All Statues Are Local: The Great Toppling of 2020 and the Rebirth of Civic Imagination

The movement is national, but every action within the movement is local.

The statue of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart is removed from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia on July 7, 2020. - Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has ordered the "immediate removal" of Confederate statues on Monument Avenue in order to "expedite the healing process for the city." The mayor said that as the Southern capital during the 1861-65 Civil War, Richmond has been "burdened with that legacy." (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly / AFP) (Photo by RYAN M. KELLY/AFP via Getty Images)
The statue of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart is removed from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia on July 7, 2020. Photo: Ryan M. Kelly/AFP via Getty Images

Almost as soon as the protests following the police killing of George Floyd went national, in the last weekend of May, they became, everywhere they happened, also deeply local.

In Richmond, Virginia, protesters immediately focused on Monument Avenue, the grand boulevard that runs through the elegant Fan District, and its procession of grandiose statues and memorials honoring the Confederacy. They coated the pedestal of Robert E. Lee’s equestrian statue with a mix of messages marking the national moment: remembering Floyd and others, against police in general, declaring that Black lives matter. But the visual information that sprung up at the monument site marshaled local references, too, ones particular to Richmond events and dynamics.

Quickly, an elegant wood-carved sign appeared that welcomed visitors to “Beautiful Marcus-David Peters Circle, Liberated by the People,” named for a man whom Richmond police killed in 2018. After someone removed it overnight, a new one, even bigger and more solid, was planted in its place. The designation stuck as protesters and even local journalists shared updates on social media from “MDP Circle” — an act of renaming by collective fait accompli.

Six weeks later, Monument Avenue has been utterly transformed, at a speed that neither detractors nor defenders of the statues anticipated, having been deadlocked for decades in arguments, protests, studies, and urban-design exercises — not to mention a Virginia state law that prevented cities from removing these monuments that was repealed early this year. By decision of the mayor, Levar Stoney, the city of Richmond has removed the four Confederate statues under its control — of Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, and Matthew Fontaine Maury — following a cue from the protesters, who pulled down the Davis statue themselves, separating it from the bombastic, colonnaded shrine to the Confederacy of which it was the centerpiece.

The Lee statue, meanwhile, is slated to come down by decision of Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, though a last-ditch lawsuit filed by defenders of the statue needs to be overcome. In the meantime, however, MDP Circle has become not just the site of daily local protests but a vital national — even global — reference in this season of insurrection, as images have circulated daily of the organic culture that has sprouted there.

Black Virginians have made emotional pilgrimages to reclaim a space that for over a century was physically orchestrated to signify their exclusion and subordinacy. There have been rallies, spontaneous concerts, and innumerable spontaneous photo shoots, poignant and defiant. Nightly projections onto the statue and pedestal, by local artists Dustin Klein and Alex Criqui, have become the most powerful visual text of this restless season. The images have included political quotes and images of Floyd, other victims of police, and great figures in Black history.

The scenes from Richmond have boosted protesters elsewhere in a loop of creative emulation. They express, in ways that are inherently impossible to disentangle, both the clear set of shared national concerns that have coalesced a movement, and the city’s idiosyncratic local mix of Black politics, a grassroots-minded artist community, and vibrant punk, skater, and anti-fascist scenes.

There are similar scenes unfolding across the country, each with its own unique flavor.

The Sound and the Fury

The movement is national, a response to blanket afflictions: structural racism, police brutality, the exhaustion of the American social order, the nonstop insult of President Donald Trump, and the public health and economic horror of the Covid-19 pandemic. But every action within the movement is local.

The movement is national, but every action within the movement is local.

The emergence of statues, monuments, and public art — both magnets for protest and levers for government response, friendly or otherwise — as fulcrum points has opened up a powerful and fertile hybrid civic space. Each statue is a marker for a national apparatus of power that is now broadly understood as a system that, whatever its past promise, has failed the people. It is also an element, sometimes a focal point, in an organic local history of struggle, resistance, and political and administrative negotiation.

The combination has been catalytic. Even as many statues have been symbolically killed — some toppled by protesters, many more removed by authorities — they have come alive, activating visual, gestural, and improvisational political expression that has overflowed both the conventional terms of debate and, also, thanks to decentralized digital media, its conventional vessels.

When protesters have done the honors, they have brought ritual care and chaotic fury. Thus, Native activists escorted the tumbling of a Christopher Columbus statue on the state Capitol grounds in St. Paul, Minnesota, with singing and drumming, transforming the event into a devotional scene. Likewise, in Los Angeles, the toppling of Junípero Serra, the brutal priest who founded the Spanish missions in California, was followed by placing onto the pedestal fruit and flower offerings.

