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
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. 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. 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. Photograph: Matthew Teague
The distinction Cherrie draws, between a historical artifact and a living symbol, is the line that runs through the center of the current conflict.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil rights advocacy group based in Alabama, has spent the past year sorting which markers preserve the past, and which glorify it.
There are many battlefield memorials, like those in Vicksburg, Mississippi, that remind viewers of the catastrophic loss of human life on both sides. The SPLC doesn’t include them in its catalog. But of the other sort, the celebratory sort, the firm’s report says there are more than 700 scattered around the United States, with the vast majority in Southern states. There are many, many more streets and schools named for Confederate figures.
On Friday the group issued an update to its ongoing report: “The SPLC has found that at least 60 such publicly funded symbols of the Confederacy have been removed” since the Mother Emanuel massacre.
Simultaneously, the report warned, opposing forces have become more strident: “At least one Georgia lawmaker has since introduced a resolution to recognize Confederate History Month and Confederate Memorial Day.”
That’s a reference to Georgia Rep Tommy Benton, who cited the election of Donald Trump when he made the proposal.
“We just elected a president that said he was tired of political correctness,” Benton told a local public radio station. “And so that was the reason that we were looking to introduce the resolution.”
It’s about preserving heritage, he said, not glorifying misdeeds.
Workers dismantle the Liberty Place monument which commemorates whites who tried to topple a biracial post-Civil War government. It was removed overnight on April 24 in an attempt to avoid disruption from protesters. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP
That argument was often and loudly repeated this week in New Orleans, at the foot of the Jefferson Davis statue.
Davis was the president of the Confederate states. A group of his admirers from Texas and Oklahoma camped out on the patch of grass around the statue, and engaged any local passerby who objected to the monument.
“It’s about history,” became the refrain. History, not propaganda.
That argument fell apart, though, any time someone pushed through the ranks of the Confederates to read the hagiographic inscription carved into the 40-foot statue’s base: “A profound student of the Constitution; a majestic orator; in character firm; in judgment sound; in character resolute.”
Mostly local people regarded the flag-wavers as a curiosity. Students from nearby Loyola University sat on blankets and shared cases of beer while they watched. When a young jogger swerved from the sidewalk, penetrated the Confederate ring, stole a flag and ran away waving it, a cheer went up among the locals.
One of the Confederate leaders, Allen Branch of Oklahoma, glared from beneath a black cowboy hat. “If I had my gun on me, I’d shoot him.”
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The protests and counter-protests have been, so far, mostly small and nonviolent. That may change, as more statues come down, and more supporters arrive.
(Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office declined to confirm when, or in what order, Davis, Lee, and Beauregard might come down, citing security concerns.)
In the early hours of Friday morning, a car stopped at a traffic light in the roundabout that surrounds Beauregard’s statue. The driver, 38-year-old Michelle Agosto, lives in New Orleans and drives past the statue daily. She shouted from her car that the Confederates should go home. Similar sentiments had flown from passing cars for two days: some people yelling words of support, others booing the effort, and many, many middle fingers saluting from open car windows. None of it amounted to much more.
This time, though, a blonde woman with a Confederate flag ran to Agosto’s car and stuck her head inside the window, screaming. Agosto pushed her away. The woman, still screaming, punched Agosto in the face.
Later in the darkness of City Park, Agosto gingerly touched her left ear where the blow had landed.
“I just wish they would go back to wherever they came from,” she said.