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Charlottesville debated removing a statue of Robert E. Lee. Then white nationalists came to town.

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The debate over the statue began about a year and a half ago, when an African-American high school student here started a petition to have it removed. Wes Bellamy, the city’s vice mayor and the only black member of the City Council, took up the cause, and the Council set up a commission. After public hearings, it recommended either that the statue be relocated to another park or that the city add historical context so that the monument could “transform in place.”

Instead, City Council members voted 3 to 2 in April to sell the statue. The next month, a judge issued an injunction, keeping the statue in place for six months.

“Charlottesville kind of made itself a target by deciding they wanted to remove this statue, and by stringing the whole thing out,” said Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor who is planning to give a talk on free speech Saturday as part of a “day of reflective conversation” organized by the university.