By Rob Vessels
August 3, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
For the past few months, our country has spent much time considering monuments, heritage and the legacy of white supremacy.
The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25 shocked the nation. It invigorated a movement that had seen the brutal killings of Black people by police and responded by enthusiastically declaring that Black lives matter. As part of this movement to undo centuries of injustice, demonstrators demanded the removal of Confederate monuments from the public places they occupy.
I grew up in the South, where symbols of the Confederacy were inescapable. It could be something small, like a flag bumper sticker on a pickup truck, or it could be larger than life, like a statue of a Confederate soldier, rifle in his hand and sabre at his belt, ready for the Yankees.
Even representations of federal power paid homage to the Lost Cause. Before my deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, I was stationed at Fort Polk in Louisiana. I didn’t know it at the time, but the fort was named for Leonidas Polk — a Confederate general, Episcopal bishop and slaver. The base that bears his name is one of 10 military installations to be named for a Confederate leader.
The justification for these monuments and memorials was, and still is, that they represent “heritage, not hate.” Their true message is clear: We’re still here, and the South will rise again.
Decades after these monuments were built, protesters started taking matters into their own hands to exorcise these specters of white supremacy. Statues along Richmond’s Monument Avenue came down and were reclaimed as joyous spaces for demonstrators. In Washington, D.C., demonstrators pulled down a statue of Albert Pike, the capital’s sole outdoor Confederate monument.
Even Congress joined the action. Last month, the House of Representatives passed a bill to remove Confederate and racist statues — including a bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney who penned the infamous Dred Scott decision — from the Capitol Building. The annual military spending package, hardly a bastion of progressive thought, included provisions that would rename bases currently named for Confederate leaders.
After initial momentum, however, the old message of “heritage, not hate” has found an advocate in the White House.
On June 24, President Donald Trump ordered Secretary of the Interior David Berhnardt to replace the toppled Pike statue. Later that day, he redeployed the D.C. National Guard to defend Pike and other controversial monuments in Washington “with serious force.”
The order came barely three weeks after United States Park Police used chemical weapons and military-style tactics to brutally eject peaceful protesters and journalists from Lafayette Square to make way for a presidential photo-op at St. John’s Episcopal Church. We have now seen those tactics deployed in other cities, and Trump is threatening to send a federal goon squad to other major cities. When faced with opposition, the president’s first, and perhaps only, instinct is to violently crack down on American citizens practicing their First Amendment rights with pepper balls, batons and riot shields. As a combat veteran, I find these images all too familiar.
When I enlisted in the Army after high school, I did so thinking I would be fighting anti-democratic actions overseas and defending American freedoms abroad. Just as I was ignorant of the history behind Fort Polk’s name, my privilege blinded me to the fact that not all Americans enjoy the same freedoms. For the Trump administration, this isn’t a fact to lament, but a cudgel to push an agenda that exclusively benefits the wealthy and white at the expense of our environment, social and racial justice, and opportunity for all.
After the deadly Charlottesville rally, Trump declared that he loved “our beautiful statues and monuments.” Since Teddy Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law in 1906, 158 sites have been designated as national monuments. Some recognize individuals, like labor leader and civil rights activist César Chávez. Some acknowledge movements, like the modern LGBT rights movement that began at Stonewall. Others preserve the memories of our national ancestors, like the ancestral Puebloans at Yucca House or the enslaved Africans brought in chains to Fort Monroe. The vast majority, however, are natural landscapes recognized for their physical beauty, cultural significance or environmental importance. Though all monuments exist to memorialize, protect, and preserve, it is clear that, in Trump’s mind, not all monuments are created equal.
Days after the Lafayette Square incident, Trump signed an executive order opening up the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument to commercial fishing. It was the latest assault on national monuments from the most anti-environmental administration in history. After slashing the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, land that is “profoundly sacred” to several indigenous groups, Trump unveiled plans to open both sites to mining operations. At Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Customs and Border Protection invited the press to watch as they blew up sacred burial sites of the Tohono O’odham Nation to make way for Trump’s border wall.
This administration’s sustained attack on national monuments and public lands while lauding Confederate monuments as “great works of art” is white supremacy in action. America’s public lands are meant to be restorative places where all can gather. Monuments are meant to protect and honor the landscapes and legacies of the people who have called this country home. Trump is willing to turn them into occupation zones or sell them off to the highest bidder.
If monuments venerate and preserve legacies, no Confederate is worthy of one. Racism, white supremacy and exploitation are legacies of American history, but so too is the work of Black people, indigenous people, people of color and others to overcome those systems of oppression and build a better society around the land we all share. These are the monuments we should venerate, the ones the president has systematically tried to destroy. For too long, we have celebrated the legacies of hatred and injustice on our public lands. It is time to raise a new one upon those pedestals.
Rob Vessels served as an infantryman with the 10th Mountain Division in Iraq and Afghanistan and currently leads Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors program.
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