By November, the statue was shrouded. Banners hung from businesses encouraging peaceful exchange and disparaging hate speech with hopes that tourists would feel comfortable downtown once again. A temporary marker celebrated that C’Ville is a place for love not hate. Despite all the best efforts of the local tourist office, the large black tarp remained the focus of public and private speculation.
A few months prior in August 2017, Charlottesville had been the focus of international attention when a “Unite The Right” rally descended on the small Virginia city. Just as thunder follows lightning, so too do the anti-racists follow on the heels of the right-wing racists. The “alt-right,” as the white supremacists had become rebranded in the lead-up to the election of Donald Trump, marched towards Emancipation Park—where city council had voted six months earlier to remove the now-shrouded statue of the commander of the Confederate States Army, Robert E. Lee, and rename the park bearing his name.
On the second day, the violence escalated as a white supremacist rammed his car into a counter-demonstration. Paralegal and civil rights activist Heather Heyer was killed and nineteen others seriously injured prompting President Trump to state that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the protest, which was taken to be a clear appeal to his base. After much handwringing, even the known racist Attorney General Jeff Sessions described the attack as “domestic terrorism” against anti-racist protesters, spawning a civil rights investigation. The tarp enshrouding the statue was removed by court order in February 2018 and by June the car driver was charged with multiple hate crimes. These events made the well-documented increase of such crimes much more visible, and helped congeal an already growing nationwide discussion about the politics informing public memorials, plaques, sculptures, honorary street names, and dedication markers of all kinds.
Before May 25, 2020, you may have asked, with all the challenges facing the United States today, why are these monuments and related symbols being widely and publicly discussed now? Of course there were many possible reasons: Is it because of President Trump or the Black Lives Matter movement? Is it their respective uses of social media? Is it because of a sharp rise in racist, homophobic, and anti-semitic attacks or the rise of right-wing populism globally? Is it that this time has come and gone, and returned again more deeply connected with both the material and symbolic legacies of America’s foundational ideology of white supremacy?
But after May 25, 2020, when a police officer kneeled on the neck and killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, the link between all of these factors have been made through action. The global movement to confront police brutality and white supremacy, while also celebrating Black life and joy, has erupted. In the sections below, scenes and moments from recent years of activism and experimental monument making will be reviewed to better understand the struggle over how history is documented and how it is connected to movements of today.
“In the name of Jesus, this flag has to come down!” shouted a woman wearing all black with climbing gear and a helmet as she unhooked a waving Confederate flag. Below her was a man wearing a construction vest, clearly there to support her climb but also to deflect attention with the legitimacy only a bright yellow vest can convey. Five days earlier, the two of them had gathered in a living room with a small group of other activists of different race, gender, and sexual identity, with many having never met before. They said they wanted to take collective action to attack a racist symbol—and that they did. One of the earliest actions in the period of increased monument removals, this 2015 action by artist Brittany “Bree” Newsome captured the national imagination as she climbed the South Carolina State Capitol’s flag pole on June 27th to remove the Confederate flag flying above.
In a statement posted online, Newsome wrote of the racially motivated massacre in the Charleston, South Carolina church, just 10 days prior, which left nine people dead. The murderer had celebrated the Confederate flag, which had originally been re-raised at the state’s capitol in 1961, a clear statement opposing the famous lunch counter sit-ins occurring at the time during the civil rights movement. Connecting to that history, Newsome wrote that: “I began my activism by participating in the Moral Monday movement, fighting to restore voting rights in North Carolina after the Supreme Court struck down key protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.” She continued, outlining connections between South Carolina, global conflicts and ethnic genocide, and the killing of unarmed Black men by police in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore just months before.
Since Newsome’s action, calls to remove flags have extended to monuments. In cities throughout the southern United States, monuments celebrating Confederate history have been removed, while others have been graffitied with the words “Black Lives Matter.” As historian Sarah Beetham wrote the following year: “The recent spate of vandalism directed at Confederate monuments in the wake of racially motivated violence against Black Americans reveals the unavoidable connection with racial oppression that has always been a part of Confederate memory.”
