The American tradition of tearing down statues

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In the summer of 2020, the United States experienced a national awakening to its racist past, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd and often centered on the symbols inscribed in our memorial landscape. Across the country, activists tore down about 35 monuments to controversial figures, including Confederate leaders and soldiers. Another 130 monuments were demolished through official channels. President Donald Trump retaliated by signing Executive Order 13933, ordering federal law enforcement to pursue anyone caught damaging federal monuments or statues. “Long prison sentences for these lawless acts against our great country!” Trump tweeted shortly after the signing.

Judging by the former president’s furious response, one might conclude that tearing down statues is a deeply un-American act, an act of treason against the public memory. However, jurist and art historian Erin L. Thompson thoughtfully and shrewdly discredits this notion. In fact, according to Thompson, the nation was forged in the destruction of historical symbols.

Shattering Statues opens in another sweltering summer: 1776, just days after the Second Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence. Following a public reading of the document in New York, a crowd of average citizens and Continental Army volunteers, enthused by their discovery of their “inalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, demolished a gilded statue of England’s King George III. After ripping the figurine from its base, the mob hacked it into pieces with axes. One protester even shot the downed monarch in the head.

For Thompson, this scene is emblematic of the settlers’ desire “to abolish British rule by destroying its most important symbol on the island”. It is also instructive for our present moment. Statues, she writes, are symbols of power. They are designed not only to remember the past, but to use the past to impose particular ways of thinking and acting in the present. The King George III statue was designed by the Crown to remind British settlers of who held political power; when the colonists claimed self-determination and overthrew the king’s regime, they also demolished this symbol of his authority.

According to Thompson, the destruction of contemporary statues in the United States is also about rejecting the symbols of an old regime, that of white supremacy and racial subjugation. “In reality, monuments rise each time a society changes and they fall each time a society changes again,” she writes. “Anyone who has ever taken a snapshot of an ex out of their fridge after a breakup can understand the urge to remove a monument that celebrates a vision of power or society that is no longer true.”

Thompson’s book introduces readers to how statues were used, beginning in the 19th century, to enshrine a particular vision of American power – one based on racial, gender and class hierarchy that presumed the supremacy of elites. white males. It tells the story of Horatio Greenough, “the father of monuments” in the United States, who carved a popular 1851 monument called Rescue which depicted a “superior” white settler triumphing over an “inferior” Native American. Rescue was installed in front of the United States Capitol, where its depiction of America’s violent subjugation of Indigenous peoples was visible to all until 1958, when it was removed not because of protests, but to make way for the necessary repair work on the facade of the building.

She also describes the hundreds of Confederate monuments built in the South in the 1880s and 1890s that depict average soldiers on “parade rest,” a pose to demonstrate their obedience to military superiors. Contrary to what boosters and architects claimed, these statues did not celebrate the Confederate base for their bravery or skill. Instead, as Thompson ably reveals through a compelling reading of historical documents and statuary forms, the politicians and civic leaders who designed, erected and paid for these statues did so because they hoped that putting soldiers resting in public spaces would remind everyday Southerners of the importance of “deference to their social superiors”. Thompson therefore concludes that these early appeals to “Confederate heritage” were intended to assert power, not to venerate a legendary, bygone past.

Thompson also invites readers to meet current community leaders who are leading the charge to remove our outdated symbols, including Mike Forcia, a Bad River Anishinaabe activist who orchestrated the removal of a statue of Christopher Columbus in his hometown of St. Paul, Minn., in 2020.

Further, Thompson highlights legislative efforts—largely, but not exclusively, by conservative lawmakers—to prevent the legal removal of statues and monuments from public spaces, such as the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017, which prohibits “ to remove or alter public monuments”. over forty years old” and makes no provision for the removal of statues deemed unacceptable by the community in which they are located. Calling these bills “some of America’s least democratic uses of power,” Thompson notes that 18 states have proposed similar legislation since 2020.

Religious communities do not play a particularly prominent role in Thompson’s account, but they are present. For example, Thompson details the design and creation of the 90-foot-tall Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial, a colossal celebration of southern heroes carved into the side of a mountain near Atlanta, but she does not mention that her second sculptor , Henry Augustus Lukeman, came to Stone Mountain after a bronze statue of Francis Asbury was created, installed in Washington, D.C., in 1924 and funded by donations from hundreds of thousands of American Methodists. Undoubtedly, American Protestants have been involved in the creation, funding, and maintenance of many of the statues and monuments that litter the nation’s memorial landscape. How should we reckon with our complicity?

Thompson offers a possible answer. In her final chapter, she describes the work of Reverend Levi Coombs III and members of his First Refuge Progressive Baptist Church in Camden, New Jersey. For years they had worked to remove the statue of Columbus from the city, an effort that culminated in June 2020 when authorities agreed to remove it. Rather than let the symbol go, Coombs and his parishioners planned a public march from the church to the park along with a series of speeches explaining what the statue symbolized and why they wanted it removed.

Thompson sees the effort, led by a church community, as emblematic of the work all Americans should be doing: not just breaking down statues, but also breaking down the ideas that led to their erection. “Removing a monument alone does not change our future,” she writes:

Change happens through the conversations we have when we talk about landmarks and the history they embody. A deletion without conversation hides the problem. We must recognize how and why our monuments were created. We must reveal their secrets in order to take this power away from them.

Churches, especially predominantly white ones, should be centers for this kind of discussion and dismantling. We should use our pulpits and Sunday school classrooms to confess, ask for repentance, and inscribe justice and equality at the center of our public memory. We had the power to display these symbols; now we can use our power to bring them down.

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