Sunday, September 26, 2021

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Politicians, businessmen, Elon officials support removal of Confederate monument

A temporary ban on all protests and rallies in front of Alamance County’s Historic Court House hasn’t done much to temper the heated public debate over a Confederate monument that has dominated Court House Square for over a century.

The moratorium on protests, which the city of Graham had enacted as part of an emergency declaration on Thursday, ultimately posed no obstacle to a coalition of political and business leaders who unleased a rhetorical barrage against the memorial during a news conference earlier this week. Led by the mayors of Burlington, Gibsonville, Green Level, and Mebane, this assemblage has also managed something that had eluded the recent demonstrations in front of the courthouse – namely to provoke a response from the county’s board of commissioners.

Although the Confederate monument continues to loom over the courthouse, the coalition’s efforts have already begun to wear away at its pedestal, according to Burlington’s mayor Ian Baltutis. A transplanted Minnesotan who has presided over Burlington’s city council since 2015, Baltutis has been the driving force behind this uprising of local luminaries, which began to congeal mere days before the news conference on Monday.

“The whole coalition coalesced from a number of people who were starting to write letters to the county commissioners,” Baltutis explained in an interview after Monday’s event. “This all came together over the weekend, and we know that some people were left out. That’s why we added a paragraph to invite other leaders to join us in this call for action.”

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By the time that Baltutis and his associates were ready to reveal their proposal, their ad hoc coalition had grown to include a veritable Who’s Who of area business, civic, and political leaders.

In fact, the speaker list for Monday’s news conference featured more than two dozen people, including Baltutis’ fellow mayors Ed Hooks of Mebane, Lenny Williams of Gibsonville, and Carissa Graves-Henry of Green Level. Also on the roster that morning were school board members Patsy Simpson, Steve Van Pelt, Brian Feeley and Wayne Beam; Elon aldermen Quinn Ray and Emily Sharpe; and Mebane council members Jill Auditori, Sean C. Ewing, and Patty Philipps. These elected leaders shared the limelight on Monday with the current and past presidents of Elon University, the chairman-elect of the Alamance Chamber of Commerce, the president of Alamance County’s chapter of the NAACP, and various highranking Cone Health officials, as well as the heads of local businesses like Buckner Companies and Fairystone Fabrics. Another supporter from the business community is Bill Scott, Jr., the owner of Alamance Foods, who Baltutis said was “gracious enough to loan” a massive warehouse that his company operates along Cedar Crest Drive for the news conference on Monday.

Meanwhile, the slate of speakers at Monday’s event represented just half of the distinguished area residents whose names appeared on a statement that the coalition released during the news conference.

This brief declaration doesn’t exactly pull any punches in its assessment of the Confederate monument – a granite pillar topped by a boyish stone Rebel that the Daughters of the Confederacy had erected in 1914 as a tribute to veterans of the Secessionist cause. The coalition’s statement points out that this war memorial went up at “a time of fervent white supremacy” that postdated the Civil War by nearly a half century. It goes on to decry the monument’s “prominent location before a house of justice,” where it “perpetuates” the local court system’s historical failure “to serve our communities of color with equality.”

As for how they propose to deal with this potent symbol of a bygone era, the coalition’s members have endorsed a suggestion that Alamance County’s manager Bryan Hagood had pitched to the board of commissioners two week ago.

On the afternoon of June 20, as demonstrators for, and against, the monument’s removal had begun to converge on the courthouse, Hagood had urged the commissioners to let him relocate the pillar “to a secure location in as tasteful and safe a manner as possible.” The county manager warned that if the imminent demonstrations were to get out of hand, the law enforcement officials who were on hand to manage the opposing crowds might be left with an untenable “choice between deadly force [and] disgrace.”

In the end, the commissioners rejected Hagood’s offer to relocate the monument, and the demonstrations on June 20 ultimately dissolved with little incident, aside from the arrests of two Confederate sympathizers who got into confrontations with rival protesters. Yet, the county manager’s recommendation seems to have left a lasting impression on Baltutis and the other “Alamance County leaders” who’ve joined his campaign.

In their joint statement about the memorial, the coalition’s members contend that Hagood had “wisely warned of the risks of deadly violence” and “wholeheartedly agree and support [the] urgent action” that he recommended to the commissioners.

