Tempers Flare Over Removal of Confederate Statues in New Orleans


Such are the irreconcilable parameters of an ugly battle over race and history in New Orleans that seems to only be growing uglier, one that demonstrates the Confederacy’s enduring power to divide Americans more than 150 years after the cause was lost.

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Protesters shouted at supporters of keeping Confederate monuments on display at Lee Circle in New Orleans on Sunday.

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Bryan Tarnowski for The New York Times

“I can’t believe this is happening in my city,” said Charles Washmon, a 51-year-old contractor who was standing near a statue of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, on Thursday. Mr. Washmon, who is white, was part of a group of protesters waving Confederate flags who had been attracting both honks of support and invectives from passing cars all afternoon. Like Mr. Stewart, he feared that removing the statues would deprive a history-laden city of a crucial layer of its past. “It’s a travesty,” Mr. Washmon said.

In December 2015, Mr. Landrieu, a Democrat who will leave office next year because of term limits, signed an ordinance calling for the removal of four monuments related to the Confederacy and its aftermath. It was six months after Dylann Roof, a white supremacist with a fondness for Confederate symbols, massacred nine black people in a church in Charleston, S.C. One of the monuments, an obelisk honoring a violent uprising in 1874 by white New Orleanians who rejected Reconstruction, was taken down on April 24 by workers wearing flak jackets and scarves to conceal their identities.

The unease has only grown since then. Mr. Landrieu has said that the city plans to remove the remaining three monuments — first the statue of Davis, then those of two Confederate generals, P. G. T. Beauregard and Robert E. Lee — over the next month or so, though he has not announced exact dates. Last week, the statue of Beauregard was slathered in red paint by vandals. And Confederate sympathizers and fans of the statues have been flocking to the city from as far away as New Mexico and Colorado to protest their removal.

On Monday night, defenders of the statues squared off against a large group of opponents near the Davis statue in the Mid-City area. “Get the hell out of New Orleans,” the multiracial group of opponents sang, to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” using much stronger language, “because you’re not wanted here.”

The police arrested five people on charges of disturbing the peace and other infractions, and city officials have surrounded the statue with barricades and police guards. But the crowds continued to gather, and some defenders of the statues have come heavily armed. A man who referred to himself only as K. K. walked along a median on Tuesday carrying an AK-47, with a Glock handgun on his waist.

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Frank B. Stewart Jr., a New Orleans native, said removing the statues would be erasing history.

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Annie Flanagan for The New York Times

Mr. Landrieu has said the city is sticking to the plan, though it appears that will not be easy. Removing the remaining statues will require the use of a heavy crane, and the mayor told The Times-Picayune that every crane company in the region had received threats.

On Sunday afternoon, anti-statue protesters numbering 500, according to police estimates, took to the streets in a boisterous second line parade through the French Quarter and downtown, ending at Lee Circle, the roundabout where the Lee statue is. There, they faced off against about 150 protesters who had come from all over the country in a show of support for the statue. Some of the counterdemonstators brandished Confederate battle flags. Some exhibited Pepe the Frog insignia and other trappings of the so-called alt-right, a fringe movement that embraces white nationalism. And some wore improvised battle gear, including bike helmets, shin guards and homemade shields.

But the New Orleans Police Department had erected barriers to separate the two groups. Louisiana is an open-carry gun state, but police officials had warned that guns would be banned at Sunday’s protest, citing a city ordinance. One local man had brought large speakers that he used to crank out pop tunes, including Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” a soundtrack that helped transform the proceedings from ominous to farcical.

Beau Tidwell, the communications director for the Police Department, said that three people were arrested Sunday for disturbing the peace over minor scuffles.

Still, the rising tensions came at an awkward time for the city, and for the mayor. This is the season when the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival takes center stage, showing off to thousands of tourists the glories of Louisiana’s musical multiculturalism and its deep ties to Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and the white rural South.

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Protesters near the Jefferson Davis statue on Thursday. Plans to remove several Confederate monuments have stirred tensions in the city.

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Annie Flanagan for The New York Times

For Mr. Landrieu, who declined to be interviewed, the trouble also underscores the difficulties he has faced in meeting his goal of bringing racial harmony to New Orleans. The city is 60 percent black and 33 percent white, and it is burdened by severe economic disparities.

Mr. Landrieu’s father, Maurice Edwin Landrieu, known as Moon, served as mayor from 1970 to 1978, and he earned the respect of many black residents by opening up the city’s contracting jobs to them. The current mayor, who enjoys some of that good will, said in a statement in late April that the statues would be moved to a museum “or other facility where they can be put in context,” and thus show the world that New Orleans celebrates “diversity, inclusion and tolerance.”

The statement also noted that the statues were erected decades after the end of the war and were meant to “demonstrate that there was no sense of guilt for the cause in which the South fought the Civil War.”

Wesley Lynch III, a 25-year-old African-American, said the gesture was an important one. Mr. Lynch was standing by the flag-wavers near the Davis statue on Thursday, having encountered them after paying his light bill at the nearby power company office. He is unemployed — his last job was at a Popeyes chicken restaurant — and he spoke, with passion and despair, about the statues not as relics, but as living symbols of a social order that, from his experience, wanted people like him to rise only so far.

“They’re putting that image right in our face and saying, ‘Blacks at the bottom, whites at the top,’” he said. “That’s what they’re saying.”

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Malcolm Suber, an adjunct professor at Southern University, is a member of an activist group calling for the removal of Confederate symbols throughout New Orleans.

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Annie Flanagan for The New York Times

The supporters of the statues run the gamut. Among them is David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who has run for office several times in Louisiana. Rather predictably, he sees the removals as “destroying our heritage” and has called Mr. Landrieu “a traitorous cuck,” deploying a slur used by white nationalists and the alt-right to insult politicians as weak and unmanly.

There are many, however, like Mr. Stewart, who profess no love for either white supremacy or slavery. Mr. Stewart said the statues serve as a reminder of society’s evolution away from such noxious ideas — proof, he said, that “we have come a long way from our ancestors.”

A number of the statue supporters keeping vigil by the Davis monument agreed with that sentiment, adding that they did not believe the Civil War had been fought over slavery. “It really was an economic issue,” K. K., the man with the AK-47, said on Tuesday.

Others said they worried that the removals would create a slippery slope. Where would it end, they asked? Would a statue of George Washington be next?

Such concerns were unlikely to be assuaged by Mr. Suber, an adjunct professor of political science at Southern University, an avowed Marxist-Leninist, and an organizer of an anti-statue group called the Take ’Em Down NOLA Coalition. He noted that he had been part of a group that persuaded the Orleans Parish School Board to pass a policy in 1992 that prohibited schools from being named for slave owners. It eventually led to a school called George Washington Elementary being renamed for Dr. Charles Richard Drew, a prominent black surgeon.

On Thursday, Mr. Suber chuckled mischievously and said he would be delighted to see the statue of Washington over by the New Orleans Public Library come down, too.

“He was a slave master,” he said. “Right?”

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