Protesters seeking to remove the statue of the Confederate soldier in downtown Gainesville spoke to city officials, for the first time since beginning their campaign to remove the statue in late June, during the City Commission meeting Thursday.
The same protesters plan to attend the Alachua County commission meeting Tuesday, where they hope to have the issue put on the agenda, then rally at the site of the statue Thursday afternoon.
Gainesville Mayor Ed Braddy said it is up to the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners to decide whether to remove the statue, known as Old Joe, as it sits on county property.
Jesse Arost, a coordinator of the effort to remove the statue, said he and the other activists at the meeting knew the city has no power to change the statue.
“What they do have is some position of authority and respect,” Arost said of the city commission, adding that the protesters’ goal was to show that people in the community care about the presence of the statue and intend to take action.
Of the six people who spoke during the period for public comment at the meeting, five discussed the Confederate statue.
Kali Blount opened the conversation with a quote he recited from memory, which caused some commissioners to widen their eyes and tilt their heads.
“This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. He has prostituted his negative to block any legislative attempt to suppress this insufferable commerce, to keep open the market where men may be bought and sold.”
He paused. “Who wants the prize for figuring out where that’s from?”
The passage, Blount said, is from an early draft of the Declaration of Independence.
“It says so much about this nation’s attitude toward African people from the very beginning,” Blount continued. “That criticism of slavery had to be edited out of the Declaration. This country has not faced its full history where race is concerned, then or ever since.”
Other protesters talked about the historical link between white supremacy and the Confederacy; the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan by the Daughters of the Confederacy, who put up the statue in 1904; and the shooting of nine people at a historically black church in Charleston on June 17.
Frank Lewis, another speaker during public comment who identified himself as a “proud Southerner,” said taking down the statue would be an insult to the Southern community.
“I honestly do not believe that that statue is racist,” he said. “I’m not racist. My best friend is African-American.”
“I think it’s important to recognize that there were nine people murdered in a holy place, in Charleston, in the South, in the name of the flag that that gentleman just defended as not racist,” resident Chris Nielubowicz said. “We need to understand why nine people were murdered in a holy place, under the name of White Supremacy, wrapped in the Confederate Flag that people defend in the name of heritage.”
“I can’t sit still and listen to this nonsense,” said resident Donald Shepherd in response. “This was in the past. They’re going to start a racial war.”
Braddy said he is confident the County Commission will make the right decision.
Arost, however, said he was unsure if the issue would be addressed by the commission Tuesday. According to Arost, Alachua County Commissioner Robert Hutchinson told him the discussion item has not been added to the agenda.
Arost said Hutchinson also advised the activists to back their request with an approximate cost of moving the statue and testimony from an engineer to back them up, because otherwise the request might take months to resolve.
In the meantime, Arost said, the group’s Facebook page has been receiving five or six posts per day objecting to their efforts, and many of the posts say the statue is a symbol of Southern history.
Blount said he brought the issue of the Confederate soldier statue to the commission when he came to Gainesville in 1987, but to no response.
“These symbols are offensive,” he said. “Anything on public space must be acceptable to the whole public.”