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How cities prepare for tensions over Confederate statues

August 17, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
Statues of Confederate leaders have been removed in the night, torn down by protesters and seen as a flash point for communities, especially in the South. What challenges do cities face when trying to deal with controversial memorials, as well as the backlash? Hari Sreenivasan talks with Lt. Ryan Lee of the Portland Police Bureau and Mayor Jim Gray of Lexington, Kentucky.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now to the fallout from Charlottesville and the spotlight it cast on Confederate monuments.

The president spoke out in their defense today, even as the campaign to clear them from public spaces intensified.

Statues of Confederate leaders in Baltimore removed in the night. A monument to Confederate soldiers, in Durham, North Carolina, torn down by protesters Monday.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe joined in on CBS this morning.

GOV. TERRY MCAULIFFE (D), Virginia: It’s time for these monuments to come down. It’s time for us to move together after what happened in Charlottesville.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On Twitter, President Trump lamented the loss of Confederate monuments. “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments, “he said. And he went on: “Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson. Who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish.”

READ MORE: In 3 tweets, Trump defends ‘beautiful’ Confederate monuments

But in Durham, demonstrators turned out today to show support for the people arrested in Monday’s incident. And elsewhere:

MAN (through interpreter): The reality is that it never should have been there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Protesters rallied in Tampa, Florida, after the local government said residents will have to raise money on their own to remove a Confederate monument there.

The cries for action echoed in Congress, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi saying in a statement: “The Confederate statues in the halls of Congress have always been reprehensible.”

A spokesman for Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan said it’s up to each state to decide whose statues will represent it in the Capitol.

Back in Charlottesville, hundreds gathered for a vigil last night at the University of Virginia. Plans for the march were spread by word of mouth. The crowd walked the same route the white supremacists had taken.

JERRY CONNOR, Vigil Attendee: We’re here to take back the lawn for this student generation, but all the previous and all the future generations of students who have walked the lawn. The lawn stands for liberty, equality, justice and freedom.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But Governor McAuliffe suggested President Trump should stay away from Charlottesville.

GOV. TERRY MCAULIFFE: I do not want the president to come here to continue on with the speeches he’s given the last couple of days.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The president, in turn, denied equating white nationalists with counterprotesters, and he tweeted that the news media — quote — “totally misrepresent what I say about hate, bigotry, et cetera.”

He also dismissed Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as publicity-seeking after Graham accused him of stoking tensions.

But Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee went further today. He charged the president has not demonstrated the stability and competence needed for the White House.

Late today, President Trump decided to abandon a planned council of advisers on infrastructure.

We turn now for a closer look at the challenges cities have faced when trying to deal not only with controversial statues, but also the backlash that can bring protesters into the streets.

We spoke to two people who deal directly with these issues.

Jim Gray is mayor of Lexington, Kentucky. Tonight, the City Council there is debating how to handle their Confederate monuments. We spoke to the mayor before the council meeting began. And Lieutenant Ryan Lee is the executive officer of the Police Bureau Rapid Response Team of Portland, Oregon, where violent protests erupted earlier this summer.

Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

Mayor Jim Gray, this is something that your city may be facing sometime soon. It’s not exactly the same parallel, but there are Confederate monuments that you have wanted to move and relocate, and there’s some tension about that.

MAYOR JIM GRAY, Lexington, Kentucky: Yes, that’s right, Hari.

And for more than a year now, we have examined this issue. And on Saturday, with the regrettable and tragic events in Charlottesville, I made the decision to accelerate the putting before the City Council a resolution to relocate these monuments.

And that’s because it was the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do. These monuments today stand on really sacred — what amounts to sacred ground, ground where slaves were once auctioned, were sold into slavery, men, women and children were sold into slavery.

So this is the right thing to do to remove and to relocate these statues in a place where the full context and the full story of the tragedy of the Civil war could be shared and — shared and taught.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mayor Gray, staying with you for a second, how is your police department preparing for the possibility that people who want to tear the statue down want to make Lexington another example?

JIM GRAY: Well, our police department is disciplined and prepared, but let me tell you about the requirements, the legal requirements.

The law in Kentucky requires that these statues, any movement of these statues first be put before what’s called the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission.

So, within the law today, we are operating within that law. Our police are prepared. We are a peaceful city. We are a city that’s a giving and compassionate city, but we’re also disciplined and prepared.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Lieutenant Ryan Lee, your city faced some very difficult protests. How did you get through them?

