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Thursday, December 17, 2015

New Orleans City Council votes to remove four Confederate statues

Posted By on Thu, Dec 17, 2015 at 4:05 PM

click to enlarge Members of Take 'Em Down NOLA and Stand With Dignity appeared at New Orleans City Council Dec. 17 supporting an ordinance to remove four Confederate monuments.
  • Members of Take 'Em Down NOLA and Stand With Dignity appeared at New Orleans City Council Dec. 17 supporting an ordinance to remove four Confederate monuments.

Monuments depicting Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis as well as a memorial marker to the Battle of Liberty Place are coming down.

"We have the power and the right to correct these historical wrongs," Mayor Mitch Landrieu told members of New Orleans City Council. "The monuments do not now nor did they ever reflect the history, strength, richness, diversity and soul" of New Orleans. The decision is among the most sweeping efforts in the U.S. to remove or replace Confederate iconography.

The City Council voted 6-1 to remove the four monuments under a "nuisance" ordinance that applies to any public display that "honors, praises, or fosters ideologies which are in conflict with the requirements of equal protection for citizens" or "suggests the supremacy of one ethnic, religious, or racial group over any other, or gives honor or praise to any violent actions taken wrongfully against citizens of the city to promote ethnic, religious, or racial supremacy of any group over another." Landrieu – who signed the ordinance this afternoon — called for the monuments to be moved to a park or museum or a "proper place of remembrance, not reverence."

The vote followed months of focused, fiery debate and passionate reflection on what the history of those symbols mean to New Orleanians today — and today's hearing was no exception. Several people were escorted out of the City Council Chambers by police and public speakers and elected officials were booed and roasted. But that kind of loud introspection — from the council and the public — promised an opportunity to face the truths of the past while, Landrieu and councilmembers hope, embracing our neighbors.

Similar proposals and protests over the past few decades have called for removing statues, but Landrieu made his proposal to Council this summer, propelling a series of meetings, protests, rallies and votes on their place in New Orleans' cityscape.

In June, District B Councilmember LaToya Cantrell had proposed removing the Jefferson Davis monument following calls and emails to discuss its prominent placement on the thoroughfare. Landrieu followed with his proposal; Cantrell withdrew hers.

Landrieu made his pitch on June 24 during the one-year anniversary of Welcome Table New Orleans, a forum on race and reconciliation, at the Mahalia Jackson Theater.
"I began to envision myself as an African-American man driving down the street with my little girl behind me, approaching Lee Circle and her saying, 'Hey daddy, that's a really nice statue. What is that? It's so pretty. ... I say, 'Well, honey, that's General Lee.'

"And she says, 'Well, who was General Lee?' ... 'Well, he was a great general. He fought in great wars for great things.' 'Well what kind of great wars for great things?' 'Well, the one we know him for is the Civil War.' ... 'Wow. He fought for me?' 'No, no, no baby, I'm sorry. I wasn't clear with you. He didn't fight for you. He was for the other side.' 'Oh, well why is that there? Is there another circle in the city that's for me?'

"And you see, right now I can't answer that question, as a dad. ...  So, here's what I think: I think today's the day we start having the discussion about what we're going to put [at Lee Circle] to celebrate our 300th anniversary."
The announcement came a week after a racially motivated shooting in Charleston, S.C. that killed nine people in a historic African Methodist Episcopal Church, which invigorated debate over the presence of Confederacy-linked monuments and symbols across the U.S., from street names and school dedications to the Confederate flag on public buildings.

Almost immediately, arguments against their removal compared it to "erasing history" or ISIS destroying museums and architecture.

"We should never forget our history, just like we would never ignore the concentration camps in Auschwitz, just like you could never deny that the Confederacy existed," Landrieu said in June. "The question that's confronting the country today is whether or not those symbols should be on prominent places of adoration that reflect who we are today as a people."

The city's Historic District Landmarks Commissions, Human Relations Commission and Vieux Carre Commission all supported removing the monuments in public meetings held in August and September.

Councilmembers, commission members and even many monument supporters found little if any defense for maintaining the Liberty Place monument, which recognizes a violent uprising from Confederate ancestors against the state's Reconstruction government, as well as the city's integrated Metropolitan Police. The monument already has been moved and re-plaqued with additional context.

City Council Chambers filled by 9:45 a.m. Dec. 17, one week after a heated four-hour meeting on the issue. Many people arrived nearly two hours before the meeting to sign up to comment.

As Landrieu arrived, he greeted members of clergy, monument supporters and opponents — one woman yelled, "Don't bow down." Among a group of monument supporters, one man told Landrieu, "Shame on you for putting the city through this."

"I believe we can do better. We deserve better and we must do it now. We must not wait," Landrieu said in his address to the City Council. Landrieu quoted Martin Luther King Jr. in his letter from a Birmingham jail. "This 'wait' is almost always meant 'never.' ... Justice delayed is justice denied."

The following debate largely echoed the arguments made in previous public meetings. Those in favor of their removal spoke to the persistence of racism embodied by the monuments and the contexts of their construction, as well as the aftershocks of slavery in oppression and discrimination. Those opposing their removal say the statues represent a dark past, but it's the south's past nonetheless and a past from which to learn. Opponents also said there are more pressing matters — crime, fixing streets and infrastructure — that the city is ignoring while spending time discussing monuments.

