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October 22, 2020

Josh Bergeron: In Lexington, city-county conflict springs up around Confederate monument

Miles away and a river apart, a city-led effort to remove a Confederate monument looks unlike Salisbury’s effort.

In Lexington, as across the nation, there’s a push to remove a Confederate monument from its perch in the center of town. But that effort has created a city-county conflict unlike anything Rowan County or Salisbury has seen in recent history.

With a granite base and column, Lexington’s monument holds up a Confederate soldier in uniform with a slouch hat and a rifle in his hands. The base contains engravings of a Confederate flag that appears to be blowing into the winds, the letters CSA, crossed cannons and swords and words honoring the Confederate war dead.

When the Salisbury City Council was considering and voting to remove “Fame” in June, protests were also taking place in Lexington. In August, the city of Lexington sued Davidson County government and the Robert E. Lee Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Superior Court and sought to remove the monument. More recently, Lexington sought to temporarily remove the monument because of potential violence. County government has been an obstacle to those plans, securing a restraining order last week.

The Lexington Dispatch reported Friday that county government in a court petition accused the city of actively planning to remove the statue before a judgment could be rendered about whether the city had the right to do so. In a statement posted on its website, the city of Lexington says the Robert E. Lee Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy is frustrated with the county’s actions. The same appears to be true for city officials, who haven’t been shy about telling the public how they feel.

“The city of Lexington is deeply disappointed Davidson County continues to ignore the deeply divisive nature of the monument as well as the threat it poses to both public safety and our business community,” the city said in its statement posted online. “Davidson County is on the wrong side of history. To many, this monument is a symbol of oppression and a painful reminder of racial injustice. As we aspire to become a City of Choice, and perhaps most importantly, a City of Unity, we remain committed to creating an inclusive, safe and welcoming community. We pledge to continue to fight for what is right and just.”

County officials are staying quiet about the matter. Unlike Lexington, there are no news releases or statements online. The Lexington Dispatch reported Friday that Davidson County officials weren’t willing to comment on the matter.

As a refresher, regardless of whether they personally agreed with the city’s decision, Rowan County officials took no action or made public pronouncements as the city of Salisbury was debating and voting on removal. While “Fame” was a few steps from the county’s administration building and the county commissioner chambers, they had no claim to the land on which the monument stood.

Worth noting: When the Salisbury City Council resolved to take action, it only needed to come to an agreement with one party — the Robert F. Hoke Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. That’s not the case in Lexington.

Also worth noting: Salisbury debated removing the monument for years, but it was images of police in riot gear and gunshots being fired into the air near the monument that prompted their action.

In court documents, Lexington cites the shots fired incident as being one of many examples of its monument’s threat to public safety. But Lexington, itself, has not been immune to safety threats. A fight occurred on June 26 on the street adjacent to the monument, a group of “heavily armed protesters who support the continued existence of the monument positioned themselves in the Old Courthouse Quadrant and around the monument in a display of force showing their willingness to resort to violence to defend the monument.” A photo is included in the court filing that shows a man carrying an AR-15 rifle and a woman holding a shotgun.

Like Salisbury, police in Lexington told protesters they could not carry guns during demonstrations. Unlike police in Salisbury, who charged two men in connection to protests around “Fame,” police in Lexington have charged more than a dozen people — on charges ranging from noise ordinance violations to inciting a riot. There have been more than 100 days of protests.

Court documents show Lexington Police Chief Mark Sink testified, “In my nearly 29 years of experience with the Lexington Police Department, I have never experienced the amount of tension, unrest and pending violence that I have personally witnessed escalating since these protests first began. The stage is set for Lexington, North Carolina, to be the next national news story for formerly peaceful protests turned tragically violent.”

Conflicts between city and county government aren’t unusual. It wasn’t that long ago that things were tense between Rowan County commissioners and city officials, with threats to move a number of offices out of downtown and to the former Salisbury Mall. But in Lexington, the city and county are dealing with a conflict that’s several notches of intensity above anything seen recently here. Now that it has entered court, conflicts between Rowan County’s neighbors could last for some time.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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