Author Rebecca Solnit reflected on what she calls the “Monument Wars”: “After any true conquest, a city’s landscape changes to reflect the values of the victors. In New Orleans, in the places where these monuments still stand, so does the Confederacy.” That same year, after much legal jostling, the statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans had been removed from Lee Circle.
The controversy around monuments is not just centered on their removal, but also their creation. In the report “Whose Heritage: Public Symbols of the Confederacy”, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) created a near comprehensive survey of Confederate flags, building names, and public monuments. There, SPLC explains “this study, while far from comprehensive, identified a total of 1,503… [including] 718 monuments and statues” primarily in southern United States as well as whole counties and cities, public schools, military bases, and tons of historical markers honoring Confederate icons. The SPLC goes on to reveal that contrary to popular belief that the monuments are somehow legacies of the U.S. Civil War itself, it was not until 1910 that there were the largest number of monuments erected—forty five years after the end of the Civil War and concurrent with the enactment of the so-called “Jim Crow” laws that enforced segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans until they were repealed in 1965. In an updated edition of the 2016 report “Whose Heritage?”, the SPLC identifies 114 Confederate symbols that have been removed since the Charleston attack—and 1,747 that still stand.
With the number of these symbols standing on public land maintained by tax dollars—some estimates reaching $40 million over the last decade—the stakes of this perpetuation have a material as well as psychic toll.
With the number of these symbols standing on public land maintained by tax dollars—some estimates reaching $40 million over the last decade—the stakes of this perpetuation have a material as well as psychic toll.
Monument to Torture
The histories that monuments represent need not be distant, as there are many recent memories of urban life today that remain painfully present.
After decades of campaigns led by victims of police abuse, their families, lawyers, and social justice activists, in 2008, former Chicago Police commander, Jon Burge, was finally indicted. It was charged that Burge had overseen and perpetrated the torture of over 100 mostly African American men at Chicago police headquarters from 1972 to 1991. Despite this being proven, Burge was indicted on the basis that he had sought to “corruptly obstruct, influence, and impede an official proceeding” with false statements due to the statute of limitations limiting prosecution for torture. By January 2011, federal court served Burge’s sentence and by that June, a group calling themselves the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM) held their first public meeting to talk about public memory of the events. The group was initiated by lawyers who, having worked on the case, realized that much of the energy around these abuses had been sucked up by court room processes and worried that people might forget. They reached out to victims who wanted justice and to artists in their community who had experience with symbolic representations of history.
CTJM issued an open call for “speculative proposals” to memorialize the Chicago Police torture cases. Workshops on design strategies for representing complicated histories were held at local history museums and art centers. Inspiration was drawn from global sources including European Holocaust memorials, apartheid monuments in South Africa, and creative activism around the history of military-sponsored disappearances in Argentina. Resulting exhibitions took place at the Sullivan Galleries of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a community gallery, Art In These Times, in 2012 and 2013. The emphasis on “speculation” was essential as the group did not aspire to build bronze statues but, rather, sought to emphasize process over product. The proposal process led to explorations of the poetic and the impossible, of the challenge to adequately capture such a complex event, and of innovative possible approaches that could have a greater impact.
Through the group’s artistic process—and through the decades of what organizer Mariame Kaba has called the grassroots slow and “sustained resistance” of the 1990s by activists, victims, and lawyers—on Wednesday, May 6, 2015, the Chicago City Council passed the reparations package for the Burge torture survivors and their family members. The package included funding for a curriculum to be taught in public schools about the history of the events, support for a memorial, a counseling center for victims and their families, and a financial reparations fund. In 2018, CTJM selected eight Chicago-based artists to create proposals for a permanent memorial and two have been selected to proceed to a completed realization.
