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Nicolais: Protesters should topple legacies, not statues

Colorado protesters tearing down civic statues do more harm than good to the worthy causes they support

As my English teacher wife has repeatedly taught me, content without context means almost nothing. As statues across the country tumble, it is time for us to all step back and figure out if we can see the forest through all the big trees obstructing our view.

This should be a moment for education and healing, not destruction and division. 

When activists indiscriminately tear down statues without respect for either history or process, the collateral damage to otherwise supportive coalitions far outweighs the symbolic “victory” achieved by their fits of rage.

Mario Nicolais

In Colorado, that has taken the form of monuments to Civil War veterans and Christopher Columbus

Columbus has a been a point of conflict for decades. Revered for centuries as the man who “discovered the New World,” his legacy of brutality and devastation to Indigenous peoples has rightly been exposed. As an Italian-American, I support efforts to fully detail his historical legacy and the orderly removal of statues honoring him; and not simply because Columbus hailed from Genoa where northern Italians persecuted my southern Italian ancestors for centuries.

Columbus’ actions, both good and terrible, belong in our history books and not in a place of reverence. But mobs unilaterally tearing them down do nothing to accomplish that end.

In contrast, such action often blinds people to legitimate grievances and forces would-be allies into positions of opposition. The reaction of Democratic Gov. Jared Polis over the damage done to the Civil War statue is the perfect example.

Polis expressed outrage at the destruction of a monument to soldiers who fought to end slavery. He subsequently vowed to have it repaired and returned to its place of prominence. 

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While I am sure Polis is sympathetic to the importance of remembering the role Colorado soldiers played in the Sand Creek Massacre, it didn’t help protesters’ cause to spray paint across the explanatory plaque at the statues’ base. It had been placed there at the request of descendants of the massacre’s victims.

The governor has every reason to take up sides against the protesters’ action, if not against their underlying cause. 

A similar outcome likely awaits the statue of President Ulysses S. Grant – the Civil War general who crushed the Confederacy and sought to destroy the Klu Klux Klan during his presidency – recently torn down in San Francisco.

The consequence of such action sets back the cause of a worthy movement by turning it into a caricature of mindless rage set on indiscriminate violence. Rather than bolstering their arguments, they swell the ranks of their opponents.

A better approach would be the one taken up by protesters in Richmond, Virginia. The statue of Robert E. Lee standing before the Virginia state Capitol is the epitome of inappropriate reverence encompassed by Confederate statues littered across the American South.

Yet, protesters have not torn down the statue of Lee.

Instead, they have appropriated it with displays of “BLM” and pictures of black icons. Protesters have surrounded the statue, which the Virginia governor has already ordered to be removed, making their presence in its shadow a living repudiation the ugly history it represents. 

And they will certainly be there when it eventually comes down, not by the hand of late-night vigilantes, but via the action of a government they forced to adapt and change. I cannot think of a more potent and powerful declaration of success than forcing the very government that defended the statue for 130 years to reverse course and bring it down.

In Colorado on Friday, that led the City of Denver to proactively remove a statue of Kit Carson that stood for well over a century itself. While a final decision over the fate of the statue likely hasn’t been made, allowing municipal workers to methodically remove it avoided much of the backlash that occurred after the Columbus and Civil War tributes were torn down.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Statues derive power through symbolism. But how they come down is just as symbolic. Toppling public structures indiscriminately hurts the effort to topple the systems that formed the true base of support for those monuments for so long. It is much more important that the legacy fall than the statue itself.

If Colorado protesters really want to make a statement, they must resist the urge to rip down statutes with their own hands. They are far better off forcing their government to do it.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


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