BALTIMORE — It happened in the dead of night.
Around midnight, as Tuesday turned into Wednesday, a crew of police officers and workers wielding a large crane began making rounds of the city’s parks and public squares, hauling away monuments to Confederate heroes.
When they were through, before sunrise, four statues that had stood for decades were gone, one chapter in a searing drama that is roiling cities across the county, particularly in the South.
“I thought that there’s enough grandstanding, enough speeches being made,” Mayor Catherine E. Pugh of Baltimore said at a news conference on Wednesday. “Get it done.”
Elsewhere it was not so simple. From Birmingham, Ala., to Gainesville, Fla., to Durham, N.C., to Lexington, Ky., local and state officials this week faced bitter divisions over Confederate statues. Many of the issues had been building for years, but were now freshly volatile in the wake of the violence that exploded Saturday in Charlottesville, Va.
Suddenly, it seemed, the questions of what to do with the roughly 700 remaining statues and monuments to the Lost Cause had come in for perhaps their hardest reckoning. At stake are not just the controversial pieces of public art, but civic, political and racial issues now inextricably tied to them.
In Charlottesville, the violence left a 32-year-old woman dead after far-right protesters gathered to protest plans to move a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a local park. And on Tuesday, President Trump, in remarks defending some of the far-right protesters, asked aloud whether the removal of Confederate statues would prompt the erasure of monuments to slaveholders like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Now local and state officials in states like North Carolina, Texas and Tennessee are facing the outrage of liberal and African-American constituencies, who say the statues should have never gone up in the first place, and the fury of some whites who fear their history is being erased.
On Wednesday night, Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia said that Confederate monuments in the state should be taken down, and he urged local and state leaders to move them into museums. Two years ago, Mr. McAuliffe argued in support of keeping the statues in public spaces, saying that “these are all parts of our heritage.”
In some cases, conservative Southern legislatures have passed laws preventing the statues’ removal or destruction.
In Birmingham, officials on Tuesday erected a black plywood barrier to block any view of the base of a Confederate obelisk that has loomed over a city park since 1905. Mayor William A. Bell Sr. said it was an attempt to respond to valid concerns while obeying a state law that effectively bans taking down Confederate monuments.
“What Charlottesville represented was an open defiance by hate groups of the tradition of this country to bring social and racial harmony,” Mr. Bell said in an interview at City Hall on Wednesday. “The condonement by the president of the actions of the alt-right, the white supremacists and the neo-Nazis gave a greater urgency to take some kind of action.”
The number of controversies has been remarkable: In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam reiterated his opposition to a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founder of the Ku Klux Klan, that is housed at the State Capitol. In Richmond, Va., the former capital of the Confederacy, Mayor Levar M. Stoney said he believed the enormous Confederate statues on the city’s Monument Avenue should be removed, after saying as recently as Monday that they should stay up with additional context. In Texas, Houston officials opened a review of the city’s public art collection as part of an effort to decide whether Confederate statues should remain on public property.
The issue was not contained to the South: In Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, crews on Wednesday took down a plaque noting a place where Lee once planted a tree.
In Montreal, a downtown department store, Hudson’s Bay, removed a plaque commemorating an 1867 visit by Jefferson Davis, who was the president of the Confederacy.
The sense of urgency mirrors the reaction to the 2015 murders of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., by a white supremacist, Dylann S. Roof.
But around the South in recent years, many others bristled at the idea that Confederate history was being erased.
Some flew Confederate battle flags out the back of their trucks, while others filed lawsuits to stop the removal of statues in places like New Orleans, where four statues were removed in May, and Charlottesville, where a suit challenging the city’s planned removal of the Lee statue is pending.
Here in Baltimore, there was little open protest: The city is politically liberal and 63 percent black. But there was nonetheless an abundance of caution. The four statues, which included a double equestrian statue of Lee and Stonewall Jackson, came down by 5:30 a.m.
Mayor Pugh, at a news conference on Wednesday, said that given the nation’s current political climate, it was best to move “quickly and quietly” as a matter of public safety. “The mayor has the right to protect her city,” Ms. Pugh said later in an interview.
“For me, the statues represented pain, and not only did I want to protect my city from any more of that pain, I also wanted to protect my city from any of the violence that was occurring around the nation.”
Birmingham, like Baltimore, is a majority-black city, but the issue was more complicated. On Wednesday, the Alabama attorney general, Steven T. Marshall, sued the city and asked a judge to impose a fine of $25,000 a day.
In a statement, Mr. Marshall said the city’s plywood obstruction was in “violation of the letter and spirit of the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act.”
On Monday in Durham, liberal demonstrators pulled down a statue of a Confederate soldier, and at least one activist was arrested on suspicion of taking part in the protest.
Soon after, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, published an online essay, declaring: “We cannot continue to glorify a war against the United States of America fought in the defense of slavery. These monuments should come down.”
But Mr. Cooper is hampered by a 2015 law passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature that forbids the removal of such statues. He called for repeal of the law, and warned of possible violence if left-leaning protesters took the matter into their own hands.
“The likelihood of protesters being injured or worse as they may try to topple any one of the hundreds of monuments in our state concerns me,” he wrote. “And the potential for those same white supremacist elements we saw in Charlottesville to swarm the site, weapons in hand, in retaliation is a threat to public safety.”
In Georgia on Tuesday, Stacey Abrams, one of the top candidates vying to be the Democratic nominee in the coming governor’s race, reignited the long-running debate over a large carving of Confederate generals on the side of Stone Mountain, the granite outcropping east of Atlanta.
In a series of tweets, she called for the removal of the carving, arguing that it “had no purpose other than celebration of racism, terror & division.”
To supporters of the monuments, the resistance was familiar. And echoing Mr. Trump, they worried whether the fervor would spread to monuments of other figures.
Jimmy Hill, the commander of the Alabama division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he had even seen, and been alarmed by, social media posts that proposed toppling monuments to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to “even the score.”
“I don’t want to see any civil rights statues desecrated or toppled over or taken down,” he said. “We don’t have to glorify every single event that happened, but if they’re already here, people need to remember what happened in our history.”
Nicholas Fandos reported from Baltimore, Richard Fausset from Atlanta and Alan Blinder from Birmingham, Ala. Jess Bidgood contributed reporting from Richmond, Va., and Matthew Haag from New York.
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