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Tearing Down Monuments of Oppression Is the First Step to Decolonization

Decolonization is about remaking the here and now.

The equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt in New York City. (Photo: MacLachlan; Edited: LW / TO)

Hundreds of activists from various groups crowded into the American Museum of Natural History in New York City this past Columbus Day to take part in activist group Decolonize This Place’s unofficial tour of the museum. As the activists stopped at each of the sections of the museum displaying the culture and history of various non-European peoples, a small group of organizers exposed the colonial perspective embedded in these displays and explained how the displays “otherized,” exoticized, dehumanized and/or exploited these peoples along with their history and culture.

“It’s really simple,” said Natasha S.*, an organizer with Decolonize This Place. “The American Museum of Natural History is the most visited museum in this country. It is also the museum that gets the most funding from the city, and on top of that, it is a hall of white supremacy. So, what we’re really doing is thinking about the museum as a representation of settler-colonization and basically highlighting our struggles and movements in that space.”

After the tour inside the museum was done, the activists began unfurling banners denouncing white supremacy, colonialism and patriarchy and then raised up three very large, connected banners in front of the Theodore Roosevelt statue outside the museum, blocking the statue from being seen. The 10-foot statue, entitled “Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt,” was sculpted by James Earle Fraser in 1939 and portrays a muscular Roosevelt on horseback with an African and a Native American walking on either side and seemingly being led by him. Roosevelt’s left hand even rests on the head of the African to his side. The white supremacist symbolism is clear.

“The statue echoes those old ‘races of mankind’ posters that used to decorate college classrooms of physical anthropology, with whites highest on the evolutionary tree, furthest from the ape,” historian and sociologist James W. Loewen wrote in his book Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. “Inside its doors, the American Museum of Natural History still takes the same stance, putting American Indians and Africans closer to animals, whites furthest removed.”

The activists then demanded that the Roosevelt statue be taken down and the exhibits be “reviewed and reconceived by representatives of the ‘exhibited’ populations.” They also called for New York City to follow the lead of other municipalities to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day.

The action that day was one of many recent moves by activists against symbols and monuments to white supremacy and colonialism. After the murder of nine Black people in Charleston, South Carolina, by a Confederate-flag-waving white supremacist in July 2015 Americans were galvanized to start taking down Confederate flags, as well as statues and monuments dedicated to white supremacists. The campaigns have received much backlash from right-wingers and white supremacists which has, in turn, only intensified and expanded these campaigns. With so much of the US’s landscape built in the name of slave owners, conquistadors, colonizers and génocidaires, today’s white supremacists correctly see these calls to remove racist statues as a slippery slope ultimately leading to a questioning of the American project itself. And unfortunately for them, anti-racist and anti-colonial activists know this as well and plan on going beyond these initial steps, moving toward decolonization and the dismantling of white supremacy.

Statues Toppling Around the Country

For the past two years, all across the US, statues dedicated to white supremacy and colonialism have been targeted by activists in various ways. In October 2015, someone planted an axe in the head of a Columbus statue near Detroit’s City Hall. Confederate statues at the University of Texas at Austin were tagged with “Black Lives Matter” in February 2016. An anarchist group in New Orleans calling themselves the Real Meow Meow Liberation Front-Professional Party Planning Committee spray-painted a circle-A on a Confederate monument in May 2017 — even leaving a hammer and chisel at the base of the monument and a note encouraging people to “take a few whacks” at it. A month later, the same group chiseled the nose off a nearby Confederate soldier statue, spray-painted a circle-A on it, and even created a parody Twitter account for the missing nose. Decolonize This Place’s recent protest at the American Museum of Natural History was a repeat of the anti-Columbus Day protest the group did last year, in which activists covered the Roosevelt statue with a tarp.

