An old friend from my time in the Army posted some drivel this morning from Infowars, claiming somehow that counterprotesters in Charlottesville started the violence over the weekend. It led to yet another tired argument about the right to protest and how the urge on the American Left to suppress unwanted speech is just like the Nazi party. Of course.
“Keep in mind, this all came about because somebody thought it was a good idea to move a statue,” he said. “Senseless.”
No. Not senseless. For all the talk about their value as “history,” most of these monuments have a historical context tied to marking newly-recovered Klan territory and official terrorization of black people. But we’re seeing increasing protest activity at these events because the alt-right has decided that it’s as good a staging ground as any for the herrenvolk to red-lace up their Doc Martens for a boot party. Any publicity is good publicity when the goal is chaos, the better for a “law-and-order” president to stop.
We are talking about the resurgence of violence on the far right today in the wake of a white supremacist horror movie murder-by-Camaro that left one woman dead and 19 injured. But the word resurgence doesn’t quite fit. Violence on the far right has been steady for almost 20 years, to a degree that the FBI has long held white supremacist violence as the single most important threat to the lives of law enforcement officers.
Monuments will keep coming down, and that includes Georgia. At a peace vigil in Decatur last night, a petition began circulating to take down the Confederate obelisk in the middle of the old DeKalb courthouse square. I’ve been ruminating over a piece about it for months now, and spent some time looking into its history. The DeKalb History Center is in the old courthouse, and they’ve been looking at what it might take to move it inside the building or to surround it with additional historical markers placing it in context. (Fun fact: the neo-Confederates of DeKalb like Tom Owens like to haunt the halls of the history center.)
The most remarkable thing I can say about the obelisk is that there really isn’t much history to it at all. Its anodyne text matches a relatively inoffensive design. No valiant warriors astride chargers grace a pedestal. One would have to actually read it to even know what it’s for — I sincerely doubt most people visiting the square are aware it’s even there.
Of course the politics of the day in 1906, when the obelisk would have been up for discussion, centered on race. The former publisher of the Atlanta Journal and the editor of the Atlanta Constitution were running against one another on the platform of who hated black people more. A three day race riot of white Atlantans killing black people in the street had been spurred by these papers’ questionable reporting of the rape of white women by black men. Confederate monuments were popping up all over the south at that point, spurred by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and their Klan-linked push to move monuments from cemeteries to town squares and to civilize the concepts of white supremacy and Jim Crow in a post-reconstruction South.
But the monument itself? Eh. The monument rose in April 1908, six months after the original from Butler Marble and Granite Company in Marietta fell during construction and smashed to pieces, according to contemporary reports from the Atlanta Constitution. The monument cost $2000 (roughly $50,000 today), raised from a thousand donors around the county. Rebecca Candler unveiled the obelisk as Mary Gay, noted author of the Lost Cause apologia “Life in Dixie during the War,” stood in her widow’s weeds to see her inscription carved into it. Candler was the youngest daughter of Charles Murphy Candler, a prominent Decatur politician and industrialist who helped found Agnes Scott College. The comments of the day were made by Hooper Alexander, a state representative and future U.S. Attorney for the district who later earned repute for fighting against “negro peonage,” the practice of enslaving black laborers through debt. No record of his remarks exists. Confederate Gen. Clement Evans and the cadet corps from the Donald Fraser School for Boys were present, according to the reports of the day.
This is the most thorough accounting of the monument I can craft, and there are shopping mall openings with more historical meaning than this.
The memorials are hard to defend on their merits as history. (I can, and have, and continue to defend the Stone Mountain carving on the basis of art.) The obelisk itself contributes little to either. But I sense no overwhelming public interest in incurring the cost of moving or destroying it. It’s simply too bland for anyone to care about. Surrounding it with a display describing the ills of slavery and a true accounting of the history of DeKalb County in the war is probably easier for all concerned. Of course, reasonable people might disagree and see it removed. And unreasonable people might also disagree and see another chance to run over antifa protesters.
We’re lucky. Other communities have far more obnoxious memorials, and will want to remove them. That poses a dilemma after the violence of this weekend. The far right intends to offer the heckler’s veto against the removal of Jim Crow-era trash from our town squares. The threat of a thousand based citronazis waving tiki torches may dissuade some communities from doing the right thing.
For that, I offer a suggestion I gleefully steal from my girlfriend Sara. Do it all at once. Designate a day next year — every year — for city councils and county commissions to arrange for their Confederate monuments to be removed. Have all the construction cranes and flatbeds fan out on the same day, all over the country. Perhaps we can use Heather Heyer’s birthday, as a memorial to a victim of anti-American violence. Or perhaps the Fourth of July. Instead of having white supremacist protesters move from city to city, they’ll have to pick and choose where to protest, spreading them out. Perhaps that will lower the security costs and the risk of violence for any given city, lowering the political resistance in the council chambers of America.
Right now, the alt-right can mass. But they can’t kill us all, not if we’re acting in unison.