CITIES: ‘If I had my gun on me, I’d shoot him’: the civil war over statues in New

As New Orleans begins to take down statues of Confederate leaders, angry protesters are flooding into the city to face off – and nuance is the first victim

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Cities is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation

By Matthew Teague in New Orleans for the Guardian / Monday 1 May 2017 07.00 EDT

The city of New Orleans surrendered early during the actual Civil War, after the Confederates left it poorly defended. This time, though, reinforcements from far afield have arrived to hoist the battle flag.

“I will chain myself to that son of a bitch before I let them tear it down,” Wilford Seymour said Thursday, waving a hand toward a statue of General PGT Beauregard mounted in a bronze saddle. “By God I will ride that horse myself.”

Seymour had driven overnight from Arkansas, as soon as he got word that the city of New Orleans was pulling down some of its Confederate monuments. The city’s first maneuver was a covert one, carried out at 3am Monday. A crew wearing masks and bulletproof vests, guarded by snipers overhead, dismantled a monument to the Battle of Liberty Place. It was the most obvious of four monuments marked for removal, since it commemorated an ignoble post-war uprising by white supremacists who didn’t like the direction New Orleans was headed.

The monument’s removal was timed for maximum symbolism. Monday was the day some Southern states celebrate as Confederate Memorial Day.

The push to remove the monuments is the latest skirmish in a conflict that started almost two years ago. That’s when Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, massacred nine black members of Mother Emmanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina. In the days after the shooting, photos emerged of Roof posing with his collection of Confederate battle flags, which led to the removal of such a flag from atop the South Carolina statehouse.

The Robert E Lee statue at Lee Circle in New Orleans.

The Robert E. Lee statue at Lee Circle in New Orleans.  Photograph: Simon Leigh/Almay

Since then a debate has rolled across the South, with varying degrees of nuance. At one edge, some people continue to wave the rebel flag; at the other, activists call for an outright purge of monuments. Most Southerners seem caught in the middle, pondering the difference between preserving history’s lessons and celebrating its atrocities.

Understanding those subtleties is particularly important in New Orleans. Its racial makeup, for instance, is far more complex than any other major Southern city. And the villains and heroes of New Orleans’s history can be difficult to distinguish.

Consider old PGT Beauregard, frozen on his horse at the entrance to City Park. During the Confederacy he served as one of only a handful of full generals over the Confederate army, and ordered the first shots of the war, at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. In this role he tore the fabric of the nation, on behalf of the slave-holding side.

After the war, though, he returned to New Orleans and seems to have devoted himself to repairing that damage; he led a group called the Reform Party, pushing for broad civil rights, integrated schools, equal access to public transportation, and – extraordinarily, at the time – voting rights for black men.

Quentin James at the base of the Robert E Lee monument.

Quentin James at the base of the Robert E. Lee monument.  Photograph: Matthew Teague

This complex tableau leaves many New Orleanians with a laissez-faire attitude to the city’s history. It can frustrate advocates, for or against change, who arrive from elsewhere.

On Thursday afternoon, as a shadow started to creep from Robert E Lee’s perch a hundred feet above Lee Circle, lifelong resident Quentin James strolled around the column’s base. Even as a black man, he said, he felt conflicted about its impending removal.

“He did lose the war, that’s true,” James said. Then for several seconds he thoughtfully scraped the ground with his walking stick. “I’m in my 60s now,” he continued. “When I was in school, after class we’d say, ‘Wanna go lay under Lee?’ and we’d have a picnic. I have a lot of memories attached to this place, and if they take it down, it will feel like I’ve lost something.”

That sort of nuance doesn’t lend itself to easy outrage. Instead, for simplified anger, unburdened by subtlety, troops from elsewhere in the former Confederacy have traveled great distances.

Late Thursday afternoon, 72-year-old Lolita Villavasso Cherrie, a Creole woman, walked past Beauregard’s statue and stopped mid-stride. Before her stood James Del Brock, who looked like a time-traveler from the Civil War: a gray beard down to his chest, a Confederate army cap on his head, and on his shoulders several enormous iterations of the rebel flag, which billowed and snapped in the wind.

“Where are you from?” Cherrie said. “Arkansas,” he replied.

Cherrie, who is tiny, pointed at him with a single finger. It shook. “You take this bullshit back where you came from,” she said. “We don’t do this in New Orleans.”

She didn’t like Beauregard, she said later, but at least he was local. For Brock and his flags, on the other hand, she felt disgust.

“That flag is a living symbol,” she said. It reminded her of the suffering and fear her family felt even a single generation ago. “It hurts.”

Lolita Villavasso Cherrie at the PGT Beauregard monument, telling James Del Brock to go back to Arkansas.

Lolita Villavasso Cherrie at the PGT Beauregard monument, telling James Del Brock to go back to Arkansas.  Photograph: Matthew Teague

The distinction Cherrie draws, between a historical artifact and a living symbol, is the line that runs through the c