One group, the Monumental Task Committee, proposed adding interpretive plaques and markers to the monuments, as well as building new ones.

At-Large City Councilmember Stacy Head was the only "no" vote on the ordinance. Head's proposed amendments — what she called a "long shot" but a hope for a compromise — called for removing only the Jefferson Davis and Liberty Place monuments. Her amendments failed, but she called into question whether removing monuments from the city's painful past has an end, as well as Landrieu's top-down push to the City Council and the divisive nature of the debate — Landrieu took the podium a second time to address the Council, specifically Head, and their simmering discord came out in public.

"Any time there is direct nonviolent action, the first response is, 'Why are you being divisive? Why are you creating tension?'" Landrieu said. "I didn't create this division. I didn't create this tension. Slavery did."

Landrieu said he doesn't know specifically what the future holds for other divisive statues, "but I know where it begins."

"Nothing prohibited any of you from holding your own hearings," he added, telling Head that she had an opportunity to lead on the issue. "You chose not to."

click to enlarge Council President Jason Williams speaking to activist Jerome Smith, who refused to leave the podium, recalling "whites only" lunch counters and water fountains, and his peers who were sent to jail for defying them. "Nobody who put those statues up said, 'Don't put that boy in jail, let him sit at the counter,'" Smith said.
  • Council President Jason Williams speaking to activist Jerome Smith, who refused to leave the podium, recalling "whites only" lunch counters and water fountains, and his peers who were sent to jail for defying them. "Nobody who put those statues up said, 'Don't put that boy in jail, let him sit at the counter,'" Smith said.

Cantrell — who came under fire for criticizing Landrieu and the decision-making process she says created division and disrespect — ultimately voted in favor of the ordinance to remove the monuments. But she said she felt disrespected by "the man of privilege, coming out apologizing for slavery, and seconds later making it public he was going to come to this body for removal of four monuments selected by him." 

"A unanimous vote on this will send a real message, but the message should be sent to our neighborhoods, to our people, crying out for care and concern," Cantrell said. "I plead to our mayor that you work with us, you ask us what we feel and how we feel, not only asking but let it mean something and show in the processes as we move forward. I don't think that's much to ask."

"We have all lost," Head said, adding that removing monuments is "a lose-lose" and will create "a sense of loss in this community" and not bring "real healing," only division. 

"We know exactly what's going to happen today," she said. "We all need to pull together and deal with the real issues in this city."

District E Councilmember James Gray, who is black, criticized the suggestion that Landrieu had inspired him to reconsider the monuments — Gray recalled talking about removing statues in the '70s, continuing conversations with New Orleanians who had long fought to remove them.

"This city can do great things," he said. "But it's not going to be on the condition that I forget what I am and who I am, that I forget my grandmother and great grandmother. ... I didn't need Mitch Landrieu to remind me of this."

"As a society we can no longer tolerate living underneath their shadows," said District C Councilmember Nadine Ramsey. "Empathy is an important part of the human experience ... Our compassion for our fellow human beings should motivate us."

District A Councilmember Susan Guidry said while the timing wasn't good, "when will it ever be?"

The statues, she said, were not erected to honor the men they depict — if so, they'd be depicted doing the things their supporters argue redeems them, whether opening schools or embracing equality. Instead, she said, they were built to "send a message that New Orleanians would continue to revere the Lost Cause."

"These statues were erected by select people ... to create history that was not our history," she said. "We're simply facing the truth of these symbols were meant to give ... and standing against that message."

District D Councilmember Jared Brossett compared taking down the statues and removing invisible barriers to equality to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, which "symbolized much more than a concrete barrier."

"These monuments don't stand for the values I believe in," he said, adding that the monuments were erected to remind African Americans of slavery and to continue white supremacy. "As an elected leader of this city it is my duty to help elevate public discourse ... and not shy away from (difficult) conversations."

Council President Jason Williams — who repeatedly banged his gavel and called for order throughout today's meeting — was not wearing a City Council pin on his lapel, but rather a U.S. flag pin.

Williams recalled the thousands of black people killed at lynchings and burnings between 1884 and 1913, when the four monuments were constructed. "Those lynchings in that short time period were sanctioned by the same people who sanctioned those statues," he said.

Before taking a vote, Williams quoted local writer Wayne Curtis, who called Lee's pedestal at Lee Circle "the umbilical cord connecting the city to the Confederacy.

"It's time to cut that cord," Williams said.

In September, Landrieu announced an anonymous donor would fund the cost of removing the monuments. In his statement following his signature on the ordinance, Landrieu said it'll cost $170,000 to remove them. They'll be stored in a city-owned warehouse before they go to a park or museum.
Private dollars will be used to pay for the removal of these monuments; the estimated cost is approximately $170,000. The city will begin the legal process necessary to remove the Liberty Place monument, which is currently subject to a federal court order. The process for removing the other three monuments could begin in days. The City will use a contractor selected through its Job Order Contract Program (J.O.C.), a publicly-procured program that has been in place since 2009 and provides the opportunity to select from several contractors to perform small and emergency projects. Additional details will be announced as they become available.

Once removed, the monuments will be stored in a City-owned warehouse until further plans can be developed for a park or museum site where the monuments can be put in a fuller context. 

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