LT. RYAN LEE, Portland Police Bureau: It’s important for us when we’re approaching these situations to understand that there is an exercise, a lawful exercise of First Amendment rights.

And while I may personally find the content of somebody’s speech personally reprehensible, my role as a police officer is to facility that lawful and peaceful expression of somebody’s First Amendment rights, to try and help navigate for those people that wish to express lawfully their free speech, to try and give them a platform for it, while at the same time weighing out those governmental interests to keep the peace, to maintain law and order and to meet the public’s expectation of what they want from their police force.

It’s not an easy one-solution-fits-all. For us, it required reaching out to a variety of organizers from all sides of the political spectrum, trying to get them to self-police, and then developing plans in place to keep public order if necessary.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mayor Gray, those are great suggestions that Lieutenant Lee has. Is that what your police department is doing? Tell me a little bit about the strategy on you’re planning these things through.

JIM GRAY: Sure.

Well, our police chief has reached out to Charlottesville, to those who are responsible in Charlottesville to try to gain lessons learned there.

Our police department is often set up as one of the finest in the country, an example in the country for its discipline, for its preparedness, dealing with crises, dealing with demands routinely.

So, we’re prepared. So, we’re reaching out to state and federal, also, of course, local jurisdictions who may provide help. And they’re doing a commendable job today of preparing.

But as the lieutenant said, this country founded — one of its, of course, founding principles is the right to free speech. But that — when it extends over into hatred and violence and those expressions in a violent way, of course, then that’s when we need to be prepared. And we are.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mayor Gray, where is that threshold for you? One of the most striking images from Charlottesville were the police standing back and there were people fighting right in front of those officers.

Do you have instructions to your police department that say, get involved when X happens or Y happens?

JIM GRAY: You know, that’s the responsibility of our police chief, our command unit of our police. The lieutenant knows those protocols well.

We expect to deal with these issues, should they emerge. We expect and we will deal with them responsibly, but we will deal with them effectively and in a disciplined way.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Lieutenant Lee, looking back at what happened in Charlottesville, I’m not asking you to armchair quarterback, but if this happened in your city, what are the guidelines?

What is the strategy that you say? I realize there are case-by-case decisions that the officers have to make, but there seem to be very different approaches the departments take to try to cordon people off into different physical spaces, so that they can’t clash as easily, maybe use other tools like bicycles and so forth.

What do you do?

LT. RYAN LEE: Well, as you mentioned, we do try and cordon people off as appropriate.

We can put place reasonable time, place and manner restrictions upon free speech, if necessary. We have to allow for some alternative form of expression. So, the ability to set particularly opposing groups apart, whether it’s through fencing, whether it’s through physically locating officers between them, that’s an option. It’s a possibility.

What is legally possible from state to state and city to city changes, so some of the things that may be both legally acceptable here in the city of Portland and socially acceptable, with the expectations of the public, may vary from place to place.

So the options that were on the table for Charlottesville may not be the same for us. When we look at these groups, there’s often sort of a mistake, where people see — they just see it as a dichotomy. They look and they see what they think are homogeneous groups. This group represents one side, and another group represents another.

But what, from dealing with crowds, we have learned over the years is that there are a variety of like-minded clusters that sort of form out a plot point for a spectrum of opinion.

And so it’s recognizing those people in those groups that plot as wanting to carry out a lawful expression of their First Amendment rights, trying to communicate and coordinate with them, and trying to get them to sort of outgroup or excise those that really are just seeking a violent confrontation, so if the police can address the conduct there and keep it safe for all parties to express their free speech.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Lieutenant Lee, is it more complicated when it is groups of protesters attacking each other vs. when you know there is one specific group that’s out there?

LT. RYAN LEE: It makes the equation more complicated, but, ultimately, when we’re dealing with these violent protests, these violent confrontations, we’re really looking at conduct, not content.

It does change the equation, that, sometimes, we will have events where the animosity is focused towards the police. And now we have to be concerned with sort of a third party in multiple different groups who are really — again, when we’re talking about the conduct, there are those people in those groups that are seeking violence.

And, unfortunately, there are times that that violence can be directed towards somebody of an opposing political view or simply directed towards the police. It makes it a more complex equation to work through, but, ultimately, we’re dealing with conduct.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Lieutenant Ryan lee of Portland, Oregon, and Mayor Jim Gray of Lexington, Kentucky, thank you both for joining us tonight.

LT. RYAN LEE: Thank you.

JIM GRAY: Thank you.

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