African Americans and Native Americans are standing with the defenders of Confederate monuments in New Orleans. Photojournalist Abdul Aziz crossed the battle lines to find out why.
Back in December 2015, the New Orleans city council voted to remove several Confederate monuments, but the city is only now getting around to dismantling them. Lawsuits from organizations seeking to preserve these white supremacist memorials jammed that process up, as did threats made to potential contractors. In March, the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals finalized orders to have the controversial monuments removed. The first monument—an obelisk dedicated to a massacre carried out by white supremacists to prevent racial integration during Reconstruction—was taken down in the wee hours of Monday, April 24.
The legal battle may be over, but the debate goes on. On one side is the network of local activists called Take ‘Em Down NOLA, which has been leading the movement to remove these monuments from public view. On the other side are the Confederate defenders who have been camped out in front of the monuments for almost a week. There are three more monuments scheduled to come down, but the city has halted activity while the popular JazzFest is happening. Things have gotten testy; this past weekend, as Nola.com reports, “supporters and opponents of the monuments sparred beneath the statue of Jefferson Davis”—the next monument slated to come down.
New Orleans photojournalist Abdul Aziz was on hand to capture the fracas. However, he also spent some time getting to know the Confederate defenders themselves—a group that includes African Americans and Native Americans amongst its surprisingly diverse ranks. CityLab talked to Aziz to learn more about what he heard.
What’s striking about your photos is that you captured them in such civil light. Why was this important?
My objective here was just to tell the story from an objective standpoint, which is what I do. When I went to the Gaza Strip in 2013, I interviewed Hamas.
But my expectations were not to encounter as many people of color out there standing in support of the monuments. There were a couple of folks—native black New Orleanians—walking down the street who called the entire effort to bring them down stupid. “This is history,” they said. “You shouldn’t erase history.” This was a recurring theme from people of color, and that was a little startling for me.
I wanted to really get their perspectives through civil dialogue to try to understand where they’re coming from. I still don’t. However, the opportunity to talk to them in a very candid way, and meeting each other from a place of respect based on our willingness to understand one another’s perspectives was really eye-opening. It was interesting to see how these people of color genuinely could not connect the dots to racism and the Confederacy. To them, this was an issue of government overreach, as well as erasure of history, which they felt was more detrimental than people’s feelings around what the statues and monuments represented.
That was astonishing for me, because it wasn’t just black and white. There was a gentleman there from Austin, Texas, who is Lakota Sioux. Another guy standing in support was the son of Indian immigrants. It was fascinating.
How’d you navigate approaching these subjects to have a civil dialogue, given what they stand for?
This was something I struggled with. To be clear, my personal stance is that I’m vehemently against any Confederate monuments or any monument connected to slavery or racism. I fight white supremacy on a daily basis. However, as a journalist, it is my job to allow people to tell their stories. I didn’t put those words in those folks’ mouths. That’s their words and their words should be heard. We don’t hear people of color’s perspectives [like this] and often dismiss them as sellouts, coons, Uncle Toms, etc. But [I wanted] to get to the root of understanding what these individuals are thinking.
One of the things I noticed from interviewing each one of them separately—and they would probably disagree with this—is that they revealed some kind of trauma that happened in their life that drove them to the far right, to be a part of this movement that the rest of the world views as racist and horrible. Whether it was a school incident that occurred, or not being accepted by their own community, you could see that there was some initial trigger that drove them to be standing on Canal Street on April 30 in support of the monuments.
It is controversial, yes. A lot of people are telling me, “Don’t give these folks a platform to spew hate.” That’s an argument that we’ve heard a lot, especially in recent times with Milo Yiannopoulos, or Tomi Lahren and all of the Alex Joneses of the world. But I’m not about suppressing information.
So, I’ve been doing photojournalism for awhile and I usually do it in extremely controversial instances in which there may be violence. When I’m taking photos, I don’t think about that because I’m not trying to approach it from a place of fear. If you’re approaching them in a way that shows you are either afraid or you have some kind of bias against them, you don’t get the same story or the transparency I seek when documenting them. So, no, I wasn’t afraid at all. To me, the most important thing is getting the story out.
However, they were carrying guns—about 60 to 70 percent of them standing there were heavily armed. Some folks had semiautomatic sidearms, and they were well prepared for something to happen. Of course there were taunts and people driving by jeering; folks would slow down and stop and threaten to jump out of the car. Then you could see the readiness level of these individuals to engage someone in that type of way should it have been necessary.
Louisiana is an open carry state. In an interview, one of them explicitly said, “We’re here, and if there were a situation where one of these folks wanted to come and shoot us, we’d be able to quickly respond by drawing our weapons.” They actually turned it around and said they were the ones receiving the death threats and violence against their bodies. They came prepared to deal with anything, in their minds.
I asked if they thought it was inflammatory for them to carry firearms while standing on the side of flags and monuments that have historically represented white supremacy. They didn’t see a problem with it. One gentleman said, “If I leave my house, it’s on my hips.” It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for them.
Obviously, to someone who has not spent a lot of time around firearms, being around someone espousing white supremacist ideology while armed is unnerving. It makes me question what would happen if the Take ‘Em Down NOLA crowd were to openly carry guns. I don’t think that would work out well. It would be much more of a controversy.
From talking to the Confederate monument guardians, did you get the sense that they are willing to resort to violence when the city begins to dismantle these monuments?
The term that was used is “defend,” and I don’t want to speculate and say that these folks are in any way, shape, or form there to use violence as a method to defend or protect these monuments. However, I think some folks are there for both. It’s a very diverse crowd of people that has different thoughts about it, but they don’t want to see [the monuments] come down. That may mean something more to one person standing there than it does to the others. A lot of these folks have been camped out since last week and they’re not going home anytime soon. So we’ll see.