A Monumental Misunderstanding

By Chandler Polakov

Every monument has a purpose– a meaning behind why it was erected in the first place. It is in that very meaning, that monument’s legacy, which has recently come up for debate.

While the spark behind this movement has been linked to several things– such as the younger generation’s passion for change, the Black Lives Matter movement, the rise in politically correct culture, or simply just to the taking down of the confederate flag in South Carolina– the movement has, in itself, become the overlap for all of these. The movement, however, expands more than just to monuments. It expands to street names, counties, and even entire cities. Groups believe, however, that the biggest eyesores– the monuments– have to go first.

“I have to give credit to the young [guys]. It’s a new group of people who have a better understanding of social issues and technology. They’re bringing a new spirit to the movement and bringing a tremendous force behind it, so a lot of the credit has to be given to them,” says Chuck Perkins, a radio talk show host on WBOK and an activist in the anti-monument movement.

But it is this young generation, many believe, that has it all wrong. Richard Marksbury, a professor of anthropology at Tulane University and active spokesperson for the pro-monument movement, explains: “This movement is a reaction. Young, white people– often college students– [just] don’t fully understand their history.”

While Richard admires passion for change, as he was a protester against the Vietnam War when he was in college, he believes college students today have their hearts in the wrong place.

“I don’t believe in taking down any monuments,” says Richard. “I believe those monuments, like all monuments around our country, are part of our cultural heritage, and so by taking down those monuments, you are destroying parts of people’s heritage and I don’t believe in doing that. I believe in putting up plaques to explain things a little bit better, but I see no benefit in destroying. Especially the way it’s done in New Orleans, on a law that’s poorly written. It’s not a good law, and it’s only causing problems and more problems because, if you take it to its logical extent, there’d be nothing left.”

It is in this belief of a preservation of America’s cultural heritage that many people– people like Chuck Perkins– disagree. These groups of people believe these monuments to be symbols of oppression that have persisted through American culture for far too long.  They believe that these statues are inherently racist and should thus be removed.

It is this belief in doing away with racism that has spawned in New Orleans a group known as Take ‘Em Down NOLA. Their mission? To remove all outdated, racist remnants lingering in the city of New Orleans, starting with the Confederate monuments.

“I support Take ‘Em Down NOLA,” says Chuck, “I know they’re serious. They meet, they organize, and they come up with strategies. I’m one of those people who hears their call and I come out to support them. I support them because I understand the detrimental effects that these antiquated symbols of white supremacy have on us.”

The movement really came to a climax on September 24 when Take ‘Em Down NOLA organized a protest at Jackson Square against the monuments. Many gathered to take part and several people, including Chuck Perkins, were arrested. This event took place only a couple days before the appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for the removal of the Beauregard statue, the Robert E. Lee monument, and the Jefferson Davis monument.

Many people like Marksbury on the other hand, looked at this whole incident as preposterous. “If [Take ‘Em Down NOLA] really wanted statues down, all they have to do is go to the city council… and lay it out. And if they have on their list 45-50 statues they want to come down [they should just] lay it all out instead of protesting stuff. That is not the way to do it. There is a law, go ask for the law. This [protest] was just a big sham.”

Yet, one of the top monuments people want taken down in New Orleans is strangely the only one protected from removal by its own law. The Liberty Place monument, the fourth Confederate monument that was supposed to be appealed in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, actually has an interesting background. It was erected after white supremacists lost political control of the Louisiana state government in the 1890s and through a coup which lasted three days in which they took control of the statehouse, armory, and the downtown New Orleans area before retreating at the threat of federal troops. The monument was erected in honor of the rebellion, but– because of its racist history and constant defacement– was relocated and protected from further change by a new law erected just for it to never be moved again. If it is ever to be taken down, it will need to be appealed separately. So, the appeal process of the three Confederate monuments went on without the appeal of arguably the most racist one.

The Liberty Place monument.

“The Liberty Place monument is one of the city’s biggest eye sores,” says James Gill, a reporter for The New Orleans Advocate.  Yet, Gill understands the struggle of getting Liberty Place removed permanently as it is much easier for the city to remove monuments with no laws keeping them where they are then ones than ones with laws dictating to keep them where they stand.

Marksbury, who claims he doesn’t care as much about The Liberty Place Monument as it is not erected to honor a single person but an event, still doesn’t want it be removed. Marksbury’s main focus is on the other monuments because, just as James Gill pointed out, it’s much harder to remove a monument that has a law made for it.