Yet other toppling scenes have emphasized symbolic retributive violence. In one of the trans-Atlantic occurrences that have both amplified and fed back into the American wave, protesters in Bristol, U.K., pulled down a statue of the 17th-century merchant Edward Colston, then knelt on its neck, in honor of George Floyd, before tossing it in the harbor: a drowning that inescapably evokes the Middle Passage. And in Raleigh, North Carolina, a crowd pulled down two statues of Confederate soldiers from the large memorial fronting the state Capitol and dragged them in the street by ropes around their necks. The crowd left one on the courthouse steps and hung the other from a street light, the whole sequence brimming with echoes of the choreography of lynching. (A wire photo caption even used the term.) Later, the governor would order the dismantling of the whole memorial.

Protesters lynch a figure pulled from the Confederate monument at the State Capitol at the intersection of Salisbury and Hargett Streets in Raleigh, N.C., on Juneteenth, Friday, June 19, 2020. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP)

Protesters hang a figure pulled from the Confederate monument at the State Capitol at the intersection of Salisbury and Hargett Streets in Raleigh, N.C., on June 19, 2020.

Photo: Travis Long/The News Observer/AP

Meanwhile, at least one toppling lurched from joy to horror, when in Portsmouth, Virginia, a statue that protesters were pulling off a Confederate memorial at the site of a former slave market injured a member of the crowd. And when a militia in Albuquerque, New Mexico, confronted protesters at the monument to the Spanish colonist Juan de Oñate, one of the vigilantes shot a protester, causing serious injury. (That monument, too, has now been officially dismantled.)

Statue and monument removals by public authorities have been more demure, of course, obeying reasons of politics, decorum, and safety: statues roped around the waist; equestrian figures gathered by straps under the horse’s belly and lifted by cranes; pillars and obelisks taken down in sections, revealing hitherto unknown aspects of their construction, and in at least a few cases in the South, late 19th-century time capsules. Even so, there have been decisions to make about the timing, visibility, and mise-en-scène of removals. Richmond went for broad daylight, allowing an ecstatic crowd to gather around the workers taking down the Stonewall Jackson statue. The Maury and Stuart statues also came down in public, unannounced in advance but with news spreading quickly enough, once the workers appeared, that Richmonders were able to gather for those removals too.

Elsewhere, local governments have taken down monuments quietly, in the wee hours, and in some instances, in early June, under the cover of curfews. For instance, Birmingham, Alabama, removed its 52-foot tall obelisk honoring the Confederacy, which dominated the approach to City Hall and the Jefferson County Courthouse for a century; a local reporter’s lone livestream monitored the slow process for night owls who happened to catch it. The next morning, people in Alexandria, Virginia, also found the Confederate soldier statue gone from a major Old Town intersection; the removal had already been planned, in an agreement between the city and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, its owners, but the protests accelerated its demise. And if many cities went for maximum secrecy, the removal of the Christopher Columbus statue in downtown Newark, New Jersey, while unannounced and with no media presence, took place to the sound of African drumming by musicians called on short notice, by a city official, to provide ritual rhythms.

Far From Over

The Great Statue Toppling of 2020 is far from over. In addition to landmarks in cities like Richmond, Birmingham, Raleigh, or Charleston, South Carolina — where the late 19th-century statue of the pro-slavery, antebellum Vice President John C. Calhoun is now gone, along with its 115-foot pedestal — the movement has claimed dozens of Confederate memorials in small Southern towns. Scholars who specialize in the subject are struggling to keep pace.

An armada of Columbus statues, long considered untouchable due to purported Italian American sensitivities, have been retired with little incident, toppled in Minneapolis and formally removed in a string of midsized East Coast cities, as well as a city named for the explorer himself: Columbus, Ohio. (An Andrew Jackson statue is also due for removal in Jackson, Mississippi.) In Philadelphia, the city removed its long-contested statue, fronting City Hall, of Frank Rizzo, the racist 1970s mayor. A mural celebrating Rizzo in South Philly is also gone, the now-bare wall serving, on a recent night, as an activist-organized outdoor projection screen.

A crew from Mural Arts paints over the Frank Rizzo mural on 9th Street in Philadelphia

A crew from Mural Arts paints over the Frank Rizzo mural on 9th Street in Philadelphia, on Sunday, June 7, 2020.

Photo: David Maialetti/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

And while the spectacular protest-led teardowns have slowed, the once-glacial deliberative process in city councils and county boards of supervisors has sped up. It is all but ensured that more monuments will be challenged, the question put to officials who long sought to avoid the issue, and taken down.

The process is already causing small earthquakes in local civic life. In Lafayette County, Mississippi, for instance, where the five elected supervisors — all white men — opposed removing the Confederate memorial outside the county courthouse, even though the mayor of Oxford, the county seat, wants it gone. Meeting on the same day as that vote, July 6, two other Mississippi county boards went the other way: The Bolivar County board voted unanimously to remove its own memorial, and the Lowndes County board reversed itself, deciding to remove its similar monument after having voted two weeks earlier to keep it. In the space of that fortnight, racist comments by one supervisor, made in an interview with a local reporter, had caused a major furor. And the Mississippi legislature, of course, had made the historic decision to finally retire the egregious state flag, with its Confederate battle-emblem canton.

