A state legislator who represents Stafford County said she agrees with activists who unsuccessfully urged county officials on Tuesday to order the removal of an 80-foot-high Confederate flag flying along Interstate 95.
By Katie Bashista and Siona Peterous for Capital News Service
Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, said she is against flying the flag towering next to I-95 north of Fredericksburg because she believes it sends the wrong message about the area.
“In Stafford, and all of Virginia, we want to send a message that we are open for business,” Carroll Foy said. “We don’t want signs of division. We don’t want flags being flown that represent racial inequality or symbols of hatred or racism.”
Carroll Foy, whose 2nd House District includes parts of Prince William and Stafford counties, reflected the feelings of more than a dozen people who participated in a series of demonstrations against the flag Tuesday.
The flag has been a source of controversy among residents since it was erected by the Virginia Flaggers Association in 2014. Demands to remove it ramped up after neo-Nazis and other white supremacists held a rally in Charlottesville in August.
Tuesday’s protests were organized by the Stafford NAACP and Stafford Indivisible Community Action Network. The demonstrators met near the county courthouse throughout the afternoon in preparation for a hearing before the Board of Zoning Appeals.
“I was there in Charlottesville during the Unite the Right movement, and I watched the white supremacists walk by me with their Confederate flags and Nazi flags in tandem,” said Bill Johnson-Miles, a lead organizer for community action network. “We feel that the flag is so huge, it’s not really protected by the First Amendment. It’s really a zoning violation.”
The demonstrators wanted the board to overturn a decision made by Stafford County last year to keep the flag in place.
“This isn’t the first time we are asking the county to do this,” said Kim Wyman, a Spotsylvania resident and regional activist with the community action network. “I’m all for personal freedom of speech, but 80 feet high is a megaphone and we need a sound ordinance.”
Wyman said she understands the county may not remove the flag because of free-speech protections. But she said she would like to see Stafford County sponsor a billboard that disavows what she views as a hate symbol. Otherwise, drivers on I-95 will get the wrong impression, she said.
“People driving by think it’s the town. They don’t realize it’s just one guy or one organization,” Wyman said.
At Tuesday evening’s meeting, the Board of Zoning Appeals dismissed the complaint before it was heard, much to the frustration of the activists. Stafford County officials say they have found no legal basis to remove the flag.
“They decided the applicant (of the appeal) did not have standing, and they dismissed it,” said a county spokeswoman. “It was a thorough examination, and we just didn’t find any determination of a zoning violation. So for us, there is nothing we plan on doing further.”
Bill Farrar, director of strategic communication for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said the organization takes issue with what the Confederate flag represents. At the same time, the ACLU strongly supports the First Amendment, he said.
“There is heightened sensitivity currently towards things which promote white supremacy, and we actively work against that and work towards racial justice,” Farrar said. “But we also firmly believe that the right to free speech is foundational. And if we limit that right based on any particular viewpoint, then we limit that right for everyone.”