Take ‘Em Down NOLA, according to their website, still has Liberty Place’s removal as one of their top priorities just as they do with the other three Confederate monuments. Marksbury claims that Take ‘Em Down NOLA’s refusal to reform their agenda on their monument removal goals is one of their biggest missteps. Yet, while Richard doesn’t support Take ‘Em Down NOLA, he points the blame at another person– Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

“Cities all over the country have a right to take down things. This mayor was too much of a coward to do it on his own, so he relied on an ordinance. The Supreme Court created back in the 90s a ruling that cities had the right to remove things on public property, but he didn’t do it that way. He could’ve had a vote in Orleans Parish which all of us have been asking for forever–democracy, put it up to a vote, not some sham, back door kind of thing. I won’t deny that the city has a choice, but most of the time you kind of test the wind with the people before you just up and do it, and a vote would’ve been the way to have done it.”

Richard believes that it is Landrieu who simply wants a legacy to look back on of taking down Confederate monuments which is why, in reaction, he filed a lawsuit the same way the mayor did to take down Andrew Jackson.

“When it first became public in July of 2015 what the mayor was planning to do, I read the city ordinance to which he was doing it, and was shocked that such a bad ordinance existed,” claims Marksbury, “And so I came from a whole different approach to this. Well if that’s the logic he wanted to use, so be it, lets apply that logic to the statue you don’t want removed. Because he’ll go to his grave protecting [the statue of] Andrew Jackson. So I decided to say, if that law applies to this and that’s the rationale, I went to the city counsel and said now lets, apply that rationale to Andrew Jackson, a what you’re going to get is that it needs to come down. I don’t want it down, but if they’re going to be consistent with the ordinance they’ll need to do that. My plan when filling the law suit was never to get Andrew Jackson removed, but to accord me the same due process the mayor got and that’s why I went to federal court.”

While Marksbury did go to court, his case was handled improperly so he is currently appealing on the grounds of a mistrial. Marksbury is in firm belief that this whole issue arose from the shooting that took place in South Carolina where the shooter was found with Confederate paraphernalia prompting South Carolina to take down its Confederate flag held in the state’s capital. Marksbury’s logic is likely correct as this is around the same time Mayor Landrieu made the proposal to take down the Confederate monuments. But Marksbury’s anger derives more from the process the ordinance takes to legitimize itself than anything else. The ordinance claims the need to contact four individuals and get their opinions on the matter– the city attorney, the director of public works, the superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, and chief administrative officer of the city– all of whom are appointed by the mayor. The ordinance also claims that a monument has to be or has to have the potential to be the site of protest for the ordinance to be in effect, which makes it possible for any monument to fall under the ordinance.

Chuck Perkins, however, argues the opposite rhetoric, claiming the mayor’s action were just and mean a lot to the black citizens of the city.

“While I don’t feel I personally have been touched by extreme racism living in New Orleans, there are black people living in more rural counties of Louisiana and the rest of the South who have. There are some many terrible atrocities that have happened in this country, but it’s not impossible to move beyond it. So I ask how do we get past some of this racial animosity? How do we convince this coming generation that Robert E. Lee’s legacies are all dead when we still have statues of him watching over us? There is no way to move forward without burying these symbols hanging over us. Should we ignore history and who these people were? No, but they should certainly not be placed on pedestals in some of the most prominent places in our city as if there was something great about what they did.”

Contrastingly, in Marksbury’s full honest opinion he questions what the difference is between George Washington and Beauregard. “That’s my problem with all of this. How do you draw that line? When you start running a country based on people’s feelings, the whole government falls apart. You have to have rational thought and logical thought. You can’t just go on feelings, because everyone has feelings. If you take down the Confederate monuments because it make people feel bad, you have to ask yourself what about the feelings of the people who don’t want it down? You can’t run a government on feelings.”

The argument boils down to “Are we allowed to change the past if it affects us now?” Both believe that the other is infringing on their history, one on the old and the other on the new. While Take ‘Em Down NOLA’s stance on this issue offers some good points, their logic behind their demands proves hard to understand for the average New Orleans tax payer, as they demand that five million dollars be placed in their control to take down and replace old, racist monuments. Yet, Marksbury view also proves difficult from the other perspective, claiming that history is history and that while you can try and remove it, it will never be changed. Marksbury’s issue isn’t with the fact that these statues are of people who oppressed black people, but that our country was founded on slavery, so where does the take down stop? While these figures were racists, they were also American war heroes which many state laws, excluding those in Louisiana, protect statues of such from being removed. Yet Marksbury lacks the ability to understand the personal effect these statues have on the black community of New Orleans, constantly having the lingering notes of slavery hanging over their heads. It is a difficult argument on both sides, but one in which the outcome, whatever it is, will change history.