Mayor Kelly Girtz has called for the removal of the Confederate monument on Broad Street.
At the commission’s June 2 meeting, he instructed Athens-Clarke County Attorney Judd Drake to find “the most effective plan” for its removal, which will be implemented sometime this year.
If you’re wondering why this task was given to a lawyer and not a moving crew, the reason is SB 77, a law passed by the state legislature last year. The law was designed to strengthen a previous law discouraging progressive local governments in Georgia from doing exactly what Girtz is now planning to do, and it was supported by four-fifths of Athens’ own delegation (Rep. Spencer Frye, the lone Democrat, being the only no vote).
The law states, “No publicly owned monument… shall be relocated, removed, concealed, obscured, or altered in any fashion,” and calls for a fine equal to triple the cost of repairing or replacing such monuments. However, it does have an exception for “preservation, protection, and interpretation of such monuments.”
This is the loophole Girtz believes he can drive an obelisk through, and no one objected. “That monument has to come down, immediately,” Commissioner Russell Edwards said.
Protesters spray-painted the monument during the George Floyd protest the previous Sunday, which may be reason enough to support moving it for its own protection, in accordance with SB 77. It is also serving as a focal point for daily protests, making the idea that it could be in imminent danger more plausible.
The monument’s defacement followed the May 31 March for a World Without Cops. Protesters remained late into the evening. ACC Police ultimately dispersed them using tear gas and “bean bag” rounds, something commissioners Mariah Parker and Tim Denson sharply criticized. “There is never an excuse for us to tear gas our own people, sitting peacefully protesting,” Denson said.
Denson also described the “terrible pain” that tear gas inflicts, saying he saw high-school and college-age students “throwing up in parking lots, crying.”
“This was done by the hands of our own police,” Denson added.
“I stand with the non-violent protesters who were tear-gassed,” said Parker, who helped organize the demonstration. “I am here for you in supporting whatever it takes for you all to heal from the harm that this local government did to you.”
Parker then repeated the plan unveiled at the protest, calling for a 10-year transition plan to convert half of the county’s armed police officer positions to unarmed social workers, mental health professionals and counselors.
Incidentally, Parker announced the next day that she had tested positive for coronavirus, though she was not suffering any symptoms, and urged others who’d come into contact with her to get tested as well.
Also at this meeting, the mayor and commission extended the local state of emergency related to COVID-19 to Aug. 11. While it no longer has any effect on business operations or movement of individuals, since Gov. Brian Kemp’s orders supersede local ordinances, this order does allow the continued deferment of occupation tax and some regulatory fees. In addition, it allows for continued to-go sales of beer and wine at local restaurants.
As the economy begins to reopen, the commission is urging everyone to wear a mask and maintain social distancing as much as possible. Wearing a mask is essential to stopping the spread of this deadly disease, especially when in closed off spaces around other people. The commission passed a resolution urging masks to be worn in enclosed areas and when outside in heavily traveled areas such as sidewalks, public parks, parking lots, when on public transit and in other areas as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The local government will purchase 42,000 surgical masks and 7,000 of the more effective but hard-to-find N95 masks, along with other supplies to help slow the spread of coronavirus, using $145,000 in federal grant money approved by the commission at this meeting. These masks will be handed out for free to riders of Athens Transit and visitors to the courthouse, which has reopened.
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