This was not the first time that Chicago had struggled with memorializing police violence against city residents. Following the infamous “Haymarket Riot” of 1886, in which both police and workers protesting for an eight hour workday were killed, the city erected a monument that acknowledged only the loss of police life. The police held Veterans of the Haymarket Riot parades until at least the 1960s and the history of the workers was never officially recognized despite inspiring millions worldwide to mark the event with May Day celebrations. The city’s police statue inspired resentment ranging from vandalism to being run over by a disgruntled street-car driver who aimed his trolley at the larger than life policeman. In the 1960s and 70s, the Weather Underground targeted the statue twice with a bombing and eventually it was moved from the exposed public space into the courtyard of the city’s police headquarters.1, 2
After the police statue was removed, a rough outline of a circle remained in the cement where the pedestal had been. In 2002, the artist Michael Piazza had the idea for a festival of art projects that would inhabit the circle for eight hour shifts intended to memorialize the workers’ demands for an eight hour work day. Piazza’s “Haymarket 8 Hour Action Series” included soapbox speeches by historians and artists, the installation of a fake street parking sign right on the site that read “No Working: Unlimited Idling 9am-5pm,” a history bike tour, a sewing bee, a puppet show, and a performance using contemporary street-team tactics to connect history to the present called “Hay! Market Research Group.” This impulse to be generative versus tearing down could be read as both an occupation that insists on visibility, or that could bring about healing.
Philadelphia is another city grappling with the bronzed legacy of a state-sanctioned abuser. In the summer of 2017, a campaign erupted to call for the removal of a larger-than-life statue of Frank Rizzo. Rizzo served the city as a policeman, Police Commissioner, and two-term mayor in the 1970s. While being well-liked by certain segments of the city’s white population, he was known to advocate abuse and surveillance in communities of color and of social justice activists in his time. To this day, the city is still greatly burdened by the payments to police pension funds, which dramatically increased during his tenure, indicative of his method of choice for solidifying loyalty.
Over the course of 2017, activists would hold protests at the statue and—similar to actions on civil war monuments—it was painted with the words “Black Power” and covered in red paint as was a mural depicting Rizzo in South Philadelphia. Police started to hold their own gatherings at the statue and it became a flashpoint for debate drawing comparisons to Confederate monuments in the South. Commissioned by the Frank L. Rizzo Memorial Committee and paid for by his supporters, the statue was installed in 1998—less than 7 years after Rizzo died. While it is common for more time to pass between a well-known figure’s passing and their public memorialization, the Rizzo statue led many to understand more about how monuments are installed in the first place and there has been growing consensus that this process was too quickly on the heels of the former Mayor’s death. Thousands signed petitions on either side for maintaining it versus moving it.
One day, seemingly out of the blue, a twelve foot tall afro-pick topped with an iconic Black Power fist appeared stuck teeth-first into the cement only feets away from the Rizzo monument. Appearing to taunt the bronze Rizzo, the statue All Power to All People by Philadelphia-born Hank Willis Thomas—while not initially designed for that site—could not have found a more appropriate home. In fact, it was the question of appropriateness that motivated its placement. Part of a city-wide festival of new and temporary monuments, Monument Lab, 20 artist projects took over Philadelphia premised on the question, “What is an appropriate monument for the city of Philadelphia today?”
The artist-designed “prototype monuments” created for Monument Lab varied in overall approach through media, scale, subject matter, and their relationship to site. Thomas’ pick was in a busy downtown plaza just a block away from City Hall where Mel Chin erected a series of wheelchair accessible ramps leading to two identical pedestals, each reading simply, “Me” where a dedication might typically name a historical figure. In that same site, Michelle Angela Ortiz created a video-projected mural Seguimos Caminando (We Keep Walking) which grew out of her ongoing work with immigrant families detained at the nearby Berks County detention facility. Blocks away in Washington Square Park, two artists took radically different approaches to material. Artist Kaitlin Pomerantz replaced park benches with iconic Philly “stoops” or stairs recovered from front of houses being demolished across the city. In the same site, Marisa Williamson developed a neighborhood walking tour using augmented reality technology that could be downloaded to a smart-phone and allow the viewer to follow a fictional character through a “video scavenger hunt” about the search for Black freedom in Philadelphia’s past, present, and future.