“We are at a crossroads,” the statement continues. “As leaders, we want to move forward to a bright prosperous future and not cling to a symbol that will inevitably hold us back.

“We hereby call upon the Alamance County commissioners and the city council of Graham to take action to relocate the monument in a respectful and appropriate manner,” the declaration concludes. “Relocation of the monument will remove the threat to the public safety that has been created by this symbol in the Court House Square of Graham.”

By the time that Baltutis kicked off Monday’s news conference, 48 individuals had signed their names to this open letter to the commissioners. Later that morning, Baltutis sent out an updated copy of the statement with another eight signatories who included Allison Gant, the chairman of the Alamance Burlington-school board; fellow school board member Tony Rose; and former county commissioner Bob Byrd, a Democrat who is making a bid to return to dais in this fall’s election. A day later, Burlington’s mayor circulated another updated list of signatories that, this time, comprised 141 names.

Conspicuously absent from any of these lists are the current members of the county’s governing board, which has been a solidly Republican group since Byrd’s ouster in 2018. The board’s current lineup has previously declared its intention to leave the Confederate monument in its longtime spot in front of the courthouse. Yet, the lobbying campaign that Baltutis has organized seems to have left at least some of the commissioners feeling a little left out of the loop.

On Monday afternoon, the county issued a formal response to the coalition that purports to hail from the entire board of commissioners. Among other things, this missive notes that Hagood’s offer to relocate the monument has failed to pass muster with the county attorney, who has found it to conflict with a state law that forbids the relocation or dismantlement of so-called “objects of remembrance.” The board’s response adds that “the county manager neglected to obtain information about the legality of his opinion before he offered it.” It also takes Baltutis and his colleagues to task for not reaching out to the commissioners before the news conference on Monday.

“Very few of the people who participated in this statement (four of the fifty-six) have contacted any one of the five commissioners in the past few months to discuss their concerns about the monument,” the board asserts in its response. “We have learned that at least some of those whose support for this letter was sought were told, ‘Don’t tell the commissioners’ about the effort to draft it.”

The board’s response goes on to chide Baltutis for waiting until “twenty minutes before his press conference” began at 10:00 a.m. to notify Amy Scott Galey, the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, “which [allegedly] prevented her from being able to attend.” The response omits any mention of an email that Hagood had circulated among the commissioners at 7:52 a.m. to pass along a heads-up from Burlington’s city manager that “perhaps as many as 27” business and community leaders had scheduled a news conference to unveil “a letter calling for the removal and relocation of the Confederate memorial.” In addition to the time and location of the event, Hagood identified a number of the businesspeople and educators who had signed onto the letter.

Whether or not the commissioners were genuinely caught off guard, they fault the coalition’s members for drafting and circulating the letter “in secret” rather than directly engaging with the commissioners.

“This would lead an observer to believe that this “call to action” is political in nature,” the board asserts in its official response. “Its true purpose would not appear to be to persuade the commissioners, but to ambush them in as public a manner as possible.

“The best way to seek a resolution is not by operating in secret, drawing up in opposing lines, and engaging with the press,” the board’s response goes on to conclude. “Alamance County deserves leaders who are willing to reach out and communicate with one another.”

Baltutis insists he and his colleagues hadn’t deliberately excluded anyone as they were drumming up support for their cause. He concedes that some prospects had been harder to contact than others, and many people had been vacation over the weekend. He added, however, that the coalition’s letter includes an open invitation for others to join the campaign so as not to exclude those he and his colleagues weren’t able to contact beforehand.

As for the county’s board of commissioners, Baltutis acknowledged that the coalition’s objective had never been to “reach out” to its members discreetly but to publicly address them – a goal that might’ve been achieved in a public meeting prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We didn’t see this as a dialogue as much as a shared expression to the commissioners,” the mayor of Burlington added. “But in this time of virtual meetings, it’s hard to have a large group come together at a meeting.”

Although he and the other three mayors that endorsed the letter are all registered Democrats, Baltutis also disputed any partisan slant to the coalition’s efforts.

“We had a handful of Republicans sign on,” he stressed, “and we were in conversation with a number of others.”

Baltutis added that any stealth which might’ve characterized the coalition’s efforts had less to do with keeping the commissioners in the dark than with ensuring that the news conference served its intended purpose. “Since we were doing a press release,” he said, “there was a press publication date, and we asked people to respect that.”

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