Several dozen people, many of them armed with semi-automatic rifles, gathered around the Confederate statue on the southeast corner of De Leon Plaza Tuesday afternoon as local residents debated whether the statue should be removed during a virtual Victoria City Council meeting.
As the crowd stood on De Leon Plaza, a debate lasting more than two hours took place during the Victoria City Council meeting on Zoom. More than 25 people urged city leaders to either keep the monument as it stands or remove it from the public square during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Those assembled at the plaza expressed frustration with “cancel culture” and condemned the protests that swept the country after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.
Some came from hours away, including Kristi Mehrens, 50, of Rosharon in Brazoria County. Mehrens said she heard that the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who donated the statue to the city in 1912, were trying to preserve the statue and wanted to offer her support.
“It’s our freedom of speech that we’re trying to protect,” she said. “We’re people trying to protect our constitutional freedoms.”
Shawn Summers, who drove down from College Station, said he has attended rallies at other statues around the state, including Texas A&M’s Sul Ross statue. He said those protesting George Floyd’s death are trying to incite violence and division rather than protest police brutality.
“That ain’t what this is about,” he said. “This is about people wanting to destroy property and burn buildings.”
Brehaven Garner, 20, of Victoria, said she was shocked to see an armed crowd gathered on DeLeon Plaza as she stood on the sidewalk across the street. Garner attended the Black Lives Matter protest in Victoria in early June, which drew nearly 800 protesters and was peaceful.
“It was just a peaceful protest. They shouldn’t be concerned,” Garner said. “I’ve never seen Victoria act like this.”
During the council meeting, the majority of those who spoke called on city leaders to leave the Confederate monument in its place.
Among those who urged the council members to do the opposite was Kim Pickens, who said that for more than 100 years, the statue has been “a reminder of Confederate values and ideologies.” There is “no ambiguity” as to why the statue was erected in downtown Victoria, she said. “It sent a message that white people will always be considered better than people of color, which included African and Native American peoples.”
Pickens suggested moving the monument to Evergreen Cemetery, where more than 130 Confederate soldiers are buried, and leaving the space that the monument occupies empty to serve as a reminder that the community rejects hate and ignorance and is welcoming to all.
“We must address our past so it can be reconciled and a new way forged forward that promotes unity and diversity,” she said.
Linda Henry, on the other hand, said in all the years the monument has been a part of Victoria standing tall in the plaza, “it’s not bothered anybody.”
“This statue does not mean anyone wants to see slavery again; no one does,” she said. “I just think this is a crazy idea to remove it... we want Victoria to remain Victoria.”
Others, including Michelle Adams, agreed.
“I’m here to stand in defense, not just of this monument but every Confederate monument in the state of Texas that is still left standing,” she said. “This is not just a monument, this is our history.”
Victoria County Commissioner Clint Ives said Victoria County would “gladly” receive or purchase the monument from the city and “move it right across the street to the courthouse.”
University of Houston-Victoria history professor Joseph Locke said removal of the statue from the plaza would not “erase history” as some residents have claimed. Recognizing Victoria’s “fascinating” history is important, but can be done while removing the statute from the public square.
“We need more statues, we need more monuments, we need more memorials, but not this one,” he said. “It doesn’t belong in a public space. It belongs instead in a museum where it can be contextualized as the artifact of history that it is, not history itself.”
Because the discussion took place during the public comment portion of the meeting, the City Council did not respond to any comments or discuss the topic.
Rather than leaving a decision up to city officials at all, two members of the public, including Victoria County Republican Party Chairman Bill Pozzi, urged the council to let residents be the ones to make a decision about the monument by putting the matter on the next city election.
“Let the people answer this,” Pozzi said. “We’ll have an election, it’ll be decided and it’ll take the heat off the City Council and off the mayor. I think it’s the right thing to do.”