In Philadelphia, a place where historic homes, reenactments, and walking tours prominently dot the landscape, the prototype monuments of Monument Lab served to complicate a city which is economically and culturally organized around nostalgia.
The heightened public visibility of police killings and the urgent social movement response has catapulted the concept of the war on Black people to a broad new audience. The public responses to the killings of twenty-two-year-old Oscar Grant by Oakland public transit police in 2009, and seventeen year old Trayvon Martin by a Florida civilian in 2012, quickly moved from local to national. While fighting against police brutality was a consistent commitment of Civil Rights and Black Power organizers for decades, the more recent activism of groups like Copwatch and the National Police Accountability Project in the 1990s built an infrastructure for today’s movements. Instances of police murder of unarmed civilians like Mike Brown and Eric Garner in 2014 led to a further widening of the awareness that many communities have had for too long—that police, far from being protectors, are themselves primary threats. From there, #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName became global movements powered by social media and first inhabited and then defined a space alongside #OccupyWallStreet, #Kony2012, #IdleNoMore, #BringBackOurGirls, #OscarsSoWhite, #NoDAPL, #MeToo and #IfIDieInASchoolShooting.
One outcome from the explosion of protests initiated by these movements is to highlight the ongoing struggle and the absolute urgency for Black residents of the city to feel belonging.3 Such a feeling is not merely psychic, but also governed by laws and permitted by a social fabric that can be mobilized to ensure safety or encourage fear. The “right to the city” is often evoked around affordable housing and other economic justice issues, but it also means the right to full participation and self-actualization free of the harassment and oppression that typically accompany economic marginalization.
As the national Right to the City Alliance wrote in their 2015 article, “We Can’t Win a Right To The City Unless #BlackLivesMatter,” “Working to win a right to the city for all puts us in direct opposition with the process of urban restructuring (popularly known as gentrification) that the free market enforces on our communities. It’s a process that is heavily reliant on the policing of working class, black and brown communities to impose destabilization and displacement. Police violence—and the threat of it—is an intimate part of our daily lives.” The authors go on to state that, “We know that to build a society in which Black lives truly do matter, communities need democratic control over the resources needed to produce safe, equitable, nourishing, livelihoods. This is an inextricable part of our collective cry for a right to the city.”
Monuments are contested today because of unfinished business from the past, but also significant demographic shifts in the present. In Charlottesville, the alt-right protesters chanted “You Will Not Replace Us” and “White Lives Matter.” They also shouted the common leftist call-and-response “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” For that night, in the eyes of the world watching on newscasts, the racists did seem to command at least some control of the streets.
But, this was the same place where the city council had originally voted to remove the Robert E. Lee statue and rename his namesake park. So whose city is it? The city was undeniably changing. And so was the country.
Monuments are contested today because of unfinished business from the past, but also significant demographic shifts in the present.
People who identify as white have, since 2000, become a minority of the population in the majority of urban counties while their “majority” status has been maintained in rural areas and suburbs. As this shift occurs, the inheritors of racial privilege are still found in the halls of power throughout cities in the United States, but their hegemony is being actively contested in current social movements, local elections, and in the public character of cities. Beyond high-profile fights with racists, the fight over the future of cities is now confronting the white anxieties that continue to result in a deep and uneven economic disinvestment from housing access to public schools.
When considered in relationship to monuments, these demographic shifts mean that a city or a region may have sorted bastions of supporters of a racist monument living in a city that is overwhelmingly ready to confront and move on from its racist past. In Philadelphia after weeks of protests in June 2020, the statue of Frank Rizzo was removed, and in July, a vote held on removing a South Philadelphia monument to Christopher Columbus also overwhelmingly passed. In each site the willful and prideful inheritors of racist and protectionist political culture attempted to defend the statues until public pressure became overwhelming.
