Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Wilmington Mayor and Councilman address race relations and monuments during online ‘town hall’

Members of the City Council and the community joined in a discussion online on Monday to talk about race in the community. (Port City Daily/Courtesy City of Wilmington)

WILMINGTON — Race relations have been at the forefront of discussion across the country over the past few weeks, but in Wilmington, leaders have remained largely silent on the issues facing the community. Despite protestors in front of City Hall for weeks on end, only a few elected officials have taken the time to speak with protestors, answer questions, and have a dialogue.

On Monday, City of Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and Councilman Kevin Spears hosted a virtual town hall meeting with community members who were hand-selected to discuss the topic.

Front and center in the conversation was the possible removal of the Confederate monuments located in Downtown Wilmington.

While statutes across the North Carolina memorializing the Confederacy have been taken down in spite of a state statute that seemingly prohibits their removal, Saffo ordered a curfew in direct proximity to the monuments to prevent conflict and injuries.

To start the discussion, Saffo pointed out the state law that protects these monuments saying that it prevents cities and towns from removing statues or relocating them. If the statues are removed they have be to taken down on a temporary basis and put back up, he said.

However, as seen in cities like Raleigh, lawmakers are removing statues and so far, they are doing so without repercussion.

(It is also worth noting that Wilmington does not always consider itself beholden to state law: there are state laws that prohibit other actions, like charging registration fees to rent a home, but the City of Wilmington has done so anyway.)

“I know there has been a lot of discussion about possibly changing the law, but according to what we have in front of us, the law that we have today, we have to abide by the law,” Saffo said. “We can’t pick and choose the laws we are going to enforce.”

Despite this, the Mayor and City Council’s role in local government is actually to create law, not enforce it — that is the role of the police.

Saffo said the city has asked for clarification from the state regarding the law and the removal of the statues and said it was a discussion that City Council would have to have soon.

However, there were those who did not agree with the excuse that the city could not do anything because the law said so.

“A few years ago in Virginia it was illegal for interracial couples to marry … so we can’t go and state that that’s what they said in Raleigh because some things that are law, are wrong laws and this is one that is wrong that was put in by the legislature just to stop people from doing what is going on now,” NAACP New Hanover Chapter President Deborah Dix Maxwell said.

Last weekend Saffo announced a curfew for the area surrounding the monuments, and on Monday, police tape, no trespassing signs, and a police car were seen at the monuments — a move that many have said is bad for the city’s optics.

In fact, the City of Wilmington Police Department made the following statement on Twitter, “We want to be clear that our security measures at the monuments are not a show of support for the Confederacy and what it represents. We are simply protecting what we believe is City property until a decision is made regarding their removal.”

But for Maxwell, seeing the statues roped off and protected as they are, it sends the wrong message.

Another participant in the conversation, Sonya Patrick, who is involved with the local Black Lives Matter chapter, said she is very offended that the city is using her tax dollars to protect a monument.

City Attorney John Joye said the city is currently looking into the ownership status of the statues and while it does appear they are public property, their records date back more than 100 years and it has been difficult to trace.

Others were fast to call out the Mayor for his lack of action since there is a cause for concern surrounding public safety — as seen with the curfew he put in place to protect residents. Many cities across the state as well as the country have cited public safety concerns as the reason to remove the monuments.

“From a legal perspective, to hear city officials talk like their hands are tied after they specifically, both the Mayor and council have cited that there is a public safety concern, which is the reason supposedly for putting the curfew around the statutes as well as the protective police force,” Vanessa Gonzalez, a Wilmington attorney, said.

“The law protecting or making the government feel that they don’t have the ability to move or take down these monuments has a specifically carved out exemption for public safety and I just want to note, in this public recorded meeting, that both our mayor and council have determined the monuments and the area surrounding them to be an item of public safety,” she continued.

Ultimately, since the meeting was only for discussion purposes no action was taken, and other topics on race were also discussed. It was alluded to that the discussion on the removal of the statues would have to be something City Council discusses in an actual meeting, however, when that might happen is not yet known.

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