People are talking about tearing down history, but it’s not history. Not when the legacy is still very much alive.” — Takiyah Thompson

One of the most inspiring and audacious direct actions against a racist statue recently was in August in Durham, North Carolina. A group of more than 100 activists from leftist and anti-capitalist groups, such as the Workers World Party and the Industrial Workers of the World physically tore down the Confederate Soldiers Monument in front of the old Durham County Courthouse while chanting “No cops! No KKK! No fascist USA!” Multiple activists were later arrested and charged with felonies for tearing down the statue, the first of whom was 22-year-old student Takiyah Thompson.

“I think it’s important to think about the position of the Confederate statue in front of the old courthouse,” Thompson told Truthout. “Even though that courthouse is no longer in use, it’s still a government building, and the fact that it’s on the courthouse steps makes a very clear statement to Black people, and people of color more generally, about what kind of justice they’re going to receive when they enter that courtroom. People are talking about tearing down history, but it’s not history. Not when the legacy is still very much alive.”

Thompson said that the action started as a response to an uninspiring post-Charlottesville vigil organized by the liberal, pro-Democratic Party group IndivisiblesNC on August 13. According to Q. Wideman — a Black, queer woman and friend of Thompson’s who went to Charlottesville — when she attempted to speak and criticize the liberal, pacifist rhetoric at that vigil, the Indivisibles organizers stopped her, threatened to call the police and cut the livestream. Right before the livestream was cut, a white man can be seen telling Wideman “You’re not going to sabotage this!” and that she “can have another rally” if she wanted to speak. When Wideman was finally given time to speak, it wasn’t included on the livestream.

IndivisiblesNC told Truthout that there “were a number of individuals involved in organizing the event who are active with Durham-area Indivisible groups” and that the IndivisiblesNC “network’s involvement with this event was mainly around offering a public Facebook page from which to host a public event.”

“We share the community’s sadness that not every voice could be heard,” the vigil’s organizers wrote in a statement issued shortly after the event. “The organizations involved in planning this rally remain committed to peaceful, non-violent protest that provides safety for everyone present and is in compliance with the law. To that end, the police were notified of the event via press release. The organizers had no further direct interaction with them.”

IndivisiblesNC also told Truthout that the livestream “was interrupted (stopped and restarted) due to personal circumstances and choices of the individual using their own device to do the livestream” and “was not due to any direction or decision of the vigil organizers.”

The next day, the Workers World Party organized its own rally which ended with the Confederate statue being torn down and history being made.

“I think it’s important that the people struggle to remove the statues themselves because when people struggle for their own liberation, they won’t allow others to come in and claim themselves as liberators,” Thompson told me. “It’s important that this movement be taken up by regular-ass people.”

Not long afterwards, with Columbus Day in sight, people began taking direct action against statues of Columbus. On August 21, a Columbus monument in Baltimore was smashed with a sledgehammer “in protest of white supremacy,” with the anonymous activists even posting a video of them doing it. Later that month in New York, Columbus statues in Buffalo, Yonkers and Queens were vandalized within days of each other. On September 12, a Columbus statue in New York City’s Central Park had red paint splashed on its hands with the message “Hate Will Not Be Tolerated” spray-painted on the base. On the holiday itself, Columbus statues all over the country were vandalized. As all this happened, the calls for the statue in New York City’s Columbus Circle to be taken down grew louder and louder.

“I think it’s really important that we examine why this man gets a statue, what did he actually do, and break down that gross history filled with violence, rape, slavery and land dispossession. All those things together are really what that statue represents,” said Shawnee Rice, a volunteer organizer with the American Indian Community House. “And what kind of message does keeping that statue there send to Indigenous children growing up, seeing this statue, and finding out that he raped our women and fed our children to dogs?”

White Supremacist Backlash

But all these actions have not gone unnoticed by the forces of white supremacy.

The infamous #UniteTheRight rally in Charlottesville was ostensibly in opposition to the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. For the torch-wielding fascists there, the removal of these monuments represents not only a threat to white supremacy, but a threat to the existence of white people. The chants of “You will not replace us” and “white lives matter” illustrated this. And in the name of these symbols of white supremacy, fascists have shown themselves to be more than willing to engage in material, concrete violence.

Activists see the destruction of these statues as one of the initial steps to the destruction of the forces that constructed them.

