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The status of statues

Earlier this week—after months of courtroom visits and campaigns of political pressure—the remaining charges were dropped against protesters involved in the toppling of a Durham confederate soldier statue last summer. This marks a significant victory for the highly-publicized protesters who have faced criticism in the long-standing debate around the fate of Civil War monuments, a national conversation that reached its most recent boiling point in the wake of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally that result in the death of a counter-demonstrator, Heather Heyer. In light of the retracted charges, it would serve us well to revisit and reflect on why the future of these statues remain a contentious talking point.

As with everything, historicity and contextualization are key to fully understanding the monuments—especially the political intentions that fueled their construction. The timeline of when these statues were erected is a key component of this: periods in which construction was highest were in the early 1900s, followed by spikes again in the 50s and 60s. This paints a clearer picture of social undertones of the memorials given that these historical intervals were characterized by deep civil unrest and tension. Many were bankrolled by private groups such as the Daughters of the Confederacy in order to push back against battles for racial equity and were built unilaterally, circumventing channels that would have allowed for input or debate from black residents. Durham’s circa 1922 statue was erected in part by an allocation of $5000 in country tax money at a time when black Duhamites were restricted from voting and politically repressed by Jim Crow laws. Meaning they had no say in their tax dollars being funneled to the monument’s initial construction. For North Carolina as a whole, records also tell very a different story than the popular, defensive narrative of memorial and remembrance. In the 25 years after the Civil War, less than 30 statues were built. Then, in the 50 years following the institution of Jim Crow laws across the south, more than 130 cropped up

Those who have spoken out for monument preservation frame the moves to tear down statues—whether via rope or more bureaucratic channels—as historical erasure. However, this argument often rests on the notion that we are now so distanced from the racism and oppression of the 1860s that these statues solely stand as symbols of spectres of the past, rather than existing simultaneously with the Reconstruction Era failures still felt today. Others question whether or not toppling confederate effigies only eggs on right-wing extremism, potentially causing more harm than good. However, one should consider that in the face of a strong, worrying uptick in white nationalist visibility, there might be long term benefits to taking down such symbolic icons that doubled as assembly points not too long ago in Charlottesville. Additionally, these arguments beg the question of how long we need to wait before addressing them? How long before we do the work of confronting symbols of violence, revisionism and domination that have sat menacingly for decades?

While there may be difference in opinion about the best way to remove statues, two things are for certain regarding the toppling in Durham last summer: there is a distinct failure of our political system to provide adequate channels to address the statue’s future in more orthodox ways and the statue met its end poetically: by the hands of Takiyah Thompson—who, a hundred years ago, would have been systematically silenced from challenging its construction in the first place. The questions proposed about these monuments need to be handled in a meaningful and nuanced way, but such a conversation is seemingly impossible in a state that, by some metrics, doesn’t even qualify as a democracy. Ultimately, it’s clear that unless there are considerable improvements to channels for political dissent, residents will be left with no choice but to take matters like these statues into their own hands. And, perhaps, that’s just what needs to happen.


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