WILMINGTON — In the early morning hours of Thursday, under the cover of darkness, the City of Wilmington stealthily removed two monuments honoring soldiers and members of the Confederacy.
These monuments and others like them across the south have become a point of contention in recent weeks following the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minnesota. While many have strongly opposed the removal of the statues, citing ‘history’ as the reason to leave them standing, others have called for their removal and have even taken the matter into their own hands pulling down statues in cities around the nation.
In North Carolina, a 2015 state law has made it increasingly difficult for anyone, including the government, to remove these monuments. That law prohibits the permanent removal of these monuments if they are located on public property (while the city has said it’s not completely certain about whether that’s the legal case for Wilmington’s downtown statues, most agree they are on public property).
City leaders were fairly silent on the issue of removing the statues, however, Mayor Bill Saffo and Councilman Kevin Spears did address the concerns during a virtual town hall meeting. Essentially, they cited the law as the reason the statues were still standing and gave no sign that the monuments were going to be removed this week. They did say that the city attorney and staff were working on figuring out how the monuments could be removed, but offered no timeline.
Then, on Thursday morning the City of Wilmington announced the monuments were taken down, citing a ‘public safety concern’ for their removal, as we as a desire to ‘preserve’ the monuments themselves — presumably meaning to protect them from protestors who might deface or destroy them.
The 2015 law does allow monuments to be taken down temporarily for matters of public safety, but according to state law, the removal might not hold up.
“An object of remembrance located on public property may not be permanently removed and may only be relocated, whether temporarily or permanently …” according to the law.
These objects can be removed due to safety concerns, however, according to the law they must be replaced within 90 days of the end of that threat to public safety. (If that seems a bit vague, it is. The definition of how long the ‘treat to public safety’ lasts is essentially as long as the city says so.)
On social media, the City of Wilmington has seen many people upset with the ‘temporary’ part of the removal and has responded by explaining why that particular language is used.
“Hi, state law prohibits the removal/relocation of confederate statues unless it’s a matter of public safety. Once the threat to public safety is over, we’re required to put them back within 90 days. We encourage you to contact state representatives to voice your opinions on the law,” according to the city’s Twitter account.
The fact of the matter is the city simply does not have the authority to change state law, regardless of how local leaders feel about the statues. However, the city is suggesting that residents reach out to their state lawmakers and ask them to change the law if they so choose.
While technically the city is correct, the state laws do supersede the wishes of a local government, it is worth noting that there are instances where cities have found loopholes to state laws or outright ignored them without consequence. Further, the city has a full-time legislative liaison, whose job is to lobby on the city’s behalf for legislation that will be beneficial to the city. The city has apparently never utilized this avenue to ask Raleigh to change the statue law and allow local control over what is done with the monuments.
It is unclear when the city plans to reinstall the monuments and while the law does say they must be replaced within 90 days, that is actually 90 days from the end of them being a public safety concern. So, in theory, as long as the city is worried about violence or destruction of the statutes or possible harm coming to citizens, the statues can remain down.