Protesters topple statues of racist historical figures across the country, following killing of George Floyd
First posted August 12, 2020 10:17am EDT
Last updated August 12, 2020 10:17am EDT
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After a white police officer killed George Floyd on May 25, 2020, demonstrators gathered to protest police brutality and systemic oppression in more than 2,000 cities across the country, sparking a national resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition to demands to reform or “defund” police departments, protesters tore down a number of monuments and statues that “glorify Confederate generals, advocates for slavery, defenders of segregation and others whose racial views or conduct are now widely reviled,” according to The New York Times. Feeling the pressure of the civic unrest, cities and local governments have also made plans to remove offensive monuments. Activists around the world have followed suit and removed such statues, including in Belgium, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
George Floyd was a Black man killed by white police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. Chauvin knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes while two other police officers further restrained Floyd’s back and another officer looked on. A video of the killing captured by an onlooker shows Floyd begging for his life under Chauvin’s knee, repeatedly stating, “I can’t breathe.” His death renewed strength for the Black Lives Matter movement (born after a related incident in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, when a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown) and spawned heavily attended protests both in the United States and abroad.
Following Floyd’s death, protesters began to target Confederate monuments across the country in line with the protests’ anti-racist ideology. Many historians argue that the statues symbolize white supremacy and represent past and present racism. James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, noted that many of the statues were erected after the Civil War had already ended, to signal to Black Americans that they were still disenfranchised and oppressed. However, other historians argue against the removal of these monuments. Manisha Sinha, a professor and Draper chair of U.S. history at the University of Connecticut, argues that the removal of statues can transform into a “purely destructive exercise,” according to an interview with NPR. Sinha proposed that some statues — like one of Ulysses S. Grant, a slave-owning president — might benefit from historical contextualization rather than removal.
In addition to Confederate monuments, protesters have also targeted other historical figures with biographies tinged with racism.
On June 3, 2020, for example, workers in Philadelphia removed a statue of the late Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, NPR reported. In 1978, Rizzo told Philadelphians to “vote white,” and he symbolized the oppression of the city’s Black population at the hands of police officers.
The same day, in Richmond, Virginia, once the capital of the Confederacy, Mayor Levar Stoney (D) announced plans to remove the Confederate memorials along the city’s Monument Avenue, including a statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, as well as other leaders of the secessionist rebellion. On July 1, Stoney ordered the immediate removal of a number of Confederate monuments, including one of Stonewall Jackson that was taken down the same day. He said he had the authority to remove the statues immediately, due to expanded powers he holds under a state of emergency.
On June 4, 10 days after Floyd’s death, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced the removal of a Richmond statue of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army during the Civil War, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. However, on June 8, Richmond Circuit Judge Bradley B. Cavedo indefinitely extended an injunction barring the state from removing the statue. On July 17, Cavedo recused himself from presiding over two lawsuits aimed at defending the monuments, due to the proximity of his personal residence to the statues. After taking over the cases, Richmond Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant dissolved Cavedo’s injunction and imposed a new 90-day injunction on Aug. 3 that also blocks Northam from removing the statue, according to the Richmond Free Press.
On June 9, a statue of King Leopold II in Antwerp, Belgium, was taken down and set to be placed in a museum, The New York Times reported. Leopold exploited the Congo as his personal possession and ran a regime that killed millions of indigenous Africans. The event came amid a national reckoning with Leopold and the country’s brutal rule of the “Belgian Congo.”
On June 10, a statue of Christopher Columbus in a Boston park was found beheaded. The city subsequently removed the statue from the park, according to WBZ Boston.
On June 11, protesters in Richmond toppled a statue of Jefferson Davis, before it could be officially taken down. Stoney, the mayor, pointedly stated that “Richmond is no longer the capital of the Confederacy” and that the city’s monuments must reflect that, The Times reported.
On June 20, protesters in Washington, D.C., toppled a statue of Albert Pike, a senior officer in the Confederate army. The statue was the only outdoor Confederate monument in the capital city, according to NPR. Protesters pulled it down with a rope and celebrated as it fell, while police looked on, drawing the ire of President Donald Trump, who tweeted that those who destroyed the monument were a “disgrace to our Country.” On June 22, D.C. protesters attempted to pull down a statue of President Andrew Jackson, a slaveholder, before police used pepper spray to disperse them. Trump responded in a tweet, calling the act “disgraceful vandalism” punishable by up to 10 years in prison. In a Fox News interview on July 19, Trump added that the Confederate flag represents the South, not racism, in an appeal to his largely white base.
On June 27, Princeton University announced that it would remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school due to his “racist thinking and policies,” according to NPR. The school will now be named the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. Moreover, a residential college formerly called Woodrow Wilson College will now be renamed First College. The name change follows years of upheaval at the university, where students protested in 2015 by occupying the president’s office. In November of 2015, the Princeton board of trustees appointed a special committee to investigate Wilson’s legacy at Princeton, and the committee recommended that the public policy school and the residential college retain his name in April 2016.
As protests continue, governors and mayors face continued pressure to remove offensive statues
Governors and mayors fell under pressure to remove monuments related to slavery, colonialism, and racism, though some argue that to tear down these statues is to ignore history, according to The Times. Monuments continue to be removed across the country, and as public pressure mounts, more and more are likely to come down.
As more statues fell, local leaders found themselves obligated to decide what to do with them. A number of options present themselves. In Dallas in 2019, a statue of Robert E. Lee sold for $1.4 million at auction, The Times reported, so other local governments might opt to sell the monuments. Conversely, New Orleans put its Lee monument out of public sight in storage. In another plan, Charleston, South Carolina, Mayor John J. Tecklenburg (D) said the city has begun negotiations with museums and academic institutions regarding its monument to John C. Calhoun, who infamously advocated for slavery in the 19th century.
In yet another arrangement, the city of Lexington, Kentucky, moved its statues of Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge and Confederate General John Hunt Morgan to Lexington Cemetery, where both men are buried. City spokeswoman Susan Straub stated that visitors could now view the monuments “in a respectful place where they can learn more about Civil War history,” according to The Courier-Journal, a daily newspaper based in Louisville.
Trump issues executive order directing federal agencies to prosecute people who destroy federal monuments
On June 26, Trump signed an executive order that instructs federal agencies to prosecute those who damage federal monuments or statues. The order also threatens to withhold funding from local governments that do not adequately protect their statues. The legality of the order is unclear; Trump made a similar threat to withhold funds from sanctuary cities, which limit efforts to enforce immigration laws, but an appeals court blocked it.