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Moving statues should require change to state laws

Confederate Statues New Orleans-5

A toppled Confederate statue lies on the ground in Durham, N.C.

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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

A century and a half after the South surrendered, the likenesses of Confederate soldiers could be ordered to retreat for their own safety.

The North Carolina Historical Commission is weighing Gov. Roy Cooper’s petition to relocate three Confederate monuments from the old state Capitol grounds to the Bentonville Battlefield state historic site. The gist of his request is that vandals may damage or destroy the statues where they now stand.

A national movement to mothball such memorials spread after a white supremacist struck and killed a protester with his car during dueling demonstrations over the fate of a Robert E. Lee statue last August in Charlottesville, Va. Many say the stone-hewn rebels don’t mourn Civil War casualties but instead glorify the Confederate cause, which is inextricably linked to slavery.

Monuments were quietly removed across the country, but that couldn’t happen in the Tar Heel State.

Rightly or wrongly, the General Assembly passed a 2015 law that prevents government agencies from moving historical monuments. Statues can’t be “removed, relocated or altered in any way” without the historical commission’s approval, and the panel can only weigh in under two circumstances: “When appropriate measures are required by the state or a political subdivision of the state to preserve the object” or “when necessary for construction, renovation or reconfiguration of buildings, open spaces, parking or transportation projects.”

Cooper’s petition cites the first reason. He’s asking the commission to take “appropriate measures” to preserve the statues by moving them from the Capitol to the Bentonville site in Four Oaks. The law’s wording is hazy, but the implication of using this loophole is clear: The monuments could be damaged or destroyed by vandals, toppled like the statue in front of the former Durham County Courthouse.

Those who support moving the monuments hang their hopes on the dubious theory that controversy swirling around the statues itself justifies their removal. It’s a neat bit of circular logic that brings to mind the heckler’s veto, a phenomenon that occurs when speakers are silenced due to listeners’ outbursts and overreactions.

Activists who tore down the Durham statue were not merely demonstrators exercising their free-speech rights. Instead of organizing, marching, lobbying and voting, they lashed out in aggression and damaged public property. That isn’t protest, it’s vandalism.

The historical commission is seeking public comments on the governor’s petition at https://www.ncdcr.gov/comment-relocation-monuments ahead of an April meeting. Those who wish to weigh in on the subject are invited to submit written comments, which become public record, through the online form on that web page.

State Senate leader Phil Berger has criticized Cooper for taking his plea to the panel, foreshadowing a legal battle if the process moves forward.

We think the effort to justify removing the statues for their own protection strains credulity and doesn’t square with state law. The end result will be taxpayer money wasted in needless litigation.

That said, we recognize that Confederate monuments represent slavery and discrimination to many North Carolinians. Whether it’s appropriate for these statues to tower over public spaces or whether their historical context can be better understood at museums or Civil War battlefields is a conversation worth having.

Current law freezes the memorials in place. Moving them to alternate sites is a public policy question for our elected state lawmakers, not a simple matter of monument conservation for a committee of scholars and historians to decide.

The Wilson Times

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