Over the weekend of Aug. 19 and 20, a masked person dressed all in black took a sledgehammer to Christopher Columbus monument in Baltimore, reportedly the oldest in the nation, quite literally smashing a symbol of White supremacy. The action occurred days after the Baltimore City Council executed a swift removal of symbols of the Confederacy in the dead of night.
In Houston, a 25-year-old man was arrested in Hermann Park, kneeling in the bushes in front of a monument dedicated to Gen. Richard Dowling, a Confederate leader remembered for his victory at the Second Battle of Sabine Pass. The man had what authorities believed to be the makings of a bomb, according to a release from the local U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The Chicago Tribune reported that eight people had been arrested for the toppling of a Confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina. A line of more than 100 people gathered in front of the sheriff’s office to surrender themselves in solidarity, according to a statement from law enforcement.
The rapid-fire removal — sanctioned and not — and defacement of monuments seen as symbols of White supremacy and America’s racist roots followed the conflict in Charlottesville, Virginia, where thousands of members of alt-right groups and Nazis protested the planned removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee. The protests became violent, and one woman, Heather Heyer, died when a man plowed his car into a group of counter-demonstrators.
To say that the brutality in Charlottesville was about a statue is akin to arguing that World War I was a reaction to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand: It provided a flashpoint at which simmering White resentment combined with months of planning within the alt-right created combustible results.
But the power of these statues as symbols, as rallying points for hatred and gross ideology, is as potent to one side as their removal is to the other, and Seattle, far from the historic epicenter of the Confederacy, is no exception.
Seattleites rediscovered a little-mentioned memorial to Confederate soldiers tucked away in a private cemetery in Volunteer Park. The 10-ton memorial, erected in the 1920s by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, is the target of a petition by a man who has identified himself as Ian S. It was, he said, fabricated out of granite from Stone Mountain, also the site of one of the largest bas-reliefs in the world that features three Confederate leaders including Lee, Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) calls it the South’s version of Mount Rushmore.
“I think this is the most low hanging fruit,” Ian S. said.
The cemetery received so many threatening calls that it closed for several days.
At press time, the petition attracted more than 5,388 electronic signatures, and prompted the release of a statement by Mayor Ed Murray, who said he supported the removal of the memorial and others of its kind, but ultimately had no control over its continued presence at the private Lake View Cemetery.
“During this troubling time when neo-Nazis and White-power groups are escalating their racist activity, Seattle needs to join with cities and towns across the country who are sending a strong message by taking these archaic symbols down,” Murray said in the statement.
Arguments to keep the statues and memorials in public spaces lean on the idea that removing them is “erasing history,” as though the visual representation of the men who fought to tear the country apart so that they could continue building wealth on the backs of Black people is the only way that the deadliest war in American history will be preserved.
It’s the kind of facile thinking that allowed President Donald Trump to claim a false equivalence between statues of George Washington and Robert E. Lee because both men owned slaves.
There are more than 700 statues and monuments to the Confederacy, most in the South built before 1950, decades after the conclusion of the war.
“So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?” Trump said at a bruising press conference on Aug. 15. “You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
The better question is, “Where does it start?”
George Washington, like Christopher Columbus, is a deeply problematic figure for people who rightly say that he helped found a nation on stolen land by oppressing and enslaving minorities. A conversation about the kinds of monuments we should embrace in our country and how they express our shared values as Americans is long overdue and difficult, particularly around figures whose historical treatment requires a nuanced understanding of U.S. history.
Some are a bit easier.
In 2016, the SPLC released a survey in which it identified more than 1,500 monuments to the losing side of the American Civil War in public spaces, and 109 elementary schools named after Confederate figures. There were more than 700 statues and monuments to the Confederacy, most in the South built before 1950, decades after the conclusion of the war. Dozens more were dedicated or rededicated at the height of the Civil Rights era as tangible statements of the racist values against which the movement fought.
The momentum around these symbols in the wake of Charlottesville is strong, and tensions are high. The recent spate of vandalism against monuments deemed offensive makes one point clear: If decisions about how American cities represent their history are not made collectively, individuals will take matters into their own hands.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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