Life is fleeting; monuments last. Heather Heyer was killed last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a car allegedly driven by a neo-Nazi plowed into a crowd protesting a white supremacist rally. Close to 20 others were injured. The white supremacist charged with Heyer’s murder, 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr., was in Charlottesville for the “Unite the Right” rally, along with several thousand white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members, opposing the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hundreds of anti-racist activists gathered to protest the right-wing rally, to “Defend C’ville.” Two Virginia State Police officers also died when their surveillance helicopter crashed.
The night before, rally organizers held a march that was reminiscent of torchlit parades in Nazi Germany, with hundreds of mostly young, white men chanting “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” and the 1930s Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil!”
President Donald Trump outraged people of every political stripe (except the white supremacists, who praised him) on Saturday when he blamed the violence in Charlottesville on “many sides.” Then, on Monday, under enormous pressure, he delivered a scripted statement, read from a teleprompter, denouncing neo-Nazis, white supremacy and the KKK. His delivery appeared forced, leaving one observer to say it looked like a hostage video. Within a day, he reverted. In an unhinged, unscripted, fiery news conference, Trump declared that many “Unite the Right” protesters were “very fine people” and said the counterprotesters should share blame for the violence.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least 1,500 statues, monuments and plaques commemorating the Confederacy dot not only the South, but the entire country. The decision to remove Charlottesville’s statue of Robert E. Lee was not spontaneous, but came about after dedicated organizing, as part of a larger national movement. This is a growing movement led by courageous young people. One of the most prominent actions against the display of racist imagery was on June 27, 2015, the morning after the memorial service for the nine African-Americans murdered by the white supremacist Dylann Roof at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Bree Newsome, a young African-American activist and artist, scaled a flagpole on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds and removed the Confederate flag, shouting: “You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!”
After the white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville this week, Bree Newsome said on the “Democracy Now!” news hour: “This is part of a long history and a pattern of white supremacist terrorism in this country. … Not only are these acts of violence that are intended to cause terror, but they are also politically informed. … It is terrorism. It should be labeled as such. It should be dealt with as such.”
Two days after the violence in Charlottesville, a group gathered at the Durham County Courthouse in North Carolina and pulled down the Confederate Soldiers Monument. “Every Confederate statue and every vestige of white supremacy has to go,” Takiyah Thompson said on “Democracy Now!” before heading to court to face two charges of felony inciting a riot and three misdemeanor charges, including defacing a statue. “Anything that emboldens those people, anything that gives those people pride, needs to be crushed in the same way that they want to crush black people and the other groups that they target.” Facing, potentially, years in prison, Takiyah Thompson was undaunted: “You can’t keep your foot on people’s neck forever. People are going to rise up, as we’re seeing throughout this country.”
On Monday, the Baltimore City Council voted to remove several large Confederate statues, and, on Tuesday night, under cover of darkness, crews quietly took them away, including a large statue with Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on horseback. Two of Stonewall Jackson’s great-great-grandsons sent a letter to Richmond, Virginia, Mayor Levar Stoney and that city’s Monument Avenue Commission, encouraging the removal of their famous forebear’s statue. “Confederate monuments like the Jackson statue were never intended as benign symbols. Rather, they were the clearly articulated artwork of white supremacy,” brothers William and Warren Christian wrote.
On Aug. 3, 1857, a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War and 160 years, almost to the day, before the violent murder of Heather Heyer, the legendary escaped slave and globally renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave a speech in which he said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” The growing movement for racial justice is making demands and taking action. With each passing day, white supremacists will find themselves with fewer and fewer Confederate statues to cling to.
© 2017 Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan
Distributed by King Features Syndicate