On August 15, months before Decolonize This Place conducted this year’s anti-Columbus Day tour, right-wing online media outlet The Daily Wire published a fearmongering article making it seem as if last year’s tour had happened that month rather than last year. They even used one of my tweets from last year, despite it being clearly dated October 11, 2016. The article was so dishonest yet so widespread that Snopes felt the need to debunk it.

The fascists running the state apparatus correctly recognize that white supremacy is under threat if the vandalizing and removal of these statues and monuments are allowed to continue.

President Donald Trump himself apparently saw the misleading Daily Wire article and commented on the Roosevelt statue during his rally in Phoenix on August 22.

“I see they want to take Teddy Roosevelt’s [statue] down, too,” the US’s head white supremacist told the crowd. “They’re trying to figure out why. They don’t know. They’re trying to take away our culture. They are trying to take away our history.”

And even before Decolonize This Place showed up at the American Museum of Natural History for this year’s anti-Columbus Day tour, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) made sure to be visibly present with barricades surrounding the Roosevelt statue, preventing any activist from getting too close.

“We expected that [the NYPD] would do that, but at the same time, these monuments are meant to reflect the values of the people,” Amin Hussein of Decolonize This Place told Truthout. “And when you live in a city where it actually barricades those monuments against the people, something’s off.”

Right-wing politicians in New York City also rallied in front of City Hall on August 24 in support of keeping the Columbus Circle statue. And even Black and Brown Democrats like Public Advocate Tish James and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. (who supported taking down Confederate statues) voiced their support for keeping the statue. Even for the city’s liberal Black and Brown politicians, the fight against white supremacy and colonialism can only be allowed to go so far.

In Durham, the day after the Confederate statue was torn down, the local sheriff Mike Andrews made sure to send a clear message to the perpetrators.

“Let me be clear, no one is getting away with what happened,” he told reporters. “We can all agree yesterday went too far.”

“Creating a world where cultural racism is not okay is an important first step to tearing down more structural forms of racism.” — Takiyah Thompson

On August 17, days after Thompson and other activists were arrested, more than 100 people dressed in black lined up outside the Durham County Sheriff’s office to turn themselves in to show solidarity with their arrested comrades. Most of them were turned away, but as of today, 14 people in total have been arrested for the action and are currently facing felony and misdemeanor charges.

Activists see the destruction of these statues as one of the initial steps to the destruction of the forces that constructed them. The agents of white supremacy and colonialism, both state and non-state, know this — and they are willing to do whatever it takes to stop it.

As Frantz Fanon wrote in his anti-colonial magnum opus The Wretched of the Earth: “The colonial regime owes its legitimacy to force and at no time tries to hide this aspect of things. Every statue, whether of Faidherbe or of Lyautey, of Bugeaud or of Sergent Blandan — all these conquistadors perched on colonial soil do not cease from proclaiming one and the same thing: ‘We are here by the force of bayonets….'”

Anti-racist and anti-colonial activists know this truth, too, and are prepared to keep pushing further. When people witness open defiance of white supremacy and colonialism — when they see these statues being vandalized and torn down — it can shake them into consciousness. These actions symbolize the fact that oppressive institutions can be overturned. The police, the prisons, the politicians — all of these manifestations of white supremacy can be torn down much like the statue of the conquistador or the Confederate general. And as Hussein told me after the anti-Columbus Day action, these activists “are not going away.” They intend on growing and building movements to further decolonize this country and abolish white supremacy. Like the brave folks in Durham, they’re willing to face the violence of the state to do it.

“Creating a world where cultural racism is not okay is an important first step to tearing down more structural forms of racism. It’s an act of the oppressed reclaiming their agency,” Thompson told Truthout. “So even though it was just a statue and people have made the criticism of ‘Oh well, let me know when you tear down a prison,’ well obviously, that’s the next step. That would be the end goal, but it’s important for oppressed people to have these small victories in the long road to liberating themselves.”

*Natasha asked to be identified by her first name only.