By Alex Dobuzinskis and Gina Cherelus
(Reuters) – Authorities in Houston charged a 25-year-old man on Monday with trying to blow up a Confederate statue, federal prosecutors said, in the latest development amid demonstrations and fierce debate about race and the legacy of America’s Civil War.
Word of the arrest of Andrew Schneck came just hours after the University of Texas at Austin said it removed four statues tied to the Confederacy from its campus because they had become “symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism.”
White nationalists rallied earlier this month against proposals to take down a similar statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, and one woman was killed when a man crashed his car into a crowd of anti-racism counterprotesters.
The violence triggered the biggest domestic crisis yet for President Donald Trump, who provoked anger across the political spectrum for not immediately condemning white nationalists and for praising “very fine people” on both sides of the fight.
Federal prosecutors said in a statement that on Saturday night a park ranger spotted Schneck kneeling in bushes in front of the General Dowling Monument in Houston’s Hermann Park.
In Schneck’s possession were a timer, wires, duct tape and two types of explosive including nitroglycerin, according to the prosecutors who described it as one of the world’s most powerful explosives. The items could have been used to make a viable explosive device, the prosecutors’ statement said.
If convicted of trying to maliciously damage or destroy property receiving federal financial assistance, Schneck faces up to 40 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
A growing number of U.S. political leaders have called for the removal of statues honoring the Confederacy. Civil rights activists charge that they promote racism while advocates of the statues contend they are a reminder of their heritage.
In Baltimore on Monday, authorities were investigating reports of vandalism at a 225-year-old monument to explorer Christopher Columbus, police said. A video posted online appeared to show two hooded figures striking the obelisk’s base with a sledgehammer after taping to it a sign that read: “The future is racial and economic justice.”
Baltimore took down four Confederate monuments last week.
Among the four statues removed overnight at the University at Austin was one of General Robert E. Lee, who led the pro-slavery Confederacy’s army during the Civil War.
The school’s president, Greg Fenves, said in a statement that the monuments had to go following the “horrific displays of hatred” in Virginia that shocked and saddened the nation.
There are about 700 monuments to the Confederacy in public spaces across the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, with the majority of them erected early in the 20th century amid a backlash among segregationists against the civil rights movement.
Fenves said the statue of Lee will be placed in the school’s Briscoe Center for American History and made available for scholarly study.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler said on Twitter on Monday: “Putting these statues in a history museum appropriately puts this past where it belongs.”
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Andrea Ricci)