US protests demand removal of racist monuments and Confederate flags

June 16, 2020
A statue of Confederate military leader Robert E Lee in Richmond, Virginia.

The rebellion against police violence and murder continues to expand. New demands are being raised concerning other issues of institutional racism by Black and Brown people and in opposition to the symbols of white genocide by Native American nations.

Demonstrators are demanding the removal of symbols, monuments and flags of oppression. They are refusing to wait for politicians and institutions and have taken direct action to do so.

Symbols of white supremacy

Within a few days in early June Confederate monuments began to tumble. (Twelve states that declared a secessionist rebellion in the 1860s to maintain the slave system made up the Confederacy.)

The Confederate statues located in the Capitol building in Washington, DC, exalt people who raised arms against the United States government and who killed members of its military in defence of white supremacy and Black enslavement. A Senate committee is reviewing if those monuments should be removed. Previous attempts have failed.

Activists tore down a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia. Demonstrators beheaded four Confederate statues before pulling one down using a tow rope in Portsmouth, Virginia, as police watched on.

Alabama's flagship state university took down memorials to Confederate soldiers. The University of Alabama removed plaques honouring students who served in the Confederate army and student cadet corps.

Two of Alabama's largest cities — Birmingham and Mobile — took down Confederate monuments that were focal points for civil unrest. Violating a state law intended to protect such memorials, Birmingham dismantled a huge obelisk dedicated to Confederate soldiers and sailors in a downtown park.

Mobile took down a vandalised statue of a Confederate naval officer. Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said on Twitter the move was not an attempt to rewrite history but intended to remove "a potential distraction" to focus on the future of the Gulf coast city.

Pressure is mounting in Mississippi over the state flag. Adopted in 1894, the design incorporates the Confederate battle flag — a red background with a blue X lined with white stars. In 2001, Mississippi voted to keep it. Now, Republican Governor Tate Reeves says it is not up to elected leaders to change it.

Davis and his legacy “departed” Kentucky's Capitol Rotunda after the 12-foot marble statue commemorating him was removed on June 12.

The Marine Corps recently banned displays of the Confederate flag, with the exception of Mississippi's flag.

Named after traitors

Ten military bases are named after Confederate generals who are properly seen as traitors by African Americans and many whites.  Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Hood in Texas are two examples.

Two Naval Academy buildings — Maury Hall and Buchanan House, the superintendent’s residence — are named after Confederate officers.

A naval ship, the guided-missile cruiser Chancellorsville, is named after a Confederate Civil War victory.

The bases are in former slave states in the South. They were named in the 1940s after World War I — 50 to 80 years after the Civil War. Why then? It represented the emphatic victory of white nationalism over Black civil rights. African Americans have suffered this indignity for decades.

Defenders of these dishonourable men argue that it reflects “Southern heritage and culture”. They mean white culture, even though the wealth of the southern economy was built by slave labour.

Blacks ask: Where are the monuments to former slaves who fought in the army and militias for freedom? Where are the monuments to abolitionists Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman?

President Donald Trump, the “white nationalist-in-chief”, says not on his watch: “These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory and Freedom.”

Yet the names represent men of treason. Under Article 3 of the US Constitution: “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

The modern display of flags used by and associated with the Confederate States of America started in response to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s. It continued to the present day and is supported by white nationalist and white supremacist ideology.

The power of the Black Lives Matter movement is seen in the impact on sports. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) decided to ban the displaying of the Confederate flag and decals on its cars and racetracks. Currently, there is only one African American NASCAR driver.

The National Football League (NFL) came out in support of the movement and against racism. It now supports the right of players to speak out against police violence.  Many NFL owners are strong supporters of Trump, who criticised the NFL’s commissioner for the change in policy.

White players in the National Hockey League (which includes teams from the US and Canada) also condemned the killing of George Floyd. There are few Blacks in the sport. In Canada, the main issue concerns the country’s racist treatment of indigenous people.

Columbus statue falls

In Minnesota, the launch point of the current anti-cop struggle, protesters, led by Native Americans, successfully pulled down a statue of Christopher Columbus outside the State Capitol building. The protesters threw a rope around the 3-metre high bronze statue and pulled it off its stone pedestal.

The protesters, led by Mike Forcia with the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said they consider Columbus a symbol of genocide against Native Americans. The Minnesota State Patrol told the group they could fill out paperwork to have the statue removed, but they said they had tried many times to remove it through the political process, without success.

"We don't have to wait for the state,” Forcia said. “We don't have to wait for the process because we've already waited far too long."

It has been a long-standing demand of indigenous peoples to remove this symbol of European colonialism and genocide.  It was never a “positive symbol of Italian Heritage” as defenders argue.

What next?

African Americans are fed up. Latinos are angry. Native American peoples are outraged. They are all not safe in their homes, walking, jogging, sleeping or breathing. They fear the police.

On June 12, in Atlanta, Georgia, another young Black man, Rayshard Brooks, 27, was shot and killed by white cops for sleeping in his car at a fast food restaurant. Brooks had agreed to park his car and go home, before one cop pulled out his handcuffs and tried to taser him. Fearing for his life (George Floyd was handcuffed and died), Brooks ran and was shot dead.

President Trump, meanwhile, continues to praise the police and calls for “law and order”. Trump will speak at a MAGA (Make America Great Again) rally, despite warnings from health officials, on June 20 in Tulsa, Oklahoma — the city where one of the country’s worst mass murders of Blacks took place, in a community known as “Black Wall Street”, in 1921.

Trump is also going to accept the Republican nomination at the party’s national convention, which is going ahead despite the pandemic, in Jacksonville, Florida, in August. Jacksonville is where, in 1960, nonviolent civil rights activists were brutally beaten in an incident known as “Axe Handle Saturday”.

Fear is real. Why would any African American call the police for help?

The broad uprising is unique because it is multiracial, multi-generational and draws in all segments of society, including from big and small businesses, sports, churches and unions.

There is concern in the ruling class that the Black-led movement cannot be contained by modest police reforms. Shouts of “law and order” ring hollow to most whites, since it leads to more dead African Americans, and even bigger mass demonstrations and chaos on the streets.

The policing system is rotten to its core. It must be abolished, and a new safety force created from the ground up. It must be controlled by the Black and Brown communities. It must include the creation of an independent prosecution office that can confront the police “union bosses” and the police department management.

Those who argue that the movement should focus on winning reforms and on the upcoming presidential elections, are selling protesters short.

What African Americans have known all their lives, and more whites are learning today: Black lives do not matter to cops and the capitalist system. Peoples power does.

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