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Groups clash over Lee monument in Fort Myers

Posted: 9:55 AM, May 16, 2018
Updated: 2018-05-16 14:01:07Z

FORT MYERS, Fla -- A shouting match between two groups Tuesday, clashing over whether the Robert E. Lee statue in downtown Fort Myers should stay or go.

The morning rally quickly escalated between the members of the Lee County NAACP and a group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  There were some fears it could have turned violent at moments, but it remained peaceful.

"This is not about racism, this is about heritage and history," shouted one man.

"Y'all want to embrace that?  You are anti-American, because slavery is the son of America," said another woman.

It was a heated debate; both sides with signs and shirts voicing their opinion over the bust of Robert E. Lee that is posted on Monroe Street.

"You’re brainwashing people on fiction.  They need to go back, study the real history and why Lee County was named after General Lee."

The Sons of the Confederate Veterans say the statue is a part of Lee County's heritage and history, and should stay.

The President of the Lee County NAACP disagrees.  "And we are saying to you, as American citizens, it’s offensive to us.  You are telling me you don't want to be reasonable?  You don’t want to relocate it?” said James Muwakkil.

They argue that the statue symbolizes hate and racism, and would like to see it placed in a museum or Confederate cemetery.

However, the other group disagrees.  "This is exactly where it should be.  It should be in the public landscape. In the civic landscape. It’s a form of free speech," says Sons of the Confederate Veterans spokesman David McCallister.

Lately, there's been some confusion on who has the authority to actually remove the bust.  The city says the United Daughters of the Confederacy own the statue when they placed it there back in the 1960’s.

The NAACP argues that it’s on city property, so it’s their call.

"They don't own the statue.  Fort Myers owns this statue.  This statue is on City of Fort Myers property.  It belongs to the city," says Muwakkil.

Yet the city says they have no control over taking it down.

"They authorized it.  That’s just a cop out,” says Muwakkil.

But SCV says this argument was put to rest years ago.  "It has been put to rest by a Veterans Monument Protection Ordinance here in the county.  That should be protecting this monument and say it's going to stay.  That should be the end of the debate, but Mr. Muwakkil doesn't want to accept that," says McCallister.

The NAACP says they will continue to fight to relocate the statue and will hold an even bigger rally in the future.
Tuesday Fox 4 asked the city attorney again who owns the land the Lee statue is on and what is the city's role in deciding what should happen. We got a very lengthy response from Grant Alley:

My name is Grant Alley and I am the City Attorney for the City of Fort Myers. I have been asked by the City of Fort Myers Public Information Officer to respond to your request for a story airing tonight at 6:00 PM. Because this is about our shared American History and because this subject is so important to so many people we decided to expedite a response so you can meet your deadline. Thank you for providing us with an opportunity to respond even if on such a short timeframe.
 
The City of Fort Myers is taking a comprehensive proactive approach to the debate regarding the Robert E. Lee bust on Monroe Street. The Mayor and City Council and the City Manager have facilitated a public forum for citizens to air their opinions and share their views. Many people have participated in this process in a civil and non-violent way and that shows the signs of a healthy public process. Taking the time necessary to hear from the public is responsible leadership and the City continues to learn more information about the monument as the speakers have shared their documentation and information. I trust that at the next City Council meeting additional input will be provided which will be considered by the City’s leadership in making a decision in the best interests of all the citizens of Fort Myers.
 
I am researching the origins of ownership of the statute, and the origins of ownership of the land the statute rests on, as well as whether the County Ordinance which prohibits the removal of  monuments on County property applies to this statute. We are being proactive and doing this while we are hearing from and considering the information provided by all the speakers on this subject. At the end of the day the Mayor and City Council will hear from the citizens they represent as well as the public in general and they will also be briefed on the law. Taking the time necessary to hear from the public and to be briefed on the law is something to be celebrated. It is easy to criticize but it is difficult to lead and thus far the process the City Council has used has been one of openness and genuine review of the information provided so they can have thoughtful deliberation trying to act in everyone’s best interest.