Sullivan County Commissioner Mark Vance is embroiled in controversy for a comment he posted Monday night on Facebook.
A little after 10 p.m., Vance — a Bristol resident who represents the county’s second district — wrote the following comment in white text against a red background:
“Making any comment about this socialist agenda will create tension and controversy. But when they want to remove Statues, pictures of Jesus and claiming [sic] White Supermacy [sic] is WRONG!!! Let the war begin!!”
In a Wednesday phone interview, Vance confirmed that he wrote the post and said it was in response to statements made by Shaun King, an activist who promotes the Black Lives Matter movement and other social justice issues. King tweeted on Monday that he thinks statues depicting Jesus as a white man “should ... come down. They are a form of white supremacy. Always have been.” The statement prompted online criticism and fed into the ongoing debate surrounding the removal of prominent statues across the U.S.
Vance’s original response to King’s statement was met with anger and accusations that the county commissioner was endorsing white supremacy and violence.
“It was an incoherent, racist, violence-tinged post,” said Bristol resident Katie Sword during a Wednesday phone interview. “He is an elected official that, in my opinion, should not be putting out this kind of tone.”
Sword said she shared a post about Vance’s comment from The Tennessee Holler, a citizen-supported progressive news site, to her own Facebook page, where she said it also surprised and angered some of her friends.
“Whoa! What? White supremacy isn’t wrong? And who wants to remove pictures of Jesus? Is he watching a different channel that I don’t know about?” one of Sword’s Facebook friends remarked in response to the shared post.
“It felt inappropriate and a little scary,” Sword added during another phone call on Thursday. “When [Vance] said, ‘Let the war begin,’ there’s not a lot of ways to interpret a call to arms like that, you know? If he says, ‘I disagree with that greatly,’ then fine. But that’s not what he chose to say.”
Around midday on Tuesday, after The Tennessee Holler publicized his original post, Vance edited the post, deleting the “Let the war begin!!” sentence and replacing it with “Is this the beginning of a religious war?? I hope not!”
“I changed it trying to verify what I meant by the original comment,” Vance said Tuesday afternoon. “The original comment may have made it appear that I was in support of white supremacy, but I am not. … I don’t want racism in this country.”
Vance said that he was objecting to the idea that statues and representations of Jesus that depict the Christian figure as white are a form of white supremacy.
“They were trying to say that because the statues are white that people that support Jesus are white [supremacists]. And that’s not true,” Vance said.
Asked what he meant by the line “Let the war begin!” and the revised version, Vance said, “They’re trying to remove statues of Jesus, which, in my opinion, is creating a religious war in this nation that we do not need to have.”
Some of Vance’s Facebook friends responded to his edited Facebook post by saying they knew he hadn’t intended to endorse white supremacy. But their comments are no longer visible because, after editing the original post, Vance eventually deleted it.
Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable also defended Vance.
“I actually saw the [original] post, and I said, ‘Oh, I’m sure he wishes he hadn’t phrased it that way,” Venable said. “I think the term ‘white supremacy’ was in it, and I know that’s not what he was wanting to convey. It wasn’t very articulately said, and it was an emotional response, I believe.”
Venable added that he didn’t see a problem with the post coming from an elected official.
“I think any elected official has an added responsibility,” Venable said. “But … [Vance] certainly didn’t make that post as representative of the County Commission. It was representative of Mark himself.”
Others said they found Vance’s position as a public official particularly concerning.
Local resident Dani Cook, who is Black and has a large Facebook following, said in a Facebook live video Wednesday that Vance ignored private messages she sent to him questioning the meaning of his Facebook post and instead simply became combative with her on his Facebook page. (“Is it true that your [sic] for killing babies and for the Muslim community?” Vance wrote to her during a back-and-forth about the meaning of his “war” comment.)
“These are your elected officials, folks,” Cook said in the video. “These are the people that are supposed to be representing you. All of you.”
“My real concern is that ... an elected public official communicated violence and racist messaging. Period. That’s my concern,” she said.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Katie Sword’s name. The article misspelled her first name as "Katy."