HOLMBERG: More wounded in the battle over Monroe Park

Posted at 12:49 AM, Apr 16, 2014
and last updated 2014-04-16 12:10:50-04

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) -- “Next comment out of either of you and I’ll expel you, too!” warned Richmond City Council President Charles Samuels during Monday night’s contentious city council meeting about the future of Richmond’s central park.

Already, longtime pistol-packing council gadfly Chris Dorsey had been hauled out ofcouncil chambers and handcuffed.

Well-known anarchist Mo Karnage would publicly call Samuels a “dingo,” saying later it was the best non-expletive that came to mind. (She informed me a previous effort saw her calling the mayor a “douche cougar.”)

And 9th District Councilwoman Michelle Mosby would chastise some in the crowd about the “disrespect from the public here.”

The wounds cut unusually deep Monday. Dorsey, frequently on edge, crossed over and has been banned. Karnage, who has been slowly building a reputation as a political force, lapsed into farce again.

So it goes.  The battle for the soul of this 163-year-old, pentagonal shaped piece of parkland has been going on for 55 years, ever since the 1959 murder of prominent Richmond doctor Austin Dodson,who was robbed and beaten to death as he walked through Monroe Park to join his wife at a show.

The many vagrants (as they were called at the time) who squatted there were blamed and the city pulled up the park benches to get them to move along. Later, the park would start closing at night to thwart the many who called it home.

The 7.5-acre Monroe Park has been many things – baseball field, military camp, hospital and a popular place for protests. And it has remained a place for the homeless and hungry.

Plans to remodel the park have stalled for a generation, and a battle over a plan to finally do it has been raging for two years, including a sleep-in protest with mass arrests.

Anarchist Mo Karnage  has been at the center of the stop-it-at-all-costs opposition to any rehabbing of the park that would displace the homeless for any time.

“Gentrification and the eviction of the homeless from the park, and evicting feeding programs from the park is an act of violence,” she told me Tuesday.

She presented a plan to have their own collective take over the park instead of the city leasing it to a private-public partnership to guide Monroe Park’s future - a park preservation method used in places like New York City.

I asked her why we should trust her collective over the one the council supports. She said hers would be more diverse and less under the thumb of the mayor.

In the end, the dissent didn’t dissuade council from voting for the lease plan. “Disrupting the meeting does not resolve the issue,” Samuels warned the unsettled ones in the crowd.

Further protests are planned. Karnage posted on the anarchist collective’s website the home addresses of the mayor and several of those in the Mornoe Park Conservancy partnership who will oversee the park.  Karnage figures there’s been a line drawn in the sand, she said, and they’re not backing down.

This won’t be the first time activists have targeted the mayor’s neighborhood for attention or occupation, although you can bet the mayor and the police department are less than thrilled, especially with the listing of the home addresses of the those who have been asked to guide the park.

These tactics and antics are also wounding their cause, according to some of those who are against the park plan but are now speaking up about these higher-profile messengers tainting the message.

And there’s another irony, wrote Tom Garrett in a posting about this controversy: “In many cases, it is these progressive, activist (or at least slacktivist), arty types who embody the resistant-to-change mentality that they think they oppose.”

Both Karnage and Dorsey, no doubt, still have their supporters who see them as lone, loud voices against the empire. There will likely be a large turnout during Saturday’s Monroe Park protest.

While many others might argue, I would say this is a city, and a city council, that is very open to different ideas and voices. I’m really not sure where the thought comes from that somehow the city will freeze out the homeless and feeding programs and the rest of us just won’t care.

I’m not sure why our Central Park has to be held hostage. And I’m really not sure why we can’t let some of our amazing garden clubs lead a volunteer effort to spruce up the park ourselves, at a fraction of the cost. Just look what has been done to Libby Hill Park.

But I am pretty sure that there’s no reason for someone  like Chris Dorsey – who has consistently and loudly voiced seemingly paranoid accusations about the State Police and Capital Police being out to kill him – to bring a pistol into city council.

It’s a fine thing to call our public servants and officials  “thugs and criminals” who need to be jailed and their heads examined for “neurosis,” as Chris likes to do.

It’s another thing to froth and ramble with a pistol on your hip in a crowded room.

Finally, Chris did raise an interesting point during the confrontation with the normally reserved and helpful council point man, Steve Skinner, that led to Dorsey being bounced.

Dorsey had chosen Monday night, after all the nights he had been at council, to sit in the press box reserved for members of the media. Skinner asked him what he was doing there and Chris responded that he posted video reports on Youtube and other social media sites.

Fair point. What is the media, the press, in this era when anyone with a smart phone or laptop can file a report that can reach just as many people as the most established reporter?

That’s my take. Let’s take care of our grand park, which belongs to all of us, by the way, and not just the homeless.

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