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21 Aug 2017

Democracy in Crisis: White Supremacy, Monuments, Power—and What It All Means

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A still from a video shot by Baynard Woods during the Aug. 12 Charlottesville mess. A still from a video shot by Baynard Woods during the Aug. 12 Charlottesville mess.

Donald Trump’s Aug. 15 press conference, during which he defended the racists in Charlottesville and attacked those there to protest them, was one of the worst performances of his presidency.

It came a day after the Durham, N.C., statue to commemorate Confederate soldiers came down thanks to activists who took it into their own hands.

“So this week it’s Robert E. Lee,” Trump said. “I notice that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder: Is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself—where does it stop?”

Early the next morning, cranes and crews of workers began removing all four of the Confederate monuments in Baltimore. Here we were, a small crowd, at 4 a.m., black and white, crustpunk and square, reporter and activist, watching the statue of Confederate generals Lee and Jackson being hoisted through the air in the surreal pre-dawn light and taken away. It felt like a moment of catharsis—a rapid response to the racist rally and white radical terrorist attack in Charlottesville, as the city hauled away one of its four monuments to the Confederacy. Two others had already come down, and the last one would be carted away at dawn.

The mayor, Catherine Pugh, an African-American woman, is being widely praised for the order, which came after a local activist group planned an event called “Do It Like Durham,” referring to a group of activists that pulled down a statue dedicated to Confederate soldiers in that city.

Sarah Willets, with INDY Week in North Carolina, reported on the scene in Durham. Before the statue came down, Takiyah Thompson, one of the activists responsible for the event, told her: “This land has never been ours for my people. … This land has never been ours for Native Americans. This land has never been ours for queer people. This land has only been ours for rich ruling white elites, period.”

The Durham rally seemed to be winding down. However, after someone walked up with a ladder, things went quickly from there. Thompson climbed the ladder and wrapped a rope around the statue.

“It’s important to not just talk about, for instance, the Confederate monument being taken down as vandalism in that moment,” said Bree Newsome, who made news when she broke the law to climb the pole and take down the Confederate flag on South Carolina’s capitol grounds back in 2015, to Willets. “Yes, literally it’s vandalism, but if you understand the historical context and the history of that monument being erected, then you understand morally why it’s necessary for the monument to come down.”

After Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, we should have removed the statues that are coming down now—if not well before that.

“It’s going to be very exciting ... as we really confront the power structure that has existed here for a very long time in ways that are full frontal,” said Muhiyidin d’Baha, who later became famous when he leaped across a protest line and grabbed a rebel flag from a racist hand, to me the day after the Mother Emanuel shooting. At the time, he was standing at the foot of a statue of John C. Calhoun, a former vice president and staunch defender of slavery. “In ways that say, ‘This statue does not need to be here anymore.’”

After the shooting at Mother Emanuel, the city rallied around its white mayor, who said the right words. However, the Calhoun monument did not come down. Activists rallied again this week for its removal. It is necessary. But Charleston, like America, is so steeped in white supremacy that we white people should not be able to feel good about the removal of a statue.

Less than 24 hours after the Durham monument takedown, Takiyah Thompson was arrested as she left a press conference after the sheriff said, “No one is getting away with what happened.” So far, eight people have been charged—the same number of white supremacists who have been charged after Charlottesville.

I am still haunted by what I saw in Charlottesville. I took a video as police were clearing out the park where the racist rally was planned, and I got footage of a man beating a white anti-fascist in the head with a long stick; a still from that video is above. Later, he was filmed and photographed beating a black man, Deandre Harris.

He looks, hauntingly, like me—a little heftier, with a slightly longer beard. How can I see him and feel good about symbolic acts? I have the physical quality he values most. I could have ended up like him. I grew up in Columbia, where Newsome took down the rebel battle flag. I was taught, not so much at home, but in the world around me, to honor people like Robert E. Lee. And I was taught not to notice my own whiteness. Now, I can’t not notice it.

After I left Charlottesville on that fateful weekend, I felt disgusted by my own skin. Whenever I saw another white person, I cringed, wondering which side they were on. I knew people thought the same thing about me.

Six days after the Charlottesville horrors, it was announced that Steve Bannon was leaving the Trump White House. Much like I feel about the monuments coming down, I’m glad he’s out—but it’s only a small part of something so much larger. White supremacy is a white problem. Even if its more awful displays disgust us, we still benefit from it.

There were plenty of white anti-racists fighting the racists in Charlottesville, and they largely kept them out of Boston a week later. But until we fight a lot harder, we don’t get to feel good when a monument comes down.

It is not only Bannon or Trump who has a white supremacy problem. It is us.

Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. Send tips to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Twitter @demoincrisis. Podcast every Thursday at www.democracyincrisis.com.

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