After hours of passionate citizen testimony and City Council discussion, a 10-1 vote Thursday made it official: The Confederate monument in downtown San Antonio’s Travis Park will be put in temporary storage until a home with more “historical context” can be found. A temporary restraining order initiated by a lawsuit challenging the removal, was struck down Thursday afternoon.
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) cast the sole vote against the relocation of a 40-foot tall monument topped by a statue of a Confederate soldier and bearing the inscription “Lest We Forget Our Confederate Dead.”
“It’s not about history,” said Councilman William “Cruz” Shaw (D2), who is black and represents the historically black Eastside. He delivered a powerful address from the dais, describing his experience of being punched in the face as a 10-year-old boy by men in a truck that carried the Confederate flag and citing racist emails he recently received. “N—–, if you vote for this, we’ll get you,” he said one such email stated.
“That symbol [statue], regardless of historical context, is there to oppress,” said Shaw, who received a standing ovation after his speech. “My decision is not about politics, it’s about doing the right thing.”
There was lengthy discussion about the expedited process of removal called for by Mayor Ron Nirenberg. It was not clear when the statue would be removed from the public park, but City staff said it will be soon. As of Thursday afternoon, temporary fencing had been placed around the park.
Perry and Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) were the only two Council members to support a motion that would have delayed Thursday’s vote.
Perry said he would have liked to see a more robust community dialogue and called the decision a “knee-jerk” reaction when the deliberation process should have been more thorough.
Nirenberg’s acceleration of the process – putting it on the agenda this week instead of going through the Governance Committee – means the statue can be removed without the matter going to the Historic and Design Review Commission for approval. City Code requires design changes for parks to go through the advisory committee, but staff and City Attorney Andy Segovia determined that the statue removal is a policy item for Council to decide. “It is not a design change for the park,” said Assistant City Manager Lori Houston.
Meanwhile, the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans filed a lawsuit against the City Council and Nirenberg, alleging that the removal of the statue abridges free speech. City attorneys were preparing a legal response Thursday, according to officials, who said they were confident the Council is on solid legal ground. The lawsuit carried with it temporary restraining order (TRO) that would prevent the City from removing the statue.
Senior U.S. District Judge David Alan Ezra roundly rejected the the plaintiffs, Richard Brewer and Jean Carol Lane of the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, claims.
“Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate or even allege standing for their claims against [the mayor and Council]. Even if Plaintiffs have standing, they have not established they are entitled to the extraordinary remedy of a TRO or other injunctive relief.”
Nineteen people of various ethnicities and backgrounds appeared before Council members ahead of the vote, with 15 speaking in favor of removing the statue that pays homage to soldiers who died fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. The comments were brief compared to the public hearing Wednesday night at which 130 people took turns speaking for and against removal – mostly the former – for more than three hours.
Shaw and Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) filed a Council Consideration Request for the monument’s removal in July, after a Black Lives Matter rally was held in Travis Park, initiating the process that Nirenberg expedited to a final vote.
A stakeholder group and City staff will work to find a museum or other nonprofit entity that specializes in historic preservation and education to receive the monument and two Civil War-era cannons that also sit in the park.
“That nonprofit has not been identified,” Houston said.
The Council authorized up to $150,000 for removal, storage, and relocation contracts.
“These are our ancestors,” Elizabeth Sutherland told Council before the vote. “I’m not saying they are right, but this is our history and you cannot remove it.”
The statue is an “American war veterans memorial,” resident Daniel Lee said. If the monument is moved from the park “please drop the Military City USA [title] because you are not Military City USA.”
The sculpture of a nameless Confederate soldier atop a granite obelisk was unveiled in Travis Park in 1900.
“I’m beyond arguing about semantics about what the Confederacy stood for,” said Johnathan-David Jones, a member of SATX4, a group that pushed for the statue’s removal. Jones described being cursed by white nationalists during recent protests in the park. To him, the statue is a symbol of the racism that he experiences every day.
With a son on the way, Jones said Council has “the opportunity to place a direct hand” in determining what the landscape will look like for the next generation.
San Antonio joins Austin; Los Angeles; Baltimore; Brooklyn, N.Y.; New Orleans; Kansas City, Miss.; Orlando; and other cities across the nation in removing or relocating Confederate statues from public spaces. Those moves accelerated in the wake of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that claimed the life of one anti-racism protester.
The North East Independent School District board voted Tuesday to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School after a group of students for months researched the issue, surveyed their peers and school alumni, and looked for financial solutions to support the change.
Earlier this month, the University of Texas at Austin removed three Confederate monuments in the middle of the night. The Sons of Confederate Veterans has filed two lawsuits against UT-Austin relating to the removals.
Many Council members on Thursday read from prepared remarks, but most could not help but speak off-script. Many removal proponents assumed that Brockhouse and Perry would vote against the move, given their initial comments following Monday’s news that Nirenberg called for a vote.
Personal stories, like those Shaw and Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), whose grandfather was lynched, led Brockhouse to make the “tough call” he made today, he said. It was the story of a young black woman, Evangalista, that ultimately swayed him.
She is the adopted daughter of a white couple, Brockhouse said, and despite her parents’ empathy Evangalista told him they would never understand the struggle.
“That pretty much ended [any indecision] right there,” he said.
Sympathy is one thing, but it’s empathy that moves people, activist and SATX4 organizer Mike Lowe told the Rivard Report. “He moved from: ‘I can hear you’ to ‘I can feel you.’ And that is what we say when [we say] black lives matter. Can you feel that we’ve been marginalized? Can you understand our indigenous community has been wiped out?”
Perry did not share in that change of heart.
He grew up in a “segregated community,” he said, and it wasn’t until college that he was able to really experience diversity.
San Antonio probably didn’t have a public process when it installed the statue in 1900, he said, so the City should repeat that pattern.
“Our campaigns promised transparency, yet we’re bypassing our city’s processes in order to come to a rushed decision. We are now setting up a pattern of taking up issues that alienate folks on both sides and forcing them to choose. I do not understand and do not agree with circumventing all of our processes in order to remove the Confederate monument without getting input from the committees that we have established,” Perry stated in a news release after the vote.
“I support anything that brings San Antonio together and I stand by my statement that anything worth doing must be done right. I voted no today because we did not give San Antonians the opportunity to have a public, two-way conversation through our established committees and council sessions.”
Jones was not surprised by Perry’s motion to delay the vote and reject the removal.
“When you are someone who isn’t the impacted group – isn’t in an oppressed group – you don’t see the urgency,” Jones told the Rivard Report. “I don’t even take personal offense to it because he is somebody who has benefited from the system that we’re fighting against. … I expect that of him.”
Bexar County joined the wave of national responses to 2015’s racially motivated shooting in South Carolina that left nine black churchgoers dead by removing two plaques featuring Confederate symbolism from its property.
There are still eight other public Confederate symbols in the city’s inventory, according a report compiled by City staff in 2015.