again, I don’t want to get into a point in which we tell people not to do so.
As for Mr. Kessler, he is who he is. I don’t have any ill will or anything to say towards Mr. Kessler. I actually went to church yesterday, and we had communion, and I forgave Mr. Kessler. So, I mean, he is—he is free to do what he wants to do. But as far as I’m concerned, we do have an obligation and a duty to keep people safe and make sure that everyone is protected. But I do want to encourage people, if you want to stand up and you want to speak out, in whatever way you choose to do so, I respect you, and I empathize with the fact that you want to do that.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you’ve been having several meetings of your council to try—closed-door meetings, largely, to try to figure out how to handle the events that are coming up this Saturday. There was some talk of possibly moving the rally. What’s been some of the discussion that you’vehad behind closed doors?
WES BELLAMY: Well, legally, we can’t—we can’t discuss anything that we’ve been talking about behind closed doors or in any of our closed sessions. Sorry about that.
AMY GOODMAN: And this question of selling the statue or removing it?
WES BELLAMY: Well, in regards to selling the statue, what we agreed to do was create a RFP, request for proposal, after the injunction is over, for individuals—or, excuse me, for entities—it’s a very nuanced language—who may be, for example, the Parks Service or a locality or a museum or things of that nature. They will have the opportunity to be able to purchase the statue. And it’s not necessarily an auction, but some people have been describing it as an auction.
The thing is, is this: We don’t want to desecrate or dismantle or disrespect the statue in any shape, form or fashion. I don’t have any personal problems with Robert E. Lee. He is who he is, and I am who I am. But what we do believe is that that statue doesn’t belong in the middle of our downtown. Especially if we are a community in which we’re trying to provide equity and we say that we’re one of the best places to live in the country for all people, then we have to make sure that we maintain safe spaces in our parks for all people.
So, in terms of selling the statue or auctioning it off, we just believe that it should be in a more appropriate place. So, if there is a Parks Service or if there is a civil rights museum—excuse me, a Civil War museum or somewhere in which individuals believe that they can pay the proper homage and respect to Mr. Lee through a government entity or something of that nature, then they have every right to auction off—or, excuse me, purchase the statue. And we’ve received several calls for it.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much, Wes Bellamy, for joining us, vice-mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, youngest person ever to be elected to the Charlottesville City Council, the only African American currently on that council, leading the opposition to the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, the home of Thomas Jefferson.