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COLUMN — Monument argument is just a distraction

On Friday, parts of Virginia began to open further as Phase 2 of the governor’s plan came into effect for most of Virginia, excluding NOVA and Richmond.

Phase 2 of the opening plan lifts more restrictions, but not all of them. Northern Virginia and Richmond will remain in Phase 1. Accomack County, which had yet to move to Phase 1 will move directly into Phase 2.

Earlier this week, Del. Dave LaRock and our leadership team sent a letter to the Virginia Board of Health, pointing out some glaring shortcomings in the restrictions placed on Virginians by Gov. Ralph Northam and Dr. Norman Oliver.

Virginia has emergency laws on the books for good reason. There are times when events overtake the ability of deliberative bodies to act. In the case of a new disease, the health commissioner may take certain actions on behalf of the board of health to slow the spread of a contagious virus.

Now nearly three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the board of health has yet to take any action to ratify any of Oliver’s orders. Even after the board was made aware of this deficiency, they took no action to even rubber stamp the orders now in place.

Virginia has rules like the Administrative Process Act in place for a reason. Emergency rules are fine in a crisis, but when time permits, proper order must be followed. The board has yet to do that.

Gov. Northam and Mayor Stoney have failed in their leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, and those failures were only compounded by their handling of the protests and riots following the inexcusable police killing of George Floyd. Stoney and Northam failed to act for 48 hours, allowing arson, looting, and vandalism to run wild in Richmond and other cities around the commonwealth.

The dysfunction in Richmond was so bad that police used tear gas on peaceful protesters without warning, before curfew, and lied about it. Stoney and his team were forced to apologize to protesters in person.

As businesses were burned and looted around Virginia for 48 hours, the governor was nowhere to be seen, leaving local leaders to fend for themselves. When the governor finally did emerge from hiding to hold a press event on Tuesday, he couldn’t bring himself to criticize the people a reporter said were “destroying the city.” Instead, the governor said we should “listen” to looters and arsonists.

Peaceful protest is part of the American experience. It is protected by the Constitution, and in the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd, they are absolutely justified. Those who loot, burn, and vandalize are hurting the very communities they say they want to support. Calling those people out is just as American as a peaceful protest or civil disobedience.

It is absolutely clear that Gov. Northam is so paralyzed by his past statements and actions on matters of race that he is unable to lead effectively at this time.

Rather than address the real problems in law enforcement by proposing things like a citizen review board, the end of qualified immunity for police officers and other substantive changes, Northam and Stoney chose to make a symbolic gesture — one that short-circuits what was a significant amount of unity on the need for reform.

Reasonable people can disagree on monuments, but what Gov. Northam and Mayor Stoney have done, along with provocateurs like Sen. Amanda Chase, is to pour gas on an already growing fire of anger and unrest.

Before their announcement, there was wide consensus that not only was the killing of George Floyd reprehensible, but also that reform was necessary and urgent.

By shifting the discussion away from reform to monuments, Northam and Stoney have pushed people who were ready to reach across the aisle and work on this serious issue back into a defensive crouch.

Northam was already flailing due to his failed leadership on COVID-19. He has made inconsistent decisions, ignored the advice of his own reopening advisers, and turned a deaf ear to southwest and southside Virginia when they asked to restart their economies.

Both the governor and the mayor had little choice but to change the subject in the most sweeping way they had at their disposal — thus, monument removal became the order of the day.

A bill introduced during session this year passed the House and Senate giving local governments control over monuments starting July 1. The language of the bill states that if the governing body votes to remove, relocate, contextualize, or cover the monument or memorial, the local governing body shall first, for a period of 30 days, offer the monument or memorial for relocation and placement to any museum, historical society, government, or military battlefield.

Del. C. Matthew Fariss represents Buckingham in the Virginia House of Delegates. His email address is DelMFariss@house.virginia.gov.