Confederate statue topic of forum
BENTONVILLE — A local mediator is organizing a public forum about the Confederate statue on the downtown square hoping for an honest and productive conversation about the issues surrounding the controversial monument.
Public Discussion NWA will host the event from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday at Northwest Arkansas Community College, in partnership with Compassion Fayetteville and the OMNI Center for Peace.
Public Discussion NWA is an activity of Comstock Conflict Resolution Services. Its events are moderated with the “belief that talking with each other and learning together lead to collaboration,” according to the company’s website.
A couple of panelists will provide objective information about the statue and Arkansas history, said Jon Comstock, owner of the conflict resolution company.
“It would be just to lay out some basic information” and a “jumping off point” for the discussion, he said. Comstock will moderate the event.
The purpose is not to make a decision or take a vote, but to engage in healthy conversation, he said.
What to do with Confederate statues and monuments has been a hot topic across the country since a brawl broke out between white nationalists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., over the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in August.
Baltimore quietly removed four statues overnight only a few days after the violence in Charlottesville. Other cities are discussing what to do with their monuments and San Antonio removed one from a park early Friday.
Local government officials said since the Charlottesville events they have fielded questions and comments about the statue memorializing Confederate soldiers on the downtown square.
Residents have started five petitions dealing with the statue on change.org. Three of the petitions have just a handful of supporters, but “Keep the James H. Berry Monument in Downtown Bentonville, Arkansas” had 14,517 supporters as of midday Friday. “Move the Confederate Monument in Downtown Bentonville to a more appropriate location,” a petition by Ozark Indivisible, had 4,808 supporters.
Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin and Benton County Judge Barry Moehring have said most of the comments they’ve received say keep the statue where it is.
More than 100 people attended Ozark Indivisible’s Stand in Solidarity with Charlottesville event Aug. 13 around the monument. People from outside Benton County participated.
Local historian Randy McCrory said he’s worried residents from outside the county will come to the forum when it isn’t their issue to deal with. They don’t understand the reasoning of longtime city residents, he said, calling the statue the “heart of Bentonville.”
“There’s been an influx of people from all over the place trying to tell us what we need to do with the statue,” he said. “I think this is strictly a Benton County issue.”
McCrory said he’s not sure why there is so much opposition now to the statue. There were no problems when it was rededicated and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996 nor when its centennial anniversary was celebrated in 2008, he said.
The statue memorializes Confederate soldiers and was placed on the downtown square by agreement between the county and the James H. Berry chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1908, according to county records.
The group was given the right to “control and occupy” the park for the purpose of maintaining the monument. The chapter was “no longer active,” and the county transferred the authority to beautify and maintain the square to the city in 1996, according to a county court order. The county retained ownership of the square under both arrangements.
The statue is a point of pride for some and pain for others, Comstock said. Both sides feel as if their dignity is being attacked.
“When we feel like our dignity is being attacked, we all react the same way,” he said. “It’s like we’re backed into a corner.”
Saturday’s event is not about changing minds but being able to listen to those who have differing opinions and be heard, which can be a cathartic experience, Comstock said.
“What I find in mediation is most people just want to be heard,” he said. “It’s not really about the statue. The statue is an opportunity to have a conversation that’s really been delayed longer than it should have been.”
A Confederate monument of James H. Berry stands on the Bentonville square.