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  1. Florida Politics

Hillsborough commissioners renew monument debate while St. Petersburg swiftly moves Confederate marker

Mayor Rick Kriseman said the quiet removal of the obscure plaque was done in the interest of public safety.
Published Aug. 16, 2017

Without public comment or deliberation, St. Petersburg officials on Tuesday quietly removed an obscure reminder of the Confederacy sitting on the city's downtown waterfront.

Meanwhile, a debate over the future of Tampa's Confederate monument — one that began long before last weekend's violent white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Va., but persists today — will likely continue during today's Hillsborough County Commission meeting.

Commissioners there will decide whether to move ahead with a proposal to prohibit the removal of all war memorials that honor veterans or the conflicts they fought in. If it advances, there will be a public hearing Sept. 7.

The idea for the so-called "Memorial Protection Ordinance'' was born out of the contentious fight over a 106-year-old Confederate monument, Memoria in Aeterna, that stands outside the old county courthouse in downtown Tampa. As written, the ordinance would not change a 4-2 vote last month to move the monument to a private family cemetery in Brandon.

But it would make it a misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine to remove war memorials such as those outside the old courthouse honoring World War and Korean War veterans, Lutz Memorial Park, the Sheriff's 9/11 memorial in Ybor, the memorials at Veterans Memorial Park in east Hillsborough and others at various cemeteries maintained by the county.

Opponents of removal remain hopeful that commissioners might put the questions to voters next fall. Speculation swirled this week when Commissioner Victor Crist, who previously said he would support a referendum, placed on the agenda a request for county staffers to update commissioners on the relocation of the monument.

But Crist said Tuesday that he has "no interest in a circus and no fight planned." Instead, he wants commissioners to discuss how to proceed if a private fundraising campaign fails to bring in the money needed to remove it. As of Tuesday evening, organizers had raised $7,835 toward a goal of $200,000.

"I'm okay with it moving," Crist said. "I'm not okay with tax dollars paying for it."

The monthslong debate in Hillsborough stands in stark contrast to Tuesday's action in St. Petersburg.

Mayor Rick Kriseman ordered city workers to remove a plaque noting the southern terminus of the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Highway at the intersection of Central Avenue and Bayshore Drive. A local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy put down the stone marker on Jan. 22, 1939.

The decision comes after the deadly protest last weekend in Charlottesville, where white supremacists and neo-Nazis were among those rallying against the removal of a statue honoring Confederate general Robert E. Lee. One protester who espoused white nationalist ideals drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, injuring 19 and killing one. Two state troopers also died in a helicopter crash while monitoring the rally.

Kriseman consulted with police Chief Tony Holloway, who suggested removing it quietly without alerting the public or the media in the interest of public safety, said mayoral spokesman Ben Kirby.

"The plaque may not have elicited the same attention or emotions as the offensive statues and monuments that glorify the Confederacy, but that's no reason for it remain on public land and serve as a flashpoint in this national debate," Kriseman said in a statement.

Kriseman's top challenger in the upcoming mayoral election, former mayor Rick Baker, said he supported its removal, too.

Members of Sons of the Confederate Veterans have vowed to stand guard over Tampa's Confederate monument to prevent any unexpected efforts to remove it.

Several members of the group gathered at the courthouse Monday night to watch over it after hearing rumors that activists were planning to try to topple it, said David McCallister, commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans' Judah P. Benjamin Camp.

The unofficial guards arrived within hours of news that protesters in Durham, N.C., used a rope to topple a nearly century-old statute that stood in front of the old county courthouse.

"Durham has given impetus to people who want to take them down," McCallister said. "They won't just let them get removed quietly and peacefully."

It could be several months before county workers are able to move the monument to its new location at the Brandon family cemetery. Through ground penetrating radar, at least 20 unmarked graves were recently discovered at the site, but a spokesman for the Brandon family said last week there should still be space for it.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy unveiled the marble statue in 1911. While others, like the one in Charlottesville, memorialize generals, Tampa's monument depicts rank-and-file soldiers — one heading north to battle, the other southbound, appearing dejected.

At its dedication, the keynote speaker called black Americans an "ignorant and inferior race."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com.

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