As the wave of monument removals swelled, it attracted increasing attention as an aggregate phenomenon, and less to the local specifics. This may be inevitable, to an extent. But, in going broad, much of the discussion has become unproductive, distanced from the human gestures, negotiations, and improvisations where the energy of this moment resides.

Trump and his supporters are agitating the specter of some concerted mob attack, enabled by pliant and mostly Democratic elected officials, against monuments and memorials to American historical figures in general. The Trumpists take care to omit Confederate names from their specific examples in favor of more consensual figures whose statues, in reality, face little or no credible threat. A transparent fearmongering tactic with obvious racist undertones, it signals support to defenders of Confederate memorials who are regrouping in response to events: appearing armed at monument sites, filing lawsuits, or taking out newspaper ads.

Another dismal line of discussion is the one that considers which historical figures deserve, or not, to be celebrated. Its effect is mainly to activate slippery-slope arguments that proceed in bad faith — “Where does it end?” — and to prompt bizarre, personalized interventions around particular individuals. Consider, for instance, an op-ed by a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, arguing for the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., to be in effect decommissioned and rededicated to Harriet Tubman. And well-intended proposals for a national commission on monuments, such as the task force that the historian David Blight proposed for a putative Joe Biden administration, risk getting bogged down in these sterile comparisons of merit, producing little value for towns and local communities.

A progressive critique, meanwhile, questions focusing political effort on statuary instead of pressing material needs to do with economic justice, public health, policing, incarceration, and more. This is a familiar caution, issued for instance by the scholar Adolph Reed in 2017, addressing the decision by New Orleans to remove several Confederate monuments. The point is not that doing so is wrong or useless: “The city is unquestionably better for having been ridden of the monuments,” he wrote. But counting a statue removal as a victory risks according unearned laurels to city governments that maintain inequitable policies in other areas. Indeed, the alacrity with which Richmond has removed the Monument Avenue statues contrasts with the brutality that the Richmond police has meted out on protesters, along with a hefty list of progressive concerns about the administration of Stoney, the mayor. Analogous hypocrisies have been pointed out in many cities.

Yet the temptation to dismiss the fall of the statues as merely symbolic belittles the testimony of people moved and gratified by the disappearance of objects whose presence expressed their past and present exclusion and subjugation. It also makes less and less sense the closer one gets to the ground: to the town squares, city streets, and rural roads where none of these monuments landed by chance, and where each plays a part in shaping property values, the allocation of public resources, and differential experiences of personal safety.

The Great Recontextualization

On June 5, in the heat of the protests, the city government in Washington, D.C., launched another trend that, in spreading across the country, has become yet another Rorschach test on questions of symbolic and spatial politics. It painted “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in bright yellow traffic paint along the two-block span of 16th Street NW closest to the White House. The move brought applause for the pointed assertion and placement  — together with a street sign designating “Black Lives Matter Plaza” — and derision, considering the record of Mayor Muriel Bowser and her predecessors with respect to fiscal policy, gentrification, and policing.

Numerous cities emulated D.C., however, including New York, which has painted the same message on a street in every borough, plus one for extra measure in front of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. Yet this trend, too, has quickly become localized, whether by official design, the input of artists and community groups, or guerrilla interventions. In D.C., activists appended “DEFUND THE POLICE” to the official message — soon removed, but not before the images were widely circulated and preserved in this moment’s memory. Some cities have endorsed more assertive messages: the one on Woodward Avenue in Detroit reads “POWER TO THE PEOPLE,” while Newark has painted, in front of the Essex County Courthouse, “ABOLISH WHITE SUPREMACY.”

Whatever it may say about a city’s political leadership, each “ground mural” — as some are calling this new form — succeeds or fails in its particular context. It exists in relation with the surrounding buildings and open spaces, the demographics and density of traffic, how the place is accessed and by whom, and the weave — or its absence — with other acts of spatial reclaiming that have surged alongside the protests. Between occupations and autonomous zones, political and commemorative murals, paintings on boarded-up storefronts, a fresh wave of graffiti, improvised performances, spontaneous skateparks and basketball courts, outdoor projections and more — plus all of their digital spread and byproducts — this has become a time of intense civic imagining, at the scale of the crisis.

It makes sense in retrospect that monuments crystallized this dynamic, leading to more topplings and removals than even advocates had imagined, Of course, there is resistance, too: In Chicago, for instance, police have been mobilized to protect a Columbus statue from protesters, prompting clashes. But whether the monuments stay or fall, the spaces they inhabit are changing by the action of protesters and communities.

This popular “recontextualization” and reclaiming goes beyond the studies, artist calls, and design competitions that many cities have held with a view to replacing or making new monuments. Those exercises still have value, of course, if conducted with openness and true curiosity; the Philadelphia-based studio Monument Lab, for instance, has developed an approach for rethinking monuments that builds on community consultation and allows for the idea that monuments can be radically different, or temporary.

The message from Marcus-David Peters Circle and elsewhere, though, goes beyond the question of statues. In this summer, when the bankruptcy of the American social order has come due, it tells us there is also imagination at work, and it’s in the streets.

Join The Conversation