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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Who tells the story of the Confederate monuments in New Orleans?

Posted By on Wed, May 18, 2016 at 6:40 PM

click to enlarge PHOTOS BY DERICK HINGLE
  • Photos by Derick Hingle & Kandace Power Graves
While 100 people gathered for a panel at the Tulane Hillel building on Broadway Street on May 17, the Louisiana Senate nearly unanimously passed a "Blue Lives Matter" bill that classifies any offense against a police officer as a hate crime.

Similar measures were floated in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and growing unrest against police violence — but Louisiana was the first state to bring a measure to the governor's desk. “We have to stop this malicious trend before it starts," said Savannah Shange in a statement with Black Youth Project 100 New Orleans. "We cannot allow the gains of the civil rights movement to be squandered away by police officers scrambling to avoid criticism from their constituents." The statement added that including police — a public agency — as a protected class in hate crime legislation would "provide more protection to an institution that is statistically proven to be racist in action, policy and impact." The measure passed 33-3 without any discussion or debate.

The panel at Tulane — part of The Big Issue series on controversial topics in New Orleans — was to explore "what comes next" for the four Confederate monuments the city voted to remove last year, and what we stand to lose or gain with their removal. Predictably, the panel and the room exploded into a heated debate over the legacy of white supremacy, who gets to determine the city's future and interpret its often-painful history, and how mostly white supporters of the monuments respond to black critics sharing their pain and experience.

Members of BYP 100 and the monument-removal advocacy group Take 'Em Down NOLA were in the audience and on the panel — Take' Em Down NOLA's Michael "Quess?" Moore offered monument supporters a rare opportunity to hear their opposition. At most of the public meetings and debates at City Hall, monument supporters largely left the room before members of Take 'Em Down NOLA and others who support the city's measure to take down the monuments were able to comment. Here, the audience — seemingly split down the middle on the issue — heard directly from Moore. Then yelled at him when they disagreed.

WWL-TV reporter David Hammer served as moderator, beginning the panel with William Faulkner's frequently repeated quote, "The past is never dead. It’s not even past." For some on the panel, that means monuments serve as a living history, artifacts offering a window into the past from which to learn — not to idolize the men they represent but to study them and the circumstances in which they were put into public space. For others, the past reflected in those monuments is a reminder of the echoes of slavery and Jim Crow and the failure of the country's founding principle in which all men are created equal — and that those monuments were built to honor that.

Also on the panel: University of New Orleans history professor Molly Mitchell, Tulane's Richard Marksbury, Louisiana State University history professor Kodi Roberts, and Monumental Task Committee President Pierre McGraw, who filed the lawsuit blocking the city from removing the monuments. 

The panel largely focused on two questions:

No. 1: With the fate effectively sealed as to what will happen to the monuments (they're coming down), what do we do with them once they're off their pedestals? And who controls the narrative?

Historians on the panel argued that the city shouldn't simply remove them without continuing a greater dialogue about the history of the people on them, who put them there and why. Monument supporters seem to not want that conversation to take place at all, or believe — when confronted by an audience member directly — the monuments already are teaching us all we need to know.

McGraw said "Confederate" is a charged buzzword used in the media. "These monuments were put up by fellow New Orleanians," he said. He also said moving the monuments to a historical setting, like a museum, is "ridiculous," and that none of the monuments say anything about white supremacy (the Liberty Place monument, he said, commemorates a "heroic effort" — in which members of the paramilitary ex-Confederate-led Crescent City White League led an insurrection against the integrated Metropolitan Police).

The Robert E. Lee Monument was unveiled in 1884; the Jefferson Davis Monument was unveiled in 1911; and the General P.G.T. Beauregard Equestrian Statue was completed in 1915. The Liberty Place monument was completed in 1891 and went through a series of changes and relocations — adding plaques for context, moving from the foot of Canal Street to a warehouse to behind a parking garage. In the 1930s, an inscription added "United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state." In the '70s, another marker added, "the sentiments in favor of white supremacy expressed thereon are contrary to the philosophy and beliefs of present-day New Orleans." And in the '90s, a marker simply added, "In honor of those Americans on both sides who died in the Battle of Liberty Place, a conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future."

Roberts said the monuments' placement says something about how we remember them, serving as a reminder to people that "white supremacy is not a thing of the past." "What does it mean when a culture has decided to put certain heroes on display?" he said.