Temporarily Under Construction
Today, in many cities in the Southern United States, the debate over Confederate monuments is drawn as a debate between history as a resource versus history as a burden. This can often be inflected by economic development arguments that insist that the repackaging of the past is actually the only way to draw in tourist dollars. This position is complicated by companies like Freedom Lifted that have developed Civil Rights-centric tourism in place of Civil War-centric tourism while focusing on building southern “tourism that boosts local economies by working with community-based and black-owned businesses whenever possible.”4
In New Orleans, the group Paper Monuments has taken this same context of a southern region that has too long been overdetermined by narratives of racist history and launched a project seeking to offer a corrective. They want to share “the stories that are too often lost or obscured when New Orleans history is recounted. These are the stories of New Orleanians who were poor and working-class. Black and brown. Women and children. Lesbian, gay, trans, and queer. Immigrants and refugees. Those who fought battles for inclusion and justice; those who worked to improve lives and bring hope, but who were and are unlikely to be elevated on any pedestal.” Inspired by the work of Monument Lab in Philadelphia, they launched a series of temporary monuments premised on the question, “What is an appropriate monument for New Orleans today?”
In the summer of 2020, as the seeds of anti-racist protests against police brutality deepen and spread, there are further calls to remove Confederate statues and other memorials upholding myths and legacies of white supremacy. Cities ranging from Richmond, Virginia; Jacksonville, Florida; and Indianapolis removed statues in the middle of the night—a hasty culmination of work that has taken place over the recent years.
These parallel strands of counter-monument campaigns have now fully converged, dealing with the conquest of the Americas and the Civil War at one end of the timeline, and more recent memories of police violence on the other.
Today in Charlottesville, the Robert E. Lee statue remains in limbo and there is a new monumental experience to contend with. The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers was installed this year to commemorate the 4,000 enslaved people who lived and worked and created the literal foundations of the University of Virginia (UVA). The space was designed by a diverse team that included the consultation of descendants of the enslaved laborers, UVA students, and the Charlottesville community. It is an inviting space that inspires gathering, but it is haunting with a minimal design organized around concentric circles including a timeline about slavery, the names of enslaved people presented along with gashes on the inside, and on the outside, the eyes of Isabella Gibbons, a woman who was enslaved at UVA, are engraved by artist Eto Otitigbe. The project would not have come about without the activism of students, part of a movement to pursue acknowledgement and reparations at universities across the country. The time is now to move it from the campus to the capitol.
The examples from Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia above could be read as a counterpoint to the campaigns to remove Confederate monuments in Charlottesville and flags in South Carolina. They could suggest that there is a tension between removing and proposing what bold new ideas and histories should be bronzed and mounted on a pedestal. They could also offer a key to the process that must be embarked on in today’s cities to not only think about what could be removed, but what processes could be engaged in order to gather support and collectivize vision for what could be built or if this approach to permanent statues is acceptable any longer. And, in that process, it may be revealed that there is nothing more important than the process itself.
Daniel Tucker works as an artist, writer, educator, and organizer developing documentaries, publications, classes, exhibitions and events inspired by his interest in social movements and the people and places from which they emerge. His writings and lectures on the intersections of art and politics and his collaborative art projects have been published and presented widely and are documented on the archive miscprojects.com. He is currently curator-in-residence at Mural Arts Philadelphia and in 2019, he completed a nine city tour of the curatorial project Organize Your Own: The Politics and Poetics of Self-Determination Movements. He works as an Assistant Professor and Graduate Program Director in Socially-Engaged Art at Moore College of Art & Design.
The author would like to thank Alex Young for his editorial feedback on this essay.
Additional reading resources are compiled in this online document: https://bit.ly/3aoyVQP