Mayor says angry Charlottesville City Council meeting start of "catharsis"

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- The mayor of Charlottesville says an outbreak of anger at a city council meeting shows how deeply traumatized the community was by a violent white nationalist rally.

Mayor Mike Signer told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the outbursts at the meeting a night earlier were the "beginning of the process of catharsis."

The protests forced the council to abandon its agenda, and members instead took comments from the crowd.

Toward the end of the meeting, the council voted to cover two Confederate statues with black fabric to signal the city's mourning for Heather Heyer, who was killed when a car slammed into a crowd protesting the rally. Signer says city staff are sorting how to do that. He says it's "not a trivial undertaking" because the statues are large and the material needs to be able to withstand the elements.

A police spokesperson said three Charlottesville residents -- ages 29, 30 and 43 -- were arrested and taken into custody Monday night after the meeting. They were charged with disorderly conduct or obstruction and released on summons.

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Residents hold sign at an Aug. 21, 2017, Charlottesville City Council meeting, blaming some council members for violence at Aug. 12 white supremacist rally where one counter-protester was killed.

WCAV-TV

The council meeting was the first since the "Unite the Right" event, which was believed to be the largest gathering of white nationalists in a decade. The demonstrators arrived in Charlottesville partly to protest the city council's vote to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

That removal is in the midst of a legal challenge. A state law passed in 1998 forbids local governments from removing, damaging or defacing war monuments, but there is legal ambiguity about whether that applies to statues such as the Lee monument, which was erected before the law was passed. A judge has issued an injunction preventing the city from removing the Lee statue while the lawsuit plays out.

At the meeting, many speakers directed their anger at Signer. They expressed frustration that city leaders had granted a permit for the rally and criticized police for allowing the two sides to clash violently before the rally even started. That fighting went on largely uninterrupted by authorities, until the event was declared an unlawful assembly and the crowd was forced to disperse.

"Why did you think that you could walk in here and do business as usual after what happened on the 12th?" City Council candidate and community activist Nikuyah Walker said.

The mayor tried to restore order, but as tensions escalated, the meeting was temporarily suspended. Video showed protesters chanting "blood on your hands" as Signer stood at the front of the room. Others held signs calling for his resignation.

When the meeting resumed, the agenda was scuttled and the council listened to input from residents.

The council also voted to take the procedural first steps toward removing a statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. City leaders had initially planned to leave it in place.

"I believe that the removal of the Confederate statues is a necessary part of showing that this community can be truly a community of mutual respect," Councilwoman Kristin Szakos, who proposed covering the statues, said in a statement. "We must do that if we hope to move forward to true justice and equity. We should have done it years ago."

A woman who told the council her daughter was hurt in the car collision also asked why the number of injured had been widely reported as 19 when she believed it was higher.

The University of Virginia Medical Center said it treated 19 patients -- a number the city repeated in a news release. On Tuesday, a spokesman for Sentara Martha Jefferson hospital said it treated 15 patients from the rally over the weekend. Eleven were directly related to the car incident, and one was transferred to UVA, he said.