Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Activists say they can’t wait for a court decision when it comes to the legacy of white supremacy.
The three-judge panel for the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on September 28 over whether three controversial monuments should remain standing in the city of New Orleans. Last year, the New Orleans City Council voted to remove the monuments dedicated to Civil War-era Confederate leaders General Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and General P.G.T. Beauregard. The city also voted to remove another monument dedicated to a post-Civil War battle waged by white supremacists over the racial integration of the city’s government and police department. But the Monumental Task Committee, an organization advocating for the Confederate monuments’ preservation, won an injunction in court last year that halted the city from taking them down. The federal appeals court is currently deliberating whether that injunction will stand. Another federal court hearing will decide the ultimate fate of all four monuments, but at a date that’s yet to be determined.
Meanwhile, a coalition of New Orleans activists called Take ‘Em Down NOLA, which is organized around the removal of all monuments to white supremacy, isn’t waiting for the judges’ approval. The group has been instrumental in urging the city to rethink its monuments, and they’ve identified yet another target: a statue in the city that memorializes Andrew Jackson, the U.S. president who was a slave trader and committed genocidal acts against Native Americans.
The Jackson memorial statue is located in New Orleans’s French Quarter and weighs a full 20,000 pounds. It has withstood the maddest hurricanes to sweep through the city since it was erected on February 9, 1856. Nevertheless, on September 24, Take ‘Em Down NOLA activists were determined to physically yank it down from its granite pedestal.
They showed up at Jackson Square, arguably the French Quarter’s busiest tourist space, with hundreds of supporters rallying around them to bring Jackson down. But police set up metal and human barricades around the statue. The notorious white nationalist David Duke was also present that day to defend the Jackson statue. Ultimately, seven people were arrested during the attempt.
“The call was to rope up Andrew Jackson and pull him down,” says Michael “Quess” Moore, a lead organizer for Take ‘Em Down NOLA, ”and to expand the conversation outside just [the Confederate monuments], and also to alert the people to the fact that those other [monuments] are still standing in the city.”
Some coalition members tell CityLab that the New Orleans police department had agreed beforehand to allow protestors to at least throw a rope around the statue, but reneged on that deal once the demonstration started. The NOPD has not returned calls to CityLab to confirm this.
It’s not just police and figures like Duke who’ve been standing between the activists and the Jackson statue. They’re also facing opposition from supporters of a documentary project called “Battle of New Orleans.” That group, headed by the film’s producer Jeffrey Pipes Guice, has been adamant about presenting Jackson as a hero for his pivotal role in ending the War of 1812. Jackson rallied the troops in a war-ending battle waged in New Orleans in 1815, which is his only real connection to the city.
Guice was present for the attempt to take down the Jackson statue and told CityLab that the activists have a misunderstanding about Jackson’s place in history. Asked about Jackson’s other proclivities concerning slavery and Native Americans, Guice shrugged it off.
“Yes, he killed a bunch of Indians, but that was his job, 20 years prior to becoming a general,” says Guice. “Every president from Washington up to even Abraham Lincoln’s families had slaves. That was the way the people ran their family plantations. They ran businesses with slave labor, but we’re doing that today with Mexicans. That’s no big secret. Anyone saying, ‘Well, oh, he had slaves’—everybody had slaves. That was the workforce in that era of our history. Not all of our history is pretty, but we do own it, and taking down some statues isn’t going to change it.”
Take ‘Em Down NOLA activists are currently concerned about posts on the “Battle of New Orleans” Facebook page that went up after the Jackson statue takedown attempt, some of which read like veiled violent threats. The posts have since been taken down, but screenshots are still being spread widely across Facebook, as Colorlines has reported.
A current post from the “Battle of New Orleans” Facebook page responds to the news coverage of the threats by saying, “Wow! Thin skin!”. Guice says he is actively discouraging the page’s followers from making racist or violent threats, which the FBI is apparently now looking into.
The social media dustup shows just how fraught the situation in New Orleans has become around these statues. It’s a tension that’s likely to remain whether the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately rules in favor of taking down the Confederate monuments or not. Still, many locals are focused not just on the wider context of white supremacy’s heritage on display throughout their city, but also to how far that heritage’s defenders are willing to go to preserve it. It’s an awakening that many other U.S. cities, from Jackson, Mississippi, to Baltimore, to Boston, are grappling with as well.
”This is exactly why we’re targeting the monuments, because that’s what they are: dog whistles to these people's ancestors,” says “Quess” Moore. “It’s the same toxic vibe you see at a Trump rally—that’s not a coincidence. When he says, ‘Make America great again,’ that’s the same dog whistle.”