The New Orleans City Council largely agreed the monuments were erected to honor the Lost Cause of the Confederacy following the Civil War — in December, during the Council's vote, District A City Councilwoman Susan Guidry said, "These statues were erected by select people ... to create history that was not our history ... We're simply facing the truth these symbols were meant to give ... and standing against that message."

The law under which the statues can be removed falls under a nuisance ordinance that says, simply, the city can remove anything 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."

In June 2015, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, "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 problem is finding a museum or other "suitable" public place for them, guided by historians and museum staff. Mitchell said there isn't enough public history on the city's role in the slave trade or emphasis on African-American history — the city's challenge with the monuments now, she said, is to begin telling their stories in the proper context, inclusive to the pain and history that was overlooked or ignored in their construction. “If you want them gone, you’re also responsible for figuring out new stories," she said.

And there's the "slippery slope": if the city takes down these four, what's to stop them from taking down others, including Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans, a U.S. president, and engineer of Native American genocide? McGraw called the slope argument a "heavily lubricated vertical plane." Take 'Em Down NOLA says all monuments are fair game — Moore said he would consider removing a statue honoring Dr. Martin Luther King if it meant a thoughtful discussion about King's life and Jackson's.

And No. 2: The second question, and perhaps the most important, is how monument supporters should respond to their opponents — are they neglecting their opponents' experience when they ask, "Why now?"

The conversation has been going on much longer than the politically convenient and expedient year following the June 2015 church shooting in Charleston, S.C. and the growing public discourse about Confederate symbols. McGraw said "only a few radicals" talked about removing monuments before Landrieu, but neglected to mention District B City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell's measure to reconsider the Jefferson Davis monument, pulled as Landrieu brought up his larger measure, and the lifetime work of activists like Malcolm Suber, or state Rep. Avery Alexander, who was dragged by the neck by police during a protest at the Liberty Place monument in 1993, or the Ku Klux Klan's riot at Lee's statue in 1972.

For monument supporters, it means coming to terms with their values in light of others' pain and experience. Or at least recognizing that pain and experience, and being prepared to stand with prejudice.
But monument supporters insist the movement to remove them came out of nowhere and is merely a political one. (During the City Council vote on the removal in December, District E Councilman James Gray, who is black, said the following in response to that idea: "This city can do great things ... 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.")

"You can't tell me there is no movement," Moore said at the panel. The dismissal of his pain, along with the longtime activism and work among black communities to address the issue, to favor another community's values reflects the pervasiveness of white supremacy, he said. If people live in New Orleans to enjoy black culture, whether in food or music, or the backbone of the city's service industry, Moore said they also need to listen when its members say, "I'm hurt."

"Why now?" Well, has there been a "better" time for minority voices to have their views respected equally, particularly when it comes to monuments to the Confederacy? If there has it certainly hasn't been within the lifetimes of the people making the arguments to keep them.

For monument supporters, it means coming to terms with their values in light of others' pain and experience. Or at least recognizing that pain and experience, and being prepared to stand with prejudice, let alone admit that white supremacy even exists. Meanwhile, the state legislature adds a public body — making headlines for the deaths of unarmed black men — to a hate crime law meant to protect the most marginalized. 

But that's not the conversation they want to have. Monument supporters say the issue is "polarizing" communities and dividing a city "like never before," but it's polarizing only to them — among whites in New Orleans, Landrieu's approval rating largely is a function of their opinions on the monuments. Landrieu's approval rating among white New Orleanians who oppose efforts to remove the monuments is at 36 percent. 

Hammer repeated throughout the panel that he had hoped to reach some common ground, to thread a needle of understanding among all parties. The panel seemingly found only common ground in its final moments, reflecting on a question from longtime activist Suber, who asked why a portion of the Pontchartrain Expressway — which was renamed in honor of the late Louisiana civil rights leader Avery Alexander — is never called that.

As futile as these meetings seem, and as intense as they get, misinformation aside, they're worth having. All the public meetings on the monuments — from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities to Tulane to the City Council Chambers — have attempted to find that common ground. Instead, at nearly every debate or hearing, someone mentions how "divided" the city has become under Landrieu's watch, specifically, that black New Orleanians are speaking against the monuments, in public. If this is the first time monument supporters are hearing the aftershocks of slavery and Jim Crow, they haven't been listening at all.

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