Like most places that thrive on tourism, New Orleans has always been better at peddling its rich history than confronting it, which is what the city is unhappily doing now. Back in December 2015, six months after Dylann Roof’s white-supremacist Charleston shooting spree turned “Heritage Not Hate” slogans into so much cretinous gibberish, NOLA’s City Council voted to remove four prominent Confederate-associated monuments from public display. This spring, the process has finally gotten underway, attracting scads of, for once, unwelcome tourists: diehard neo-Confederate protesters from red states far and wide.
The first and unquestionably vilest memorial— commemorating “the Battle of Liberty Place,” an 1874 uprising by the Crescent City White League against Louisiana’s Reconstruction-era state government—came down in late April. For safety’s sake, though, it had to be dismantled in the dead of night by workers under police guard, protected by temporary fencing and wearing flak jackets and scarves to keep themselves unrecognizable to potential Dylann Roofs. Next up are statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, who got the Civil War started for real when he ordered his troops to fire on Fort Sumter one fine day in 1861.
Those of us who’ve lived in New Orleans at one time or another may have a hard time suppressing a twinge of regret that Beauregard has to go. Not only is he the only Louisianan in the bunch, but he did favor integration and African American voting rights after his side lost the war. True, it was for opportunistic reasons, but actions speak louder than motives sometimes. And who can resist a name as flowery as “Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard"?
Even after Katrina altered the city’s demographics, black New Orleanians still outnumber white ones by almost two to one.
Besides, at least Gus’s statue on horseback at the head of Esplanade Avenue has some visual appeal. Stuck atop his tall pillar in Lee Circle, four miles southeast, poor little Lee is actually so anonymous that the city could save itself beaucoup bucks by leaving him there and renaming the site Dumbledore Circle with nobody the wiser. As for Davis’s statue, besides looking unattractively like Jefferson Davis, he’s got one arm raised in what, from some angles, looks discomfitingly like a Hitler salute, no doubt thrilling David Duke down to his lily-white toesies.
Playing art critic is awfully beside the point here. So is sentimentality about not getting to say “Hiya, Gus” to Beauregard on the way to the New Orleans Museum of Art. There are multiple reasons why the public memorials to Confederate heroes should come down—and probably not just these four, either. But the most basic is that, even after Katrina altered the city’s demographics, black New Orleanians still outnumber white ones by almost two to one. The monuments’ defenders can blather all they like about a “heritage” that excludes almost two-thirds of the population except as its victims, but that isn’t a defense of history, kids. It’s an assertion that some kinds of history are more equal than others.
Some New Orleanians, black as well as white, may regret the removal for non-political reasons; that is, just because they’ll miss landmarks familiar since childhood. But not many, as we confirmed by checking in with Maurice Ruffin, a native son who’s a lawyer, restauranteur, and novelist rolled into one—a NOLA combo for the ages. He scoffed at the idea that there could be any doubt about the preponderant local sentiment, and not only among his fellow African Americans. “Does anyone think that most people in this city want to keep those horcruxes up?,“ he asks. "Of course not. That’s why the pro-monuments people are mostly out-of-towners.”
If you ask us, that nifty word horcruxes—as in the talismans Harry Potter’s dark wizards use to preserve their immortality—says it all. It’s precisely because the monuments don’t just honor the Confederacy in death, but keep the Confederacy malignantly alive here and now, that they’ve become intolerable anywhere outside the museums where Mayor Mitch Landrieu says they’ll end up. He presumably knows he’d have a second Battle of Liberty Place on his hands if they were outright destroyed, despite at least one African American resident’s fantasy, reported in the New York Times a couple of days ago, of just handing out sledgehammers and letting everybody do his or her thing.
Meanwhile, New Orleans is contending with, as another NOLA-ite of our acquaintance puts it, “an army of people who scream states’ rights descending on New Orleans from Florida and Alabama to tell our state what’s right.” In fact, legislation has been introduced in the advertisement for opioid blight known as Louisiana’s state legislature to block any further monument removals—but that’s still an infringement on local rights, after all. Try to imagine the right-wing outcry if the situation were reversed and a liberal state legislature was out to force the removal of Confederate memorials the city wanted to keep.
Thanks not least to the victorious Yankee army of 1861-65, it’s a free country.
Worse yet, the same pal laments, the pro-monuments protesters are showing up “wearing the least humorous and ironic costumes our poor city has ever faced.” If you want to offend a New Orleanian, disrespecting Mardi Gras is obviously a good place to start. Beyond reminding us that Dixie isn’t famous for its fashion sense, what the demonstrators are hoping to accomplish is on the vague side, since they aren’t going to stop the monuments from going bye-bye.
If they just want to mournfully stand vigil while their one-sided “heritage” gets dumpstered, we’ve got no complaints. Thanks not least to the victorious Yankee army of 1861-65, it’s a free country. But at least some neo-Confederate demonstrators have been taking advantage of Louisiana’s open-carry laws to pack heavy-duty weaponry. Threats have been made against construction companies who either have or might be hired to carry out the removals, and so on.
Up to now, confrontations between pro-monuments protesters and the local counter-demonstrators, who most often outnumber them, have been primarily verbal, with only a smattering of arrests. But there’s no way of knowing how long that will stay true, especially since we’re only watching the opening stages of what’s likely to be a long and convoluted drama. All that a NOLA well-wisher on the sidelines can do is hope the defiant T-shirt that started selling like hotcakes after Katrina—“Defend New Orleans”—doesn’t wind up taking on a new, less figurative meaning on both sides of the ideological divide.