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Mayor Mitch Landrieu and City Council members joined a national movement to remove symbols that black residents feel perpetuate racism, but they’re finding you can’t do iconoclasm halfway.
As New Orleans braces for protests once a federal ruling is rendered in a case that will determine the future of local Confederate monuments, one thing is clear: both proponents and opponents of removal are unhappy with city government.
City Council members voted 6-1 last December to remove three Confederate monuments, and a fourth commemorating an attempted insurrection by white supremacists, from public spaces around the Crescent City—Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and the Battle of Liberty Place.
The decision was made amid a national backlash against Confederate symbols, following the slaying of nine black parishioners at a historic Charleston, South Carolina, church in July 2015. But it also raises the question: Why these monuments and not others?
“The four chosen by the Mayor’s Office were a way of capitulating to what it thought would be an uprising coming from the city,” said Michael “Quess” Moore, founding member and lead organizer of Take ‘Em Down NOLA. “[Mayor Mitch Landrieu] cites an ordinance some organizers helped put together decades ago calling for the removal of public nuisances.”
Moore and TEDN question the sincerity of a council worried about being on the wrong side of history, as well as the criteria used to target some monuments as racist and not at least 20 others, like one depicting President Andrew Jackson.
Jackson, who died before the outbreak of the Civil War, owned slaves and signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. That measure sent around 4,000 members of the Cherokee tribe to their deaths on a forced march west and belongs in the conversation about historical racism.
Before becoming the seventh U.S. president, Jackson also commanded the vastly outnumbered American forces to victory in the Battle of New Orleans, which some historians posit ensured the Treaty of Ghent, signed 15 days earlier without either side’s knowledge, was adhered to by the British, ending the War of 1812.
“All of our forefathers owned slaves; it was legal back then, and we’re trying to judge our ancestors by today’s morals,” said J.C. Hanna, Louisiana division commander with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “When you remove history, you start making the same mistakes again.”
SCV’s Louisiana chapter is challenging the city’s vote in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, staying the three Confederate monuments’ removal until a verdict is rendered. Like Moore, Hanna believes the City Council is motivated by politics, but that’s where the agreement ends.
“New Orleans has always been known as a city of many cultures, and that conglomeration is what has always made New Orleans stand out,” Hanna said. “The mayor and City Council decided Southern culture is no longer welcome.”
The outcry against Confederate monuments is part of a larger movement toward anarchy, Hanna said, and the iconoclasts need to be likened to terrorist group ISIS in its destruction of offending statues in captured cities.
There is no way to move New Orleans’ large, old monuments without destroying them, SCV argues.
When asked why city officials chose the monuments they did, what the processes for removal and replacement will be and if a court ruling is expected soon, the mayor’s spokeswoman Erin Burns responded with this statement:
We remain committed to taking down the four monuments voted on by City Council. At this time, we respect and will abide by the court’s order to not remove them while the matter is pending. We understand the public’s frustration with this process and ask for continued patience as we move forward. The City maintains that it is well within its rights to manage its own property. And when challenged, this authority has been upheld in both federal and state court. We are confident the court will continue to rule in our favor. Once removed, the monuments will be stored in a City-owned warehouse until further plans can be developed for a private park or museum site where the monuments can be put in a fuller context.
We understand that there are strong emotions surrounding this subject and we ask that any public demonstrations remain peaceful and respectful as they have since we began this process. As a reminder, vandalism of any public property is strictly prohibited.
Mayor Landrieu believes that symbols do matter and should reflect who we are as a people and a community. As we approach our city’s 300th anniversary in 2018, the people of New Orleans should have an opportunity to identify new unifying symbols that truly reflect who we are today.
The city also did not say if City Attorney Rebecca Dietz’s December request that the 5th Circuit provide 24 to 48 hours notice before releasing an opinion—so New Orleans police can prepare for possible protests regardless of the outcome—was ever answered.
In her request, Dietz noted numerous, previous “acts of vandalism.”
One such act was the burning of a more than $200,000 Lamborghini belonging to the contractor slated to remove the monuments. That contractor had received threatening calls at home and had businesses threaten to cancel existing contracts he held. The contractor subsequently backed out of a work agreement with the city.
“I’ve heard about threats, but nobody is calling these people up and saying, ‘If you do it, we’ll kill you or burn your home down,’” Hanna said. “One man had a car burned in a parking lot, and he blamed it on people, but he couldn’t prove that and had some labor dispute going on with his employees.”
Moore and TEDN want to see the city “silence the threats” and get on with the business of removing the monuments, while also broadening the conversation to include those school and street names honoring known racists.
“It’s very subliminal,” said Moore, who is black. “It’s a dog whistle of sorts for those who descend from a lineage of white supremacy.”
Future removals won’t be any easier. Some of the monuments in question venerate direct ancestors of people in political and economic positions of power in New Orleans.
But the city also has rich, underrepresented Native American, Spanish and African-American communities to pull from along with their social justice activists—many of whose busts are off the beaten path and wallowing in obscurity.
“This never did represent our history accurately,” Moore said. “I’d like to see something that reflects our experience as we see it and live it